Rigoletto is a contender for the dubious honour of being the cruellest opera in the mainstream repertoire. While many works see the innocent suffer and die, there is usually a sense in which virtue has triumphed if only by remaining defiant in the face of evil. In the case of Verdi’s masterpiece, however, it is the character who has been the most wronged by life as a whole who ultimately suffers the most dreadful of fates. This is because, although the jester has mastered the art of mockery with a merciless zeal, the basic role was imposed on him by a society that could never view a hunchback as anything other than a comic being. Having forced him to carve a niche in this profession to begin with, the great and the good then point the finger at him when they feel exposed, and it is he who suffers the most dreadful of fates while those who are really in control walk away unscathed.
David McVicar’s 2001 production has always been strong at painting a grubby picture of sixteenth century palace life, and this eighth revival (from Justin Way) makes it feel as sordid and hedonistic as ever. At the same time, the version cleverly draws out a range of subtle points. In Michael Vale’s set, the palace, which is surrounded by pieces of furniture half buried in dung heaps, comprises a murky wall that slopes backwards. In some ways it looks like tarnished aluminium, and parts are transparent, but it could depict blackened stone and there are traces on the surface of a grand Renaissance portico. This suggests that in origin the palace, like classicism, stood for purity and perfection, but that everything has now become rotten to the core.
The set spins around to reveal Rigoletto’s (and later Sparafucile’s) house. That it is separated from the palace by the sloping wall reveals how Rigoletto attempts to keep his public and private lives completely separate. The fact that in places it is translucent, however, reveals just how impossible it is to do this, while its smeared, dirtied state suggests that the consequences of Rigoletto’s approach will always be grim.
The production is set up to highlight how one who in life is on the back foot to begin with, simply because of his appearance, will always be left vainly chasing goals against people who can achieve far more with a fraction of the effort. This is illustrated physically by showing Rigoletto hopping on his crutches after the Duke when he first hears him at his house, and the courtiers after they have kidnapped Gilda. The fact that on both occasions they are off and away before he has even managed to start moving at his slower speed sums up his life as a whole. Other details include the fact that when Rigoletto pleads for Gilda’s return he removes his jester’s hat, even though he is at court where he would be expected to wear it, as if saying that the time for joking is over.
Dimitri Platanias is excellent in the title role, really convincing as a man who is constantly battling against being lumbered with every disadvantage in life. His baritone conveys the right senses of grit and heft for the role, and yet is remarkably smooth as it shows an impeccable mastery of phrasing. In this way, Platanias offers us the best of both worlds, and the same could be said of Lucy Crowe, who shares the role of Gilda with Sofia Fomina (who sang for opening night). She displays all of the cleanness and purity in sound that we have come to expect from her, and yet her voice also reveals pleasing levels of richness and nuance.
Michael Fabiano does not bring enough charm to the character of the Duke to counterbalance his brutishness and cruelty, and some of his top lines seem economical rather than overwhelming, but nonetheless he still delivers a fine vocal performance. Among the supporting cast, Andrea Mastroni is an outstanding Sparafucile, Nadia Krasteva a spirited Maddalena, Kathleen Wilkinson a splendid Giovanna and Darren Jeffery a commanding presence as Monterone. It is the overall strength of the cast that makes this revival of Rigoletto quite special, while the smooth conducting of Alexander Joel also contributes to the success of the evening.
Casts vary over the run. For further details visit the Royal Opera House website.
Rigoletto will be broadcast live to selected cinemas in the UK and worldwide on 16 January, while some cinemas will also show encore screenings over subsequent days. For details of participating venues visit the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season website.