Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Rigoletto: Royal Opera’s thrilling revival showcases three exceptional Italians

21 February 2022

Oliver Mears’ production brilliantly evokes a cruel, dispassionate world


Luca Salsi & Franceso Demuro (Photo: Helen Murray)

It’s often said the best way to judge the health of an opera company is not by the quality of its new productions, but by the quality of its revivals. And on the basis of this terrific performance of Oliver Mears’ Rigoletto, first seen in September 2021, it’s only fair to say the Royal Opera is in rude health. Indeed, having seen everything so far this season, this revival of the ROH’s director of opera’s first staging for the company joins an illustrious list of revivals that have been exceptionally well-staged, sung and conducted. To say the Royal Opera is on a roll these days would be an understatement.

Although not on hand to rehearse this first revival himself, Mears’ vision of a cruel, dispassionate world came across even more vividly than it had in September, thanks largely to the casting of the main roles, and revival director Daniel Urbas’ sure hand. Very little has changed as far as the staging is concerned since the first night, and I’m in total agreement with what my colleague had to say at the time. If anything the action is tighter, and the disastrous turn of events that overwhelm the characters in Verdi’s opera like a tidal wave, which were sometimes lacking last time round, are now present in abundance.

“To say the Royal Opera is on a roll these days would be an understatement”

The new Duke, Francesco Demuro, oozes threat and menace from the very start – here is a dangerous sexual predator totally without scruples, who will go to any lengths to get what he wants. This characterisation sat uncomfortably with the staging’s original tenor, but Demuro embodied Mears’ vision of how the Duke should behave – immorally with a total lack of empathy with anyone else on stage – to perfection. He sang and acted the role magnificently, infusing ‘Parmi, veder le lacrime’ with the right amount of pathos, and delivering a knockout ‘La donne è mobile’, while splendidly launching the final act quartet.

As Gilda, Rosa Feola made a sensational House debut, singing with alertness throughout, capping her performance with a ravishing account of ‘Caro nome’ – complete with seraphic high notes, and perfect trills. She cut a tragic figure on stage and excelled in her duets with both the Duke and her father, Rigoletto. Her death scene was properly harrowing – all sung on a thread of a tone. Let’s hope she returns soon.

Luca Salsi is an experienced Rigoletto, and it was a joy to hear such idiomatic, secure singing in the title role. His voice may not do everything Verdi asks of it – pitch was in danger of sagging in the quieter passages – but seasoned trouper that he is, Salsi knows how to navigate his way round it. His rebuke of the courtiers, ‘Cortigiani vil razza dannata’ was venomous in its delivery, and tore into the soul. As in the recent Tosca revival, we had three native Italian singers in the main roles – for the first time here since the mid ’90s – and it made such a difference. To hear the Italian language sung so idiomatically and with such nuance was a joy to listen to.

As is always the case now at Covent Garden, the supporting cast was without a weak link. Evgeny Stavinsky (Sparafucile) sang with inky-black tone, contrasting nicely with the luscious mezzo of Aigul Akhmetshina (Maddalena). Dominic Sedgwick (Marullo), Egor Zhuravskii (Borsa) and Blaise Malaba (Ceprano) repeated their dramatically alert performances, each brilliantly characterised and sung, while Kseniia Nikolaieva (Giovanna) made her brief appearance tell – her rich mezzo sounding like an ‘Amneris in waiting’.

The chorus excelled itself and were suitably threatening as the courtiers, while in the pit Stefano Montanari, conducting his first Verdi opera, delivered a performance that captured the tinta of the work, but was at times idiosyncratic. The introduction to the third act was far too slow, the musical line threatening to break, and coordination between pit and stage came unstuck a couple of times early on. But generally this was an inspired reading, and the orchestra played extremely well for him.

Tickets are scarce for the remaining performances in the run, but this splendid revival is a must, so it’s well worth checking the website for returns.

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Rigoletto: Royal Opera’s thrilling revival showcases three exceptional Italians