Oliver Mears, directing Verdi's Rigoletto, to open the Royal Opera House season 2021/22, homes in on these parallel transactions. While the curtain rises on a tableau parodying Caravaggio, it is the unveiling of the Duke of Mantua's new acquisition, Titian's Venus of Urbino, that his court eagerly applauds. The erotic painting, giant-sized, watches over the depravity playing out below.
The duke, tangentially infatuated with the innocent daughter of his own jester, takes his pick of the womenfolk, including the wives of others. Gilda’s abduction by prankster hangers-on, shows her the reality of her 'student' lover, who fakes poverty by shedding his flashy jacket and flinging his scarf around his neck.
Liparit Avetisyan as the priapic Duke of Mantua. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Artworks apart – still to come are Titian’s The Rape of Europa and glimpses of other works – the story of a young woman’s undoing is played out against towering walls that are visceral and congealed in Simon Lima Holdsworth’s simple, substantial set. The sumptuous all-eras costumes of Ilona Karas swing between Medici splendour and Versace bling, dazzling under Fabiana Piccioli’s painterly lighting in this intensely visual production.
Verdi’s Duke is always callous, but here American tenor Liparit Avetisyan’s seducer is demonstrably cruel too, horribly punishing the vengeful father of a young woman he has ruined. This nasty scene, like the swapping of Gilda for a monstrous doll, and a last act sex mime in time to the music, are distracting additions, although Mears respects the music everywhere else.
And what music! Could there have been a piece better suited to raising the curtain on the Covent Garden year after so long? Antonio Pappano, showing as ever his exceptional gift for Italian opera, conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the men of a full-sized, on-stage Royal Opera Chorus – those massed voices a thrilling sight and sound in itself.
Together again – the men of the Chorus of the Royal Opera. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
In the title role, Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez wipes off his grotesque jester’s face paint to reveal drooping features dragged down by anxiety, victimisation and grief. His big voice curdled with pain falls from a slack mouth. Even intense love for his daughter Gilda is expressed in a grimace, in a shattering depiction of terrified parenthood.
Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa as sheltered Gilda has the fragility of a young woman as yet untested by life, shot through with the bright optimism and determination of youth. Like a caged songbird she soars to the light in Verdi’s score.
The big ear- and eye-catching chorus work apart, at the heart of Rigoletto is a series of intimate arias and duets that are strikingly well articulated in this production, the different dynamics between characters most effectively drawn. But when the various pairings combine in the famous Act III quartet, the singers felt uncomfortably far apart (and at other times in the evening singers are unfathomably far upstage).
Gilda, sung by Lisette Oropesa, is protected by her father, Rigoletto (Carlos Álvarez). Photo: Ellie Kurttz
A miracle of opera is that in ensemble numbers like the quartet no character sees or hears the others, unless the composer so wishes.
That big number features the Duke, Gilda, a hired assassin, Sparafucile, sung with vicious elegance by Brindley Sherratt, and the assassin’s sister and lure, Maddalena. Romanian mezzo-soprano Ramona Zaharia makes her house debut in that sexy role, and look out for Aigul Akhmetshina singing Maddalena in further performances in the spring. Also impressive in this first cast, Eric Greene as Monterone and Blaise Malaba as the cuckold Ceprano.
Mears, appointed director of opera at Covent Garden in 2016, was founding artistic director at the highly respected new Northern Ireland Opera, with eye-catching work elsewhere. This Rigoletto, his first production for Covent Garden is a solid, unashamedly arty, piece of work designed to outlast fashion, possibly even to rival the 20 years in the repertory of the production by David McVicar that went before.
After 18 shape-shifting months, surely that’s what we need – stuff that’s proud of its craftsmanship and made to last. Didn’t do Titian any harm.
Rigoletto is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Seats available at all performances. The ROH invites patrons to wear face coverings
|What||Rigoletto, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||South Kensington (underground)|
13 Sep 21 – 29 Sep 21, Seven performances, with one interval. Running time 3hr. Further performances in February and March
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|