The occasion demanded something special and this new production of Rigoletto delivered the goods perfectly. Oliver Mears, the new overall Director of Opera at the ROH, delivered a confident and highly effective display of what a good director ought to bring to a classic such as this. All too often, even at the ROH, we have seen directors trying too hard to bring something different to an opera, rather spoiling the original intentions of the composer and librettist by imposing too much of their viewpoint into it. Mears gave us plenty to look at and think about, but the effect was to emphasize and enhance the original rather than distract from it. The plot of this opera is violent and tragic. Great staging, including a terrific storm scene where flashes of lightning seem to come from all parts of the auditorium, and Verdi's magnificent music, superbly played by the ROH Orchestra conducted superbly by Antonio Pappano, we are treated to some stunningly good singing.Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan brings a gorgeously mellow tenor voice to the role of the dastardly Duke, while Spanish baritone Carlos Alvarez is equally impressive as Rigoletto. The real star of the evening, however, was Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa whose show-stopping solo arias were stunningly good and her duets with the Duke and Rigoletto were almost equally impressive.With the highly respected British bass Brindley Sherratt in splendidly sinister form as Sparafucile, American baritone Eric Greene making an excellent Royal Opera debut as Monterone, and Romanian mezzo-soprano Ramona Zaharia giving a striking performance as Sparafucile's slutty sister, this was a cast of outstanding talent and no weaknesses.The applause from the audience at the end was as thunderous as the storm of the final act, and it was not just in appreciation of the fact that the ROH was at last playing to a full house. This was a terrific performance of a fine production of a great opera. Welcome back, Royal Opera.
The star of the evening was Antonio Pappano, whose account of the opening bars of the Prelude had the brooding intensity and foreboding of a master conductor. Astonishing, then, that a piece he so obviously loves hasn’t featured on his agenda in almost 30 years.Oliver Mears, in his first production since becoming director of opera, begins magically during the Prelude, with the cast in costume standing stock-still in a Caravaggio-esque tableau.Act Three is much enhanced by some splendid singing from Brindley Sherratt as Sparafucile – perhaps the best of the night. Good to see a Brit getting a look-in now and again at Covent Garden. A promising debut, too, from Ramona Zaharia as a sleazy and sexy Maddalena.There was a time when Covent Garden’s Rigoletto principals were at, or near, best in class. No longer. Carlos Alvarez has the biggest reputation, but his Rigoletto sounds a bit worn these days after more than two decades on the road.Liparit Avetisyan has a pleasing lyric tenor voice as the Duke of Mantua but is almost entirely devoid of charisma and star quality. At the great moment in Act Three when Rigoletto discovers his daughter dead in a bag, and offstage the Duke sings a reprise of La donna è mobile, Avetisyan brings no magic whatsoever to bear. Just another of the second-rank tenors the Royal Opera rather specialises in these days. The Gilda of Lisette Oropesa has all the notes but is still, at best, a work in progress. She has little of the assurance and presence of Covent Garden’s great Gildas of the past. Her grotty little charity-shop dress does her few favours. Not her fault, of course, but I can’t imagine Joan Sutherland in that. As for the American Eric Greene’s Monterone, he’s a good singer but miscast. The casting director could have found half a dozen better Brits on the Northern Line but, as so often, didn’t trouble to look.
The visual world in which the drama takes place is bare save for a few giant prompts, the first of which is a pile of frozen figures suggesting a pastiche of Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa, which unfreezes into an orgy where sex is hinted at but misogyny is writ large. Presided over by the Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan’s sweetly-sung Duke, and with Carlos Alvarez’s embittered Rigoletto setting the tone, the first act’s events unfold with cruel deliberation. The climax comes with an awe-inspiring cameo performance by Eric Greene, as Monterone’s eyes are gouged out (another Lear reference) after he’s pronounced his curse on the Duke and his jester. The next scene springs the tragedy and permits some glorious duets, of which Mears’ singers take full advantage.The duet in which the father tenderly withholds the family history from his daughter occasions a lovely balance between care-worn age and youthful ardour.Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa’s Gilda has a fullness of tone which simply grows in beauty as she duets with the Duke, then launches into her ecstatic reverie, ‘Caro nome’.Aided by Simon Lima Holdsworth’s restrained designs, the staging is skilful. I’ve never seen the blindfolding and abduction so deftly done, nor the movement-direction of the male chorus so wickedly effective.And the dramatically tricky denouement is brilliantly negotiated, with the irony of the parallel duets – father-daughter, and seducer-conquest – dissolving into a bare landscape which the protagonists fill with their tears. A great evening, rapturously received.
The scenes involving the lecherous courtiers are often the most imaginatively done. The conspirators’ account of their abduction of Gilda to the Duke is accompanied by an amusing mime, but generally the locker-room mentality is ridiculed. Parallels with King Lear, with which subject Verdi was toying at the time, are heightened by the gouging out of Monterone’s eyes. Carlos Alvarez’s well-sung Rigoletto is suitably anguished, even if he doesn’t quite wring the withers on discovering his daughter’s murder. As often happens, the show is stolen by his daughter. Frequent reference is made to Gilda’s virginal purity. In her celebrated aria Caro nome, Lisette Oropesa succeeds in showing us both the virtuous flower and, with a flash of bare legs and an innocent roll on her bed, the sensual attraction she feels for the duplicitous duke. The extravagant ornamentation of the aria is delivered superbly, complete with real trill, yet with delicacy and subtlety. Brindley Sherratt is an aptly flinty Sparafucile, with Ramona Zaharia alluring as his sister, Maddalena.Liparit Avetisyan is a stylish, full-throated Duke and it’s in no way to his discredit that Pappano’s accompaniment of his famous aria La donna è mobile, with its animated woodwind flecks and swagger, elicits equal admiration. Indeed, Pappano brings his signature command of textural detail and rhythmic propulsion to the whole score. It was worth the thirty-year wait.
This is director of opera Oliver Mears’s debut production for the Royal Opera, and, surprisingly, it’s the first time that the company’s music director, Antonio Pappano, has conducted Rigoletto in his two decades at Covent Garden. They make a solid partnership, producing a performance that serves the music admirably and rarely gets in the way of Verdi’s sweepingly dramatic score. Barring one act of gratuitous, singular cruelty, lifted from King Lear and introduced to underline Mears’s concept that the Duke is a dangerous psychopath, this is a remarkably straight production and obviously built to last, replacing David McVicar’s licentious staging, first seen in 2001. The subdued reds and golds of Simon Lima Holdsworth’s set, which glow so atmospherically under Fabiana Piccioli’s lighting, suggest Renaissance Italy, but we could be anywhere, in any age. Into Mantua’s pitiless court comes the jester Rigoletto, who spits insults at any of the Duke’s detractors yet secretly loathes his job and his boss. Carlos Álvarez totally inhabits the role, his battered baritone as expressive as his wonderfully mobile, characterful face. He captures perfectly the mixture of anguish and tenderness that Verdi illustrates so vividly in his duets with his precious Gilda, the daughter he keeps hidden in suffocating solitude, an obsession that will have tragic consequences.The Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa, as Gilda, is the star of the evening, silvery-voiced and apparently fragile, and yet steely in her delusion that the satanic Duke really loves her. She sings Caro nome with an innocence that turns to knowingness, adopting the same posture as the Venus of Urbino as she lies on her bed – a pose neatly picked up later by the wanton Maddalena (an underpowered Ramona Zaharia) as she and Sparafucile (Brindley Sherratt, in tremendous form) plot murder.The Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan, as the Duke, dispatches La donna è mobile with crisp efficiency. Elsewhere, however, he has a habit of pulling the tempo around, notably in his love duet with Gilda, but the ever-vigilant Pappano never lets him slide off the rails. Fine playing in the pit, particularly at the opening of Act 3, is complemented by incisive singing from the muscular all-male chorus. Grand opera is back with a bangThere were occasional problems with pitch and balance when the chorus represented the exiled Israelites in Anderson’s setting of Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon”. His lithe but restless music requires a precision that was sometimes lost by placing the chorus so far away, but this was still a fine world premiere, a tempting taster to the complete work. Crowe impressed again in Natural History, Judith Weir’s evocative settings of Taoist poetry, and in the final movement of Vaughan Williams’s elegiac Pastoral symphony, her plangent soprano floating across a landscape so cogently contoured by Rattle
This is a society tacitly united by misogyny and violence, towards which Carlos Álvarez’s Rigoletto is at once dangerously complicit and supremely mistrustful. Women are literally lined up for the Duke’s pleasure at his party, while the men at his court form a male-bonded unit, moving in aggressive, stylised unison. Ramona Zaharia’s Maddalena, treated abusively by Brindley Sherratt’s Sparafucile, can only face a client when drunk. Occasionally, Mears misjudges the tone. In a gesture towards Shakespeare’s blinding of Gloucester, the Duke exultantly gouges out the eyes of Eric Greene’s Monterone, which is totally at odds with the score. And the simulated sex between the Duke and Maddalena distracts us from the more important scene between Rigoletto and Sparafucile going on below. It all sounds terrific, though. Álvarez’s voice may have lost some of its lustre of late, but his interpretation, by turns tender, obsessive and strikingly bitter, is utterly compelling. Oropesa makes a matchless Gilda, singing with an extraordinary beauty of tone and understated depth of feeling: this really is one of the truly great performances. Though occasionally ill at ease with Mears’s view of the Duke as sadist rather than immoralist, Avetisyan brings real seductive poetry to his music in ways that are beguiling. Pappano, meanwhile, lets the score unfold with measured intensity and sensual, yet baleful, beauty.