Photo by Ellie Kurttz

The Royal Opera’s new Rigoletto has the casting is just right. Lisette Oropesa’s Gilda (who shares the role with Rosa Feola) manages the difficult balance between the coloratura writing of the part and the youthful innocence of the role. After all, she mustn’t be allowed to turn into the Queen of the Night when she’s really Pamina. In addition, her voice blends wonderfully with Liparit Avetisyan’s Duke of Mantua (sharing the role with Javier Camarena) in their affecting duets. Furthermore, he manages the good (and characteristically Verdian) trick of being a thoroughly nasty piece of work while also convincingly taking a genuine shine to Gilda.

Carlos Álvarez’s Rigoletto is another character walking a tightrope of interpretation. He effectively says, like Edmund, “Now, gods, stand up for bastards”, as he declares his embittered disjunction from human society (or at least, the Mantuan court). He’s a very convincing villain and at the same time a convincing father. A dark performance – but how could it be otherwise? Álvarez at court is in trad cap-and-bells uniform, but in mufti he presents as a George Galloway lookalike (costume designer: Ilona Karas). Subtext or coincidence? I did some brain cudgelling and opted for coincidence. Other characters look variously noble and ducal, long frocks, dark suits, dark cloaks and some gold braid.

Sparafucile (Brindley Sherratt, sharing the role with Evgeny Stavinsky) and Maddalena (Ramona Zaharia, sharing with Aigul Akhmetshina) are another plausible double act. Both of them thoroughly vicious and corrupt, but, at least in her case, some genuine human feeling. She has the hard task of coming out of the starting gate when everyone else is already full gallop in the final furlong that is Act 3. In the event, Zaharia comes from behind to be a convincingly sung and convincingly acted woman. No mean achievement.

Kseniia Nikolaieva’s Giovanna is a corrupted nanny-come-procuress straight out of Shakespeare.

Marullo’s (Dominic Sedgwick, sharing the role with Germán E. Alcántara) declaration that Rigoletto has a lover tells us all we need to know about the court: a daughter, family, does not occur to them. Matteo Borsa (Egor Zhuravskii) is another snake, in on the joke. Blaise Malaba as Count Ceprano has a more interesting story to tell, as his wife (Amanda Baldwin) is the object of the Duke’s intentions. Count Monterone’s tale is more interesting still: his daughter has been seduced by the Duke and he is out for vendetta. Eric Greene (sharing the role with Phillip Rhodes) thus gets to deliver the curse that was the opera’s original title, and it’s a pretty convincing curse; Greene is the master of his own murky lower notes. No wonder it frightens the bejeezus out of court jester Rigoletto. Here, director Oliver Mears lifts some stage business out of King Lear, with the Duke blinding the Count onstage.

Paul Wynne Griffiths (taking over from Pappano on the night I was there) took the reins of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House. The ensemble is excellent. Elsewhere, the brass are too often given their head and bolt, trampling other sections under their hooves. But here the balance is excellent. This is important anywhere, but particularly in Verdi, who has a bad habit of writing cheery oomchacha wind-band passages during the middle of human agony as though intermittently confused whether he is setting tragedy or the Hums of Pooh.

The Royal Opera Chorus is an excellent Mantuan court, supporting and surrounding the various unlovely counts. Some of the collective action (movement director: Anna Morrissey), such as the kidnapping of Gilda and then a reprise in its narrating, was entertaining if creepy.

The show opens with a tableau re-enacting Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of St Matthew, with a white-clad Gilda in the place of the evangelist, an unexpected piece of intertextuality.  The set (set designer: Simon Lima Holdsworth) goes on to include a nice street with Gilda’s flat, a nasty one with Sparafucile’s and Maddalena’s low dive, and an ongoing visual pun on Titian’s Venus d’Urbino, which works well. The sequel is based around Titian’s Zeus and Europa, a prophecy of where the plot is going. As these all date from late 16th-century Italy, the look ties up well enough with the slightly confusing historical setting of the drama. The palette seems to be drawn from the art, with a lot of tan and black, and a few splashes of brightness. The lighting (lighting designer: Fabiana Piccioli) is highly dramatic, suitably enough for a show which opens with Caravaggio.