Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto, one of the most famous of modern opera productions, casts a lengthy shadow for English National Opera and it's taken a long time for it to be superseded. Of current directors, the Alden brothers are as likely as any to put an entirely new and original stamp on Verdi's mid-career masterpiece, and here it falls to Christopher to do the honours.
Miller gave the work an unexpected setting and Alden, with his designer Michael Levine, similarly places it in a very specific era: that of a gentleman's club in Verdi's mid-nineteenth century. This allows him to explore the inherent misogyny of a piece that veers from a repulsive oppression of women to a touching paternal concern, instantly recognisable to any father with a daughter.
Aldenisms creep in increasingly throughout the evening, so what starts off as ostensibly traditional acquires expressionistic edges – including an eerie and funereal crowd abducting Gilda - leading to a stripped down finale. Fans of the director won't be disappointed but those outraged by earlier interpretations of classics from Christopher Alden are unlikely to be manning the barricades this time.
One aspect of the production that may raise some eyebrows is its single setting, with the action remaining resolutely inside a wooden-panelled gaming room. There's no shift to a run-down inn or lightning-flecked riverbank, arguably deflecting from the atmosphere of Verdi's melodramatic ending. In fact, Alden maintains a level class system, with the assassin Sparafucile a dapper gent and his sister a high-class courtesan and this corrupt and violent world remains tautly contained within the corseted confines of a 19th Century Bullingdon Club.
Within it, men pursue the fulfilment of their baser instincts and women – servants, sisters, other men's daughters - are there to be gawped at, mauled and forced into submissive servitude. Rigoletto's concern for his daughter is less to do with paranoia and more because he knows only too well how women are treated by this band of seducers and rapists. At the very least, he's complicit in this culture.
ENO are fortunate to see conductor Graeme Jenkins's return to these shores for this run, with a swift and incisive account of this most melodic of scores. The ENO Orchestra play beautifully throughout. The casting is terrific too. While once more failing to convince physically, as the libidinous Duke Barry Banks sings idiomatically despite the undertow of the words he has to sing, which renders "La donna è mobile" as "All women are changeable" (translator James Fenton does what he can but the niggle of Italian clumped into English remains).
Anna Christy has given some memorable performances at the Coliseum in recent years but nowhere better than here, as the virginal Gilda. Her coloratura is exquisite and it's a tender and never cloying interpretation of a young woman caught up in a world of which she's hitherto had no hint. Quinn Kelsey impressed in Penny Woolcock's Pearl Fishers but here shows real star quality as a lumbering bear of a Rigoletto who has a good deal in common with Victor Hugo's other hunchback.
There's strong support from Peter Rose (Sparafucile), Justina Gringyte (Maddalena) and Diana Montague (Giovanna) and this is a thoroughly enjoyable evening of insightful direction and fine musicianship.