In his introductory programme note to this latest revival, Covent Garden's new director of opera, Kasper Holten, writes of Verdi's Rigoletto that to understand it fully "…you need to address the vulgarity, frivolity and short-term gratification". While David McVicar's drab-as-dust 2001 staging brims with these qualities, Sir John Eliot Gardiner proffers a contrary view of Verdi's score and in doing so knocks the stuffing out of it. Vulgar? Frivolous? The very idea… No, the venerable conductor's fast, fastidious account of the composer's favourite child is anglo-patrician: high on discipline and low on red blood cells.
Perhaps that explains some gratuitous showboating by Vittorio Grigolo, hunk du jour among tenors, who seemed increasingly at odds with the baton charge as the evening progressed. By the time he reached his act three showstopper, ‘La donna è mobile', tenor and conductor were barely on the same page. Grigolo's voice is ravishing, of course, but more than once in act two the histrionics tipped into self-indulgence, then self-parody, till eventually the Duke of Mantua gave way to Grigoletto.
The same could not be said of Dimitri Platanias, who was rock-solid as the eponymous jester. Unfortunately the rock in question appears to have been granite. The unbending Greek baritone did little to characterise McVicar's view of Rigoletto as an embittered human beetle: his gait may be slow but it is physically sturdy and makes no call on the hunchback's crutch-stick walkers which, in his hands, are merely decorative. Platanias possesses an attractive baritone with a gorgeous legato, but there was little discernible dramatic coloration in his performance and his terrible warning to the taunting courtiers, ‘Ite di qua voi tutti!', was little more than a mild ticking off.
Although Ekaterina Siurina is now a three-time veteran of this production, her Gilda only rang with conviction when Grigolo's Duke was there to ginger her up. The soprano's voice is sweet and intense but dramatically she seems to bounce off the tempo-rhythm of her fellow-players, a trait that might explain her flat mood in the daughter-father scenes.
The supporting cast was secure and characterful throughout, except that Gianfranco Montresor's unemphatic voice rendered Monterone's curse disappointingly anodyne. Much better was the exciting pair of villains, Matthew Rose as a chilling Sparafucile (and a Rigoletto in waiting, I'd say) and Christine Rice rechannelling her Carmen as the wanton Maddelena.
McVicar's opening orgy is intended to depict the shaming day job from which Rigoletto wishes to shield his daughter, but (as in Leah Hausman's last revival) the revels are a timid affair. A modest selection of breasts are somewhat coyly exposed, while the young man charged with fronting the now-traditional willy moment is, shall we say, less flinty than the igneous Platanias. He is, though, surrounded by an attentive Royal Opera Chorus on prime form, lusty of voice and lustful of intent amid the lurching ruins that characterise designer Michael Vale's monolithic Mantua as Rigoletto's personal hell.