A grey, decaying stage is dominated by a skewed palazzo that rotates, Sean Kenny-style, to represent all Rigoletto’s locations in and around a single edifice. Designer Michael Vale’s Mantua is an expressionistic ruin slowly sinking into the mire, and the Duke’s Act One revels are a scene of shame and chaos a few steps from hell. Small wonder the miserable jester is so anxious to shield his daughter from any contact with his day job.
That said, the orgy in this fifth revival of David McVicar’s 2001 production could do with a tad more lead in its pencil. Shenanigans and dangly bits abound among the Duke’s party people, but Vale’s revolving stage is the nearest they’ll get to feeling the earth move. It doesn’t help that these rhubarbing debauchees gurgle like am-dram yokels, clearly unsure how to verbalise their wanton lust.
Rumpy-pumpy out of the way, though, the production settles into a wonderful evening of finely-etched performances and superb musicianship. The young Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger makes a distinguished ROH debut, driving Verdi’s score forward with élan while nurturing a careful orchestral balance and supporting the singers with secure tempo choices. The energetic ostinato beneath Rigoletto’s second-act aria, ‘Cortigiani, vil razza’, brings a prickle to the back of the neck.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Rigoletto is distantly related to Antony Sher’s legendary Richard III, except that this creature is more parasitic beetle than bottled spider, a hollow carapace eaten away by a resentful impotence against a hostile world. His stage presence is thrillingly physical, those dashing good looks obliterated by some grotesque coleopteral make-up, but that mellow baritone is unmistakable. Hvorostovsky is at the peak of his powers just now, his lyric beauty recalling Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in his prime.
As Rigoletto’s tragic daughter Gilda, Patrizia Ciofi’s coloratura is rich and confident as she negotiates the role’s more sustained passages, but it tends to tighten whenever she approaches the Bechers Brook of Verdi’s abrupt leaps. Ciofi’s interpretation, though, is fearless, and the daughter’s ambivalent relationship with her wretched father is consistently believable, even when she emerges from the body bag to sing a last duet with daddy.
If Wookyung Kim is less well defined dramatically, his Duke is sung with fire and a ringing tenor voice. However, it is a big ask to see this amiable chap as a monster of depravity. By contrast Raymond Aceto as the assassin, Sparafucile, injects a shot of pure menace into the final act, his knife glinting horrifically when it catches the light at the revolve’s turn. Daniela Innamorati’s chilling (and beautifully sung) Maddalena is bad news too: a clear agent of death, if not its angel.
The unremitting darkness of this Rigoletto is oddly uplifting. Superb singing, deft conducting and one of David McVicar’s most searching productions combine to raise this familiar opera out of melodrama and into the realm of true dramatic tragedy.