Rigoletto back with a bang

Discounting the dreadful Anna Nicole, to which wild horses couldn’t drag me back a second time, the Royal Opera’s season opened with Verdi’s dark 1851 masterpiece, Rigoletto. On 27 September, it was a full-blooded performance of Italian vigour, and definitely one to blow the cobwebs away.

Maurizio Benini was on duty in the pit, driving the orchestra hard whilst still allowing space for the singers: the contrast was thrilling as the big set piece act-closers hoved into view… The storm of act 4 – surely one of Verdi’s most atmospheric effects, with the chorus providing the howling wind to follow the orchestral thunderclaps – was beautifully, hauntingly realised. The orchestra played wonderfully throughout, with particularly characterful brass and woodwind contributions and some very threatening timpani.

The cast were excellent, by and large, with no-one going through any routine, but applying themselves to their roles and wringing as much detail and pathos from them as was to be found. Heading them was the Rigoletto of Simon Keenlyside, perhaps not as conventional rounded a sound for Verdi’s tragic jester, but powerful in his bitterness and on stunning vocal form. As Gilda, Aleksandra Kurzak’s was a voice perhaps slightly weightier than usual, but she floated some exquisite phrases, notable at the close of her Caro nome scene and at the death scene in the final moments. I think it might be my first encounter with her as tragedienne, and most rewarding it was too. As the Duke, Saimir Pirgu was less successful, somewhat tiresomely loud and unrelenting: the softer moments he did manage were pitched more securely than his more default forte. The crowd seemed to like his big-house style, including a rather brash La donna è mobile (an aria to which I am more indifferent on each hearing). He did look the part, if that’s any consolation. It’s also worth noting a wonderfully sneer-some Marullo from debutant Duncan Rock, a powerfully fruity Maddalena from Justina Gringyte, and Brindley Sherratt’s supremely dark Sparafucile, a resonant and nicely grained bass that seemed to portent doom in every phrase.

McVicar’s production continues to work in its timeless, placeless way, despite requiring the audience to watch probably the most graceless scene changes in the current repertory as the huge set creaks and twists whilst we twiddle our thumbs in semi-darkness. The orgy at the start didn’t raise titters this time, though there was plenty of flesh being flashed, so that was an achievement. Otherwise, the production’s leaden atmosphere nicely suits the work and the drama on stage.

All in all, a fantastic night of grand-scale Verdi to get the season – well, my season, anyway – off to a flying start.

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