Rigoletto is what an opera promoter might describe as a "banker": it's a safe bet to get those seats filled and keep the audience happy. There's a rare blend of gorgeously beautiful music allied to darkly nasty drama that gives the opera enormous, continuing appeal. David McVicar's production is clearly considered a banker by the Royal Opera - we're now on its fifth revival in the nine years since its first outing in 2001 - and last night won't have disappointed them, with not an empty seat in the house and hardly a returned ticket available.

Paolo Gavanelli as Rigoletto © Clive Barda
Paolo Gavanelli as Rigoletto
© Clive Barda

In this year's revival, the title role is shared between Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Paolo Gavanelli, who sung the role when the production was new in 2001. Rigoletto's daughter Gilda is shared between Patrizia Ciofi, for whom it's something of a signature role, and Ekaterina Sadovnikova, for whom it is her Covent Garden debut. Last night's performance featured Gavanelli and Sadovnikova.

Vocally, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Sadovnikova gave a thoroughly competent debut as Gilda, handling the difficulties of the role with some aplomb and a gratifying sweetness of tone. Korean tenor Wookyung Kim was a splendid Duke, with bell-like clarity and an effortless lilt to his phrasing. But there's no question about who is boss in this production: Gavanelli dominated the stage and projected immense power as the hunchbacked jester. Even in my seat high up in the Amphitheatre, the house shook with his voice.

Impressive and commanding as his performance was, it won't be everyone's cup of tea. Where Plácido Domingo, in this year's filmed version from Mantua, presented us with a nuanced view of Rigoletto's split personality of court's evil genius, doting father and misfortune-ridden human being, Gavanelli is more straightforward: the man is a domineering monster, whose outbreaks of self-pity are merely there as the subject of mockery. Gavanelli's vocal dynamics are extreme, nearly shouting several of the lines, and even in Rigoletto's intimate moments with his daughter, overbearing strictness is emphasised above paternal love. Gavanelli's stage presence and acting, intense almost to the point of caricature, was not matched by the other stars. There was plenty of vocal chemistry in the opera's many duets, but you needed to shut your eyes: there wasn't much in the way of relationships visible on the stage.

David McVicar's production is unremittingly dark, using a single grey monumental structure on a turntable to indicate the three settings of the ducal palace, Rigoletto's home and the tumbledown inn that forms the assassin's lair. The glittering court ball of the first scene is shown as a sordid orgy with explicit sex on stage, and the home that Rigoletto has made for Gilda, intended as a haven of gentility, is portrayed as a squalid backstreet affair scarcely better than Sparafucile's inn. I guess you can love it or loathe it: personally, I'm in between the two. For my taste, the emphasis on the dark and sordid doesn't enhance the drama much, but it doesn't do active damage and it does let the music speak for itself. However, the stage direction last night (not, I believe, done by McVicar himself) suffers repeatedly from the syndrome of trying to distract you from the main action at key moments. To give three out of many examples: in the overture, we're distracted by the whole set rotating on its turntable, in Rigoletto's plea to the courtiers (one of the loveliest melodies Verdi ever wrote), we're distracted by the courtiers banging their swords on the stage in mockery, and in the most famous aria of all, La Donna e Mobile, eyes which should be 100% on the Duke are drawn instead to Daniela Innamorati stretching seductively as Maddalena.

When all is said and done, however, Rigoletto stands or falls on the quality of singing, and in this area, it was a magnificent evening. Even the minor roles seemed to be in unusually good shape, with Michael Druiett delivering a suitably thunderous Monterone and Raymond Aceto's Sparafucile, at the end of his duet with Rigoletto, delivering a sustained low F that seemed to go on for ever, in the best tradition of the late and much-lamented Cesare Siepi, who died earlier this year. But the high spot for me was the Act III quartet. It's an extraordinary piece of music: Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke and Maddalena each sing their own melodies and words which are thoroughly at cross-purposes with each other and yet combine into a blend of rare beauty. Last night's quartet sang it as well as I have ever heard.

If the length of the ovations and the buzz of conversation at the exits and in the interval was anything to go by, the audience loved the evening.