Dimitri Platanias has sung the title role of Rigoletto many times in many houses. On the evidence of last night at Covent Garden, he’s still improving: the voice is still rounded and suffused with warmth in the fatherly exchanges, but compared with the last time I saw him in the role, back in 2012, he has acquired an extra hard edge which heightens the contrasts and the drama, most particularly in the great Act 2 “Cortigiani”.

Dimitri Platanias (Rigoletto) © ROH | Mark Douet
Dimitri Platanias (Rigoletto)
© ROH | Mark Douet

Platanias seemed to inspire Sofia Fomina as Gilda: their duets were the high points of the evening, a marvel of expressivity of interwoven voices. Verdi is perhaps the greatest of all composers to have expressed in music the love of a father for his daughter – his distress at the death in childhood of his own daughter is well documented – and Rigoletto is perhaps the finest of all examples: these passages should be sublime and Platanias and Fomina duly delivered. Fomina, however, seemed less at ease when singing alone: while she is clearly capable of reaching the highest notes at power, I didn’t feel that she was quite secure, and there was overpowering use of vibrato.

Sofia Fomina (Gilda), Dimitri Platanias (Rigoletto) © ROH | Mark Douet
Sofia Fomina (Gilda), Dimitri Platanias (Rigoletto)
© ROH | Mark Douet

Another of Platanias' qualities seemed to be the ability to adapt without being fazed to whatever tempi conductor Alexander Joel threw at him. Unfortunately, he was just about the only one of the cast and chorus to do so. Act 1 of Rigoletto can be played in a reasonably wide range of tempi, and it’s a legitimate artistic choice for a conductor to opt for the fast end of the scale – but only if the singers are onside. Joel’s orchestral musicians were fine with his tempi, but the singers were not: I had a constant sense of them struggling with their phrasing, catching up slightly when the orchestra got ahead of them. The orchestral playing in Act 1 was undistinguished, starting with somewhat insecure intonation in the bold brass motifs that open the opera, and the ball scene played with pace at the expense of lightness and dance lilt; things improved later.

Michael Fabiano (Duke of Mantua) © ROH | Mark Douet
Michael Fabiano (Duke of Mantua)
© ROH | Mark Douet
The Duke of Mantua is one of a handful of Verdi tenor roles that can be sung by a light lyric tenor, and Michael Fabiano has sung the role in the past with impeccable bel canto charm. That’s not the way he chose to sing it last night: his voice took on far more of an heroic tenor style, more in the mould of a Manrico or Don Alvaro. But even if one accepts this as a valid choice – and it does suit the McVicar production, in which the Duke is portrayed as an unremittingly unpleasant thug – I found his approach to the music strange, stressing certain notes heavily and eschewing legato. Fabiano now has a big voice with the power to thrill, and I felt he could have made just as much impact if the notes had not been quite as forced.

Andrea Mastroni (Sparafucile) © ROH | Mark Douet
Andrea Mastroni (Sparafucile)
© ROH | Mark Douet
We heard two exciting basses: aside the Platanias/Fomina duets, the high points of Act 1 were the entries of Sparafucile and Monterone. Andrea Mastroni was a rather youthful, slick Sparafucile, but with a big voice which can generate excitement right through the middle of the range as well as on the long low F as he exits; he also very much livened up his Act 3 exchanges with Maddalena (Nadia Krasteva, in a promising Royal Opera debut). Monterone’s entry doesn’t require much subtlety, since he’s essentially required to come in, stand and deliver thunder: James Rutherford did exactly what was required, the vocal image of revenge.

David McVicar’s staging is a known quantity, having been around since 2001 and having been reviewed several times in these pages. It’s a production designed to shock anyone who might have come to Rigoletto expecting a pretty period piece, making it clear in words of one syllable quite how nasty and repellent the Duke and his courtiers are: when Monterone sings that he and/or his ghost will disrupt the court’s orgies, a debauched orgy on the stage is precisely what we’re seeing. It works well enough, although 16 years later, I question whether anyone remains in the Covent Garden audience who needs to be disabused in this way, and I still find McVicar’s staging decidedly thin on nuance.

An imperfect revival, therefore, but Platanias’ title role performance was excellent and – I’ll say it again – Rigoletto is my favourite opera, a superb work which fully deserves its top ten status. Even an imperfect performance is an evening of operatic delight.

***11