Verdi’s prelude to Rigoletto is short and violent. From the outset of Opera Holland Park’s season opener, director Cecilia Stinton seeks to match the violence: her ducal court is a brutal place, the home of overprivileged toffs whose favourite sport is casual bullying of an extreme kind. Visually, it’s the Bullingdon Club circa 1920, complete with Edwardian dress and food fights, with the cricket gear replaced by rowing oars which turn into instruments of torture. Gilda’s abduction and Monterone’s execution are all part of a pattern, just two more items in the jolly japes in which the Duke and his cronies delight.

Opera Holland Park Chorus
© Craig Fuller

The overall conceit works, as do several of the staging details. The reek of privilege is overwhelming, helped by excellent stage movement and acting from the courtiers. It only takes a few deft prop changes to turn the Bullingdon into Sparafucile’s inn (populated, unusually, by real drinkers, until night falls and it’s closing time). The Holland Park stage is extended to wrap around the orchestra, which creates a space at the front to allow the opera’s more intimate moments to be set apart from the big ensemble numbers, also making it easier for the singers to be heard (although only when they are pointing in your direction, this being a semi-outdoor venue with no side walls). The spaces are neatly separated by lockable iron gates, which work well for many of the original stage directions.

Alison Langer (Gilda)
© Craig Fuller

Into the maelstrom is thrust a wonderful performance: Alison Langer as Gilda. Langer nails every note in the middle with confidence, expressivity and a deliciously warm timbre. She’s also a far more sympathetic Gilda than many, just an ordinary girl next door whose father’s refusal to discuss anything has left her utterly unprepared for the dangers that will assault her. Langer came through OHP’s Young Artists scheme and they can be proud of her; this is a young soprano destined for great things.

Sadly, Stephen Gadd had serious trouble in the title role. No announcement was made, but it was clear that Gadd was unwell in some way that prevented him from singing most notes above middle C. The part of Rigoletto is a typical example of Verdi’s high baritone tessitura, so Gadd was continually dropping phrases an octave or modifying them to remove the highs, in some cases losing notes altogether. I shudder to imagine the amount of effort it took him to struggle through.

Stephen Gadd (Rigoletto) and Alison Langer (Gilda)
© Craig Fuller

Alessandro Scotto di Luzio was an engaging but imperfect Duke; engaging because it’s a pleasant voice with plenty of vigour, imperfect because of a tendency to swallow consonants, especially but not only when singing at speed, which somewhat spoilt “La donna è mobile”, and because he approached several of the high notes from underneath and didn’t quite reach them. Simon Wilding and Hannah Pedley sang creditably as the brother-and-sister assassin double act of Sparafucile and Maddalena. Among the smaller roles, Matthew Stiff stood out as a thunderous Monterone.

Alessandro Scotto di Luzio (Duke of Mantua)
© Craig Fuller

Some of Stinton’s staging ideas didn’t come off. She demonstrated a bad habit of trying to distract us from show-stopping arias by having extraneous things happening on stage – hookers appearing from under the tablecloths and hastily putting their clothes back on in “Possente amor mi chiama”, a denizen of the inn throwing darts at a board in time with the high notes of “La donna è mobile”. Prodding Monterone with rowing oars seemed rather mild compared with the garrotting that he might have expected in the ducal prison. And, most importantly, the 20s setting has prompted the production team to turn the Act 1 music for the on-stage “banda interna” into fast and furious jazz age stuff, given the sound of being played through a wind-up gramophone. It’s an interesting idea, but the sound was unpleasantly distorted (there’s a reason we’ve moved on from 1920s horn loudspeakers), it was too loud for the singers, and the attempts to synchronise it up with the real orchestra were doomed.

This was a shame, because it masked a vivid orchestral performance from Lee Reynolds and the City of London Sinfonia. Setting aside the odd duff note and miscommunication between orchestra and singers, the playing was upbeat, exciting and made a good contribution to the evening’s drama.

This is a Rigoletto with plenty to offer, not least Langer’s exceptional Gilda. Let’s hope that a few adjustments and a return to health of Gadd can turn it into the treat it has the potential to be.