One of Verdi’s most critically acclaimed operas, Rigoletto is also one of his bleakest. Compared with the two stage works which followed immediately after in his output (Il trovatore and La traviata), the characters here are much less likable: Rigoletto’s physical deformity may lead us to forgive his Schadenfreude, but no such excuse can be offered for the rest of the court, the members of which follow the lead of the amoral, tyrannical Duke. Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter, the only entirely innocent in the drama, is abducted, raped, and eventually murdered. Nonetheless, this gruesome story retains its popularity, partly because of its emotional intensity but mostly because it contains some of Verdi’s greatest melodies.

Opera Australia’s new production, which had its debut in Melbourne back in April, brings out the mixture of passion and darkness at the heart of this story. Director Roger Hodgman and set designer Richard Roberts created a dark-coloured and dimly lit set, and most of the cast are dressed in red. They have stuck with the original setting (16th century Mantua), and made the customary effective use of two rotating turntables to enable quick changes from, say, the interior of the ducal palace to the street near Rigoletto’s house. As is now almost the norm, the brief Prelude was accompanied by visuals: first, Rigoletto leaving his house, and as the stage rotated, we saw the Duke indulging his carnal appetites.

The decadent court atmosphere in the first scene proper was well caught, and Gianluca Terranova delivered the Duke’s womanising creed “Questa o quella” with panache. It wasn’t all unrelieved darkness, of course: there were even some moments of comic business in the latter part of Act I, such as the Duke hastily removing his aristocratic bling when hearing Gilda describe her secret admirer as poor, and Giovanna’s impatience at Rigoletto’s prolonged farewell from his daughter. Indeed, were it not so sinister, the abduction of Gilda at the very end of the act could be farce: the father, rendered blind by a mask, unknowingly assists the kidnappers by holding the ladder for them. The repeated rotations of the set to swap between an exterior street view and the courtyard of Rigoletto’s house felt excessive here.

Act III, by contrast, used a static set, in which the difference between the minimally furnished tavern’s interior and the exterior was mainly conveyed by lighting (designed by Matt Scott): in the famous quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore”, the flirting Duke and Maddalena were bathed in soft yellow (i.e. candle) light, while Rigoletto and his heart-broken daughter, looking on from outside, were in a whiter light, presumably moonlight. Less pleasant was the moment of Gilda’s murder, which was accompanied by enough strobe lightning flashes to cause epileptic fits on the other side of the harbour.

The title role was impressively sung by the youthful Giorgio Caoduro, who was particularly affecting in his later scenes of emotional turmoil and torment. His on-stage daughter Emma Matthews (ten years his senior) was typically excellent in her Act I set piece “Caro nome”, where her vocal agility rendered the ornamental passage work transparently clear. She also threw in an extra top E flat at the end of Act II, for which the audience showed their appreciation. Terranova was more cheery than caddish as the Duke, but was vocally strong all the way through to final high B flat of the off-stage repetition of “La donna è mobile”. The physically impressive David Parkin was a memorable Sparafucile.

A special commendation is due to Sian Pendry, who not only the gave us a fiery Maddalena, but in addition subbed in for Domenica Matthews as Giovanna (luckily, these characters appear in different parts of the opera). The pick of the singers in the minor roles was Luke Gabbedy as a clear-voiced Marullo. The mainly male chorus was in good voice, especially at the outset of Act II. Yet again there were issues with surtitles, which froze during the Sparafucile-Rigoletto dialogue in Act I. And finally, having at times been critical of the AOBO, I need to acknowledge that under Renato Palumbo the orchestra was very much on form: their tuning and ensemble was mostly excellent, and the stormy string writing at “Cortigiani, vil razza” was appropriately hectic.