The Lyric Opera’s new production of Rigoletto visually evokes the contours and high-contrast relief of a surrealist painting. Directed by E. Loren Meeker and with a set by Michael Yeargan, this reading of the opera keeps the curtain up for Verdi’s taut and ominous prelude, during which we see unnamed figures appear and disappear from the archways and windows of a single long wall, bisecting the stage at a diagonal. It is choreographed ominously, with the obscure precision of a nightmare.

The rest of the production never quite shakes the dark blues and nearly metaphysical blocking of the opening sequence, which is to its benefit. It’s jarring when the prelude proceeds immediately into the first number, a raucous public scene. Meeker gives no time to the transition, and the effect is that of flipping on a light that can’t entirely disperse the memory of the dream it interrupted. It’s an effective opening gambit that dulls somewhat with Matthew Polenzani’s rendition of the Duke of Mantua, who seems barely to be having any fun while boasting of his sexual escapades – this somehow makes the scene both more boring and more offensive. Polenzani was much better at the beginning of Act 2, with the Duke’s “Ella mi fu rapita,” where he gets to play with some more tender emotions.

The more consistent performances were those of the Duke’s foils: Gilda, the assassin Sparafucile, and the jester Rigoletto. Quinn Kelsey plays the title role as a lumbering pumpkin of a clown, the owner of a massive physical and vocal presence who employs both with exceeding lightness. He’s sprightly around the stage and more free in his vocal delivery than anyone else on stage. Kelsey’s baritone is cavernous, always hinting at unfathomed depths. His use of it to evoke the rhapsodic and the loony (as in his “mad” aria in the second act) creates a dynamic contrast that is endlessly interesting.

Meanwhile, Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Sparafucile is restrained and almost proper in his phrasing, which is a nice touch for an assassin. Where he sings with the meter, Kelsey’s clown tends to sing across and through it. It’s an appealing contrast of united opposites – of laughter and murder, as Rigoletto puts it.

Yeargan’s interiors are redly lit and unfurl simply by motoring the initial wall out, like a drawer opening, to reveal the insides. There we find Rosa Feola’s Gilda, who’s a standout vocalist. The higher she goes, the more relaxed she sounds, until she is nearly lounging in the upper ranges. As a result, she makes for a strange pairing with Polenzani, who is strongest when his sound creates a pressured wall; Feola, by contrast, is most comfortable when she has rhythmic and dynamic space to move around in. She sings her “Caro nome” facing the audience, with both arms outstretched behind her and grasping a rail, as if holding herself back from melting into the hall. The performance, both visually and vocally, was one of fearless directness.

In this number, and elsewhere, the string soloists were always svelte and warm, thus offering highlights in an otherwise rote first-night reading of the score by the orchestra, under the direction of Marco Armiliato. It doesn’t help to hear them from the floor, which cuts off a lot of overtone (and leaves the strings in particular sounding feeble). Tuning got better as the evening wore on, but was never especially convincing.

In the end, it was the simple and yet hauntingly exact forms of the set that united the evening into a production. In the last act, the stage is efficiently varied with the interpolation of a strip of water and a dappled light effect on the cream-coloured walls. For modern ears, it’s really Verdi who takes over when the music shifts from melody to atmosphere – to timpani effects, howling winds in the distance, and the dream-logic of an ending whose closest sibling is the final minutes of Wozzeck. Like that opera, written in the next century, the fear of water is not of drowning but of what cannot stay under – bodies, and curses, threatening to rise to the surface.