Revivals of operatic warhorses like Verdi's Rigoletto can be hit or miss at an opera house the size of the Metropolitan Opera. Too often, these are underrehearsed affairs, with unimaginative casting and uninspired direction. Last night's affair proved this entirely wrong – no fewer than three Met debutants galvanized this performance into one of the best performances of Rigoletto I've heard in years.

Benjamin Bernheim (Duke), Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and chorus
© Curtis Brown | Met Opera

Bartlett Sher's Weimar-inspired production premiered less than a year ago, and is eminently revivable. Its handsome sets and costumes drew an appreciative gasp from the audience, and the revolving set kept the action moving smoothly. Beyond the costumes, it's hard to see what Sher has actually done with the purported Weimar inspiration – he captures neither the hedonism nor the sense of imminent downfall of the period – but it's an attractive, efficient production that will surely be revived for years to come.

Returning from the premiere cast were Quinn Kelsey and Rosa Feola as Rigoletto and Gilda. Kelsey is impressive in the title role, his hulking, muscular baritone dominating the stage. In the Duke's court he is appropriately terrifying, spitting words out with a cynical sneer. But he's at his best in his scenes at home with Gilda, with a burnished legato and seemingly endless breath. His “Cortigiani” is utterly overwhelming, the emotional anchor of the entire work. Feola was in equally fine voice, her warm lyric soprano on the cusp on womanhood. She readily negotiates the coloratura of the first act, culminating in a delectable “Caro nome”, but it's in the latter acts that she truly shines. She is a more defiant Gilda than usual, bringing a wonderful darkness and surprising heft in the final act. If her high E flat at the end of act two was a touch effortful, she more than made up for it with some ravishingly soft singing in the final scene. I've never heard a Gilda so convincingly sound like she is at death's door.

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto)
© Curtis Brown | Met Opera

But the finest singing of the evening came from Benjamin Bernheim, making his long-overdue Met debut. Even if the Duke is a thankless role dramatically, it's the perfect showcase for his elegant tenor. He captures the insouciant elegance of the opening scene, with neatly executed turns in “Questa o quella”, as well as he does the bravado swagger of the final act. His voice works beautifully in the acoustic of the Met, filling the auditorium with rich, golden tone, which he is able to bring down to a mere thread of sound. He perhaps lacks the nastiness for the part, but more than makes up for it with an Act 2 aria of such tenderness and sincerity that I almost believed that the Duke could be in love with Gilda.

Benjamin Bernheim (Duke of Mantua) and Rosa Feola (Gilda)
© Curtis Brown | Met Opera

Also making her debut was the young mezzo Aigul Akhmetshina as Maddalena. Despite her frumpy costume, she's ideal for the role, clearly having the time of her life vamping around the stage. Though her voice is not especially large it carries nicely, especially her plummy chest voice. As her brother Sparafucile, John Relyea was appropriately menacing, sliding in and out of the shadows despite his massive frame. The strength of the cast extended all the way to the smaller roles, with Bradley Garvin, terrifying and commanding as Monterone, and Brittany Renee, displaying a megawatt charisma as Countess Ceprano, as the standouts. 

John Relyea (Sparafucile), Benjamin Bernheim (Duke of Mantua) and Aigul Akhmetshina (Maddalena)
© Curtis Brown | Met Opera

Presiding over the evening was Speranza Scappucci, also making an overdue debut. She brought a seemingly endless supply of energy to the evening, with swift tempi and impressively monolithic brass. But her experience as an operatic conductor was in full evidence, shading the orchestra and stretching the tempo like a true master. Let's hope that this marks the first of many Met visits for her, Bernheim, and Akhmetshina.