If Rigoletto stopped to look in the mirror, he'd most likely baulk at the complex irreparable layers between who he has become and what he could have been. In Vienna State Opera's new production of Rigoletto, which premiered last December, director Pierre Audi brings us close to a Rigoletto less freakish, more identifiably everyday and, freed from pity, his murderous actions can be condemned unequivocally. Assisted by a clever mix of the story's distant period setting with intriguing stylistically simplified elements, the production is conceptually satisfying but, disappointingly, not wholly realised with either visual or dramatic firmness. The performance wasn't helped by a precarious vocal footing.

Ekaterina Siurina (Gilda) and Giovanni Meoni (Rigoletto) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Ekaterina Siurina (Gilda) and Giovanni Meoni (Rigoletto)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

A forlorn Rigoletto trudges through a barren snowy landscape and a revolve has him arrive at a wide staircase leading to a boxed gold leaf chamber raised on rudimentary posts under which courtiers cavort in an orgy of darkened decadence below. Christof Hetzer's unfussy but effective set design gives Audi's, at first, perfectly welded storytelling a sense of resolve. Audi obliges further with dramatic details which inform, but is interrupted by a lack of convincing character interactions between the principals and questionable blocking in key moments.

When Gilda's unadorned open-boxed room descends inexplicably from the fly it brought with it directorial issues. A comfortable return to the palace was only later let down again as Act II melts into Act III's climactic storm scene. Though brewed with superlative musicality, it was deflated by Bernd Purkrabek's awkwardly harsh lighting. Then Sparafucile's quirky, intricately shabby, centrally plonked two-level skull-shaped cabin, metaphorically alluding to the curse of Monterone, has Gilda swallowed in death by the inn's/skull's entrance/mouth. This distracting folly belonged elsewhere and it also plagued Audi's ability to create drama around it, especially as Gilda bobs about in clumsy attempts to utilise the stage.

Wearing a worn lace neck ruff and cowering even as he jested, a scruffy Rigoletto was given powerful expression by Giovanni Meoni's unembellished, natural acting style. As if harnessed by a dog collar, Meoni depicted the subjugated weakling, without physical deformity but full of contempt, with great unnerving unpredictability. Weak high notes and forced phrasing, however, detracted from a lightly burnished but dimensionally rich baritone. Concluding Act I, Meoni cried out "Maledizione" in an odd but plausible celebration of succumbing to the evil ahead and Act II's brutally passionate "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" ("Accursed race of courtiers") established Rigoletto's erupting volatility after a rare tenderness with Gilda in duet. He first throws her aside, then slaps her and pushes her face into a dead Monterone, the disgust he had that she could love the man he was about to hunt down, chillingly palpable.

Saimir Pirgu (The Duke of Mantua) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Saimir Pirgu (The Duke of Mantua)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Vocally, tenor Saimir Pirgu distilled a matter-of-fact assuredness to match his Duca di Mantova's noble licence to command. Pirgu warmed to exhibit a large sound full of subtlety and vigour. Some shaky high notes and a loss of power over the orchestra snuck in but Pirgu demonstrated in Act II's aria "Possente amor mi chiama" ("Mighty love beckons me") that he could finish strong and secure. It prepared him well for a smooth rendition of Act III's "La donna è mobile" where a handsome climb to a flourished top impressed immensely. It's a pity some clumsy buttock wagging and bosom clasping with Margarita Gritskova, as a rousingly dark voiced Maddalena, followed such prowess in the voice.

Ekaterina Siurina portrayed a sweet but insecure, almost frail, unremarkabe Gilda and it showed in her struggle to develop richness in the voice, at times as if the voice sat far back in the head. Siurina's highest notes lost tonal beauty but she stood comfortably in Act I's "Caro nome" ("Dearest name") with delightful trills and an easy flexibility through the scales.

The Vienna State Opera Chorus of courtiers rang out with confidence, tightness and descriptive singing, scuttling about the palace and the town in almost rat-like repugnance. Monterone lashed his curse formidably with Sorin Coliban's gripping, gumbling bass display but it was the orchestra who gave the hired killer Sparafucile requisite villainy which Ain Anger appeared short on.

The Vienna State Opera Orchestra, in fact, painted the music impeccably from start to finish with conductor Evelino Pidò lifting exciting colours and emotional textures in an exhilarating display of Verdi's score. On fire off-stage and in the pit with a fully developed boldness, both sinewy and plump, the orchestra delivered a music that blossomed and blasted beyond the third dimension.

Thankfully, riding on all this magnficent music, it felt like there was something refreshingly new to learn about opera's jestered jester, Rigoletto, despite the bumpy ride.