Sometimes catching a performance with its second cast can be as revealing as attending a first night, and that was the case with this production of Rigoletto by the Canadian director Robert Carsen at La Monnaie in Brussels. The set, by Radu Boruzescu, was a blood-red circus tent, complete with an arena, bleacher seating, and a royal box for the Duke (who seemed to be either the ringmaster or the proprietor, or both) and a variety of trapezes, caravans, rope ladders and other paraphernalia, brought on or off as required.

Dimitri Platanias made his first appearance as Rigoletto during the prelude, heavily made up as an Auguste (the scariest of the white-faced clowns) with a scarlet gash of a mouth in the manner of the Joker in Batman, a grey boiler-suit with pom-poms, and a bag which seemed to contain a prematurely-dead Gilda, but which in fact held an inflatable rubber woman. Weeping turned into a cackling laugh as the curtain went up and Rigoletto got on with his day job of tormenting the courtiers with salacious cracks at their master’s sexual conquests, humping the rubber woman and generally making himself obnoxious. Equally obnoxious was the Duke himself, played by the handsome and youthful Arturo Chacón-Cruz as the leader of a gang of dinner-jacketed thugs and hangers-on, with an endless string of mistresses drawn from his circus-court.

Taking a literal view of a one-set production, and seeing how far the rubber, as it were, will stretch without popping, can lead to odd conclusions. If Rigoletto really did want to keep his job secret from his daughter Gilda (sung by the gloriously-voiced Simona Šaturová), then why did he park his tiny caravan in the middle of the circus big-top? And where were they both to sleep, with only one tiny single bed? And how was there room for the maid Giovanna? Sparafucile as the circus knife-thrower was a clever touch which worked dramatically, as did the illusion of hurling a knife into the proscenium arch, the sort of trick to make orchestral musicians flinch in their pit! Rigoletto’s stripping of his motley, drawing on a supply of cold cream in his suitcase, also worked well, but again, as he was still in his place of work, how could he really attempt to hide his occupation? This set of inconsistencies did nothing to help the pathos of the duets between father and daughter, and neither did Platanias’s unrelenting fortissimo. Things were much better modulated when the Duke arrived on the scene, although Chacón-Cruz cannot have been too pleased to have to sing his opening phrases from inside the caravan, which muffled the sound as well as hiding him from view.

Acrobats among the cast did a splendid job of the abduction of Gilda, frolicking up and down a ladder in the best circus tradition, and leaving Rigoletto to roar alone about the curse laid on him by Monterone. And who was Monterone? A courtier? An audience member? The circus’s accountant? Goodness knows.

I have never been terribly convinced by the Duke’s aria “Ella mi fu rapita” which opens Act II. The Duke is fresh from one conquest and on his way to another, so how does he summon up the emotion to be heartbroken at the sudden disappearance of Gilda? Once the courtiers revealed that they had kidnapped Gilda for the Duke’s pleasure, he perked up a lot, stripped off his clothing, put on a green dressing-gown, scampered up another handy ladder, dropped the dressing-gown to show off a shapely backside (to wolf-whistles from the audience) before slipping into his bedroom to rape the captive Gilda.

The sublime Act III quartet took place in and around Sparafucile’s den, where Sara Fulgoni, as Maddalena (fully six inches taller than the tenor), showed a Miss Whiplash-like disposition in fetishistical underwear and had to sit on a barrel to bring herself down to the Duke’s level in order to kiss him on the lips. Rigoletto and Gilda watched from outside a hanging cage of ropes, which had a platform on top for the Duke to sleep on. Gilda’s murder was almost an anticlimax after the thunderstorm. Rigoletto’s rejoicing followed by his laments over the body in the sack was an action replay of the opening sequence during the overture – we felt we had seen it all before. What we hadn’t predicted was that, during Gilda’s brief revival and farewell duet, a naked woman spun down from the flies on a length of blood-red aerial silk, taking the eyes and the attention of the audience away from the dying heroine. Was this the spirit of Gilda’s dead mother? If so, had she been the victim of a tragic circus accident? Who knows.

High-concept productions stand or fall by the audience’s ability to refrain from extrapolating them to absurd lengths. The set was handsome and effective – especially when Gilda sang “Caro nome” in a toe-curling performance 10 metres above the stage on a flying trapeze – and orchestra of La Monnaie played idiomatically and sensitively under Samuel Jean. But although the costumes (by Miruna Boruzescu, who died on 4 April this year, shortly before rehearsals for this production began) were atmospheric and flattering, the production didn’t add up as a whole, failing to deliver the tragic emotional catharsis that Verdi’s Rigoletto should be sure to give.