Verdi's Rigoletto is a work of contrasts. The Duke is equally at home in a glittering palace or a tawdry brothel (a historically accurate characterisation of King Francis I of France, on whom his character is based); his romantic ballads are juxtaposed with the musical depiction of violent storms. Pretty courtly dances share the stage with powerful orchestral evocations of impending doom. The hunchbacked jester moves from sneering, vicious courtier to tenderest of fathers to implacable murderer; his daughter Gilda exudes purity and virtue even as she lies to conceal the existence of her suitor.

Dimitri Platanias as Rigoletto © ROH 2012 / Johan Persson
Dimitri Platanias as Rigoletto
© ROH 2012 / Johan Persson

The latest revival of David McVicar's production for the Royal Opera makes the most of some of these contrasts; others are simply ignored. Dimitri Platanias gave us a wonderfully warm and rounded rendition of the title role, at his best in the tender moments between father and daughter where his richness of voice is very appealing. Platanias did a good job of managing the changes between tenderness and violence, although he played the violent parts less strongly than many: rather than the domineering, manipulative figure penned by Victor Hugo, his rages were those of an ineffectual man unable to control anything around him.

From a purely musical point of view, Ekaterina Siurina gave as good a Gilda as you might wish for. Her voice was strong, clear and perfectly weighted; diction was immaculate; timbre was pleasant; every note hit in the middle. Dramatically, I was less sure: it seemed to me that Siurina had thrown herself into the score rather than throwing herself into the character. No such reservation could be held about Vittorio Grigolo, who played the Duke with Tigger-like enthusiasm. When Grigolo is given time to breathe, he has a quite beautiful voice; his big Act I duet with Siurina was sheer delight, as was his Act II cavatina Possente amor mi chiama.

It was disappointing that he wasn't always given that time. John Eliot Gardiner's tempi were idiosyncratic, to say the least: rubato happened in some unlikely places, and he generally erred on the side of very fast. For two of the Duke's biggest numbers, Questa o quella and La donna è mobile, Gardiner took the music at such a clip that Grigolo struggled to keep up; certainly, there was no space for his airy elegance of phrasing. The celebrated Act III quartet Bella figlia dell'amore boasted four singers who sounded great (Christine Rice is one of the stronger castings you'll see as Maddalena), but its timing went rather ragged. It was a pity because Gardiner's conducting was excellent in so many other ways: the balance between the various instrument groups and voices was finely tuned to enable you to hear every nuance, and the dynamics and accenting brought out many of the details of Verdi's marvellous score.

David McVicar and Michael Vale's staging is based on a single massive set that revolves on its turntable to create the different environments; all of them are tawdry and painted a grim battleship grey. This is the second time I've seen this production (see the 2010 review). It was better lit this time, something Royal Opera director Kaspar Holten says they're working on, but my views have rather hardened against the staging. The problem is that if everything is dark, grim and sordid, there's no way to illuminate the work's contrasts. If the elegant court ball of Act I is portrayed as a vast orgy with lots of shouting and on-stage sex, the contrast is lost between the sprightly dance music of the sul palco band and the portentous rumblings of the main orchestra. Sparafucile's inn - intended as a shocking, degraded place for the Duke to visit - becomes rather a nice calm location by comparison with the terrifying palace. And Rigoletto's home, which is supposed to be the only haven of calm in the hunchback's violent world, cannot be credible as such when it shares a set with Sparafucile's dingy and horrible inn. I can see the rationale behind trying to emulate the shock effect that the opera had in 1851 (particularly with the Austrian censors), but in doing so, this production seems to me to lose more than it gains.

But I'm going to set aside my reservations. Rigoletto remains one of my favourite of all opera scores, with an unending series of glorious melodies and entrancing vocal settings set to vivid orchestration. The Royal Opera proved once again their ability to assemble a star-studded cast, who provided a thoroughly memorable evening of singing. I may have missed the last edge in dramatic intensity, but it was still a great evening's opera.

This production is being broadcast on Radio 3 on 9th June, and the 17th April performance is being screened live in cinemas.