A prelude that was pedestrian rather than portentous signalled Maurizio Benini’s approach to Rigoletto: Verdi as aural Ovaltine, tucked up in cosy dressing gown and slippers. This revival of David McVicar’s production was effectively hamstrung from the pit, severely testing even the best of the singers on stage. It surely wasn’t coincidental that all three principals seemed to be suffering off-nights.

Simon Keenlyside (Rigoletto) © Catherine Ashmore
Simon Keenlyside (Rigoletto)
© Catherine Ashmore

McVicar’s staging, revived here by Leah Hausman, is still punchy, particularly in the crowd scenes: a boisterous, energetic orgy, with acres of bare flesh, to launch Act I; intimidating courtiers to taunt Rigoletto during his great aria “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata”, encircling him, tapping their swords menacingly. A neat directorial touch was the arrival of Gilda into the court before Rigoletto had finished his aria, thus allowing her time to assess the situation and realise – for the first time – what her father does for the ‘day job’.

Michael Vale’s set is more problematic. The sense of moral decay infesting Mantua is established effectively via the tarnished, angled wall. Sparafucile’s tavern looks like a disused scrapyard – unfortunately, it’s also the same set as Rigoletto’s house. This is all dumped on a giant revolve which creaks and grinds with all the speed of an arthritic snail. Tension was completely destroyed between the two scenes of Act I; between Acts II and III, any pretence at maintaining focus was abandoned by bringing up the house lights.

<i>Rigoletto</i> at The Royal Opera © Catherine Ashmore
Rigoletto at The Royal Opera
© Catherine Ashmore

Vocally, the evening was extremely mixed. Bright spots included Austrian bass-baritone Sebastian Holecek, whose resounding bass-baritone delivered Monterone’s curse with maximum impact. Brindley Sherratt and Justina Gringyte, as brother-and-sister-in-crime Sparafucile and Maddalena, were both satisfyingly full voiced, Gringyte’s mezzo having a dark, sensual allure.

Simon Keenlyside has a great many qualities: an intelligent Lieder singer, an intensely powerful Wozzeck and a stylish Mozartean, he takes tremendous care over diction and imaginative phrasing. Alas, I find him almost completely unsuited to Verdi. The more declamatory role of Macbeth has been his most convincing foray into this repertoire so far, but Rigoletto requires a bigger, juicier baritone with enough richness and seamless legato to sail through Verdi’s long phrases. There is a case for a Lieder approach to the role – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for example – but not one which convinces me, I’m afraid. Where Keenlyside does convince is through his acting, from the anguish of a father desperate to locate his abducted daughter to the barely contained, child-like glee at receiving the corpse from Sparafucile.

Simon Keenlyside (Rigoletto) and Aleksandra Kurzak (Gilda) © Catherine Ashmore
Simon Keenlyside (Rigoletto) and Aleksandra Kurzak (Gilda)
© Catherine Ashmore

I anticipated Aleksandra Kurzak’s first Gilda for the Royal Opera with keen excitement. Delightful in the flirtatious ‘-ina’ roles – Rosina, Adina, Norina – I wondered how well she would master a serious, taxing Verdi role where the vocal and dramatic challenges are different. She has all the qualities required: a light lyric soprano – not soubrettish – armed with the agility and technique to negotiate the coloratura, including a clean trill. Benini’s slow tempi, however, caused her several problems, most noticeably in the father-daughter duet of Act I, where she and Keenlyside had to break up their phrasing to take additional unmusical breaths. Kurzak seemed rather tentative in “Caro nome”, fumbling for the note somewhat and seemingly unwilling to release her sparkling coloratura at its most brilliant. This could have been a deliberate interpretative choice, however, and she did capture those first “palpitations of love” with touching vulnerability. With a more sympathetic presence in the pit, Kurzak’s Gilda could be a knock-out.

Saimir Pirgu made little positive impression as the licentious Duke of Mantua, failing to round his phrases off smoothly in “Questa o quella” and bulldozing his way through “Parmi veder le lagrime” at nothing less than mezzo-forte. His tenor sounds a lot bigger than previously, but – despite the Duke’s despicable character – this is a role which requires exquisite vocal elegance. Pirgu didn’t seem entirely at ease as the lecher of the first scene, more comfortable as the lovesick puppy when he woos Gilda.

Benini’s comatose conducting – limp tempi, plus poor coordination between pit and stage – contributed to one of the most undistinguished performances I’ve heard: a Rigoletto desperately in need of a shot of espresso.  

**111