As the curtain rises towards the end of the histrionic Rigoletto prelude, shafts of light pierce the brooding darkness from above to illuminate a tableau mort depicting Caravaggio’s sensational The Martyrdom of St Matthew. Instead of the saint, a young lady dressed in virginal white. The soldier wears a breastplate and the skull of a bull, complete with golden horns. Rigoletto, in red ruff and jester’s cap, observes. It’s a breathtaking image, gloriously lit by Fabiana Piccioli.

Carlos Álvarez (Rigoletto) and ensemble
© ROH | Ellie Kurttz

Last night, that dramatic prelude heralded not just the opening of a new production – Oliver Mears’ first since becoming Director of Opera – but the start of a new Royal Opera season, with a full house finally returning after the long Covid hiatus and the false starts of the last twelve months. Mears has bided his time, having taken up his post in 2017. There’s been no Kasper Holten-like scramble to instantly make his mark, so this directorial debut was keenly awaited, not just to appraise Mears’ staging, but also to get a steer on the style of production and directors he might bring to the house. 

That opening tableau makes a favourable impression, although it is arguably also the single most striking visual moment of the evening. When his armour and headdress are removed, the soldier is revealed as the Duke of Mantua. The woman is Count Monterone’s daughter. She is pregnant. This Duke is a devoted art lover and collector. Titian’s Venus of Urbino is unveiled, its erotic charge reflected on the scene taking place below. By Act 2, it has been replaced by another Titian, The Rape of Europa, hanging prophetically above the door to the Duke’s bedchamber where the abducted Gilda is imprisoned. 

Carlos Álvarez (Rigoletto) and Lisette Oropesa (Gilda)
© ROH | Ellie Kurttz

Simon Lima Holdsworth’s set is simple but effective, the giant painting rising to reveal a cutaway which acts as Gilda’s bedroom, the walls then opening up further to become Sparafucile’s seedy tavern of Act 3. Ilona Karas’ costumes initially look Renaissance chic until Monterone bursts in wearing a modern day suit – the Duke has laid on an elaborate costume party (Gilbert Deflo did something similar in Zurich in 2006). Elsewhere, the setting is timeless, Rigoletto heads home wearing a homburg and an overcoat, the assassin Sparafucile wears denim, Gilda a simple, demure dress. It’s a production that successfully captures the “tinta” of the opera – the score’s burnt umber and sepia tones – much as its predecessor did, David McVicar's scrapheap on a revolve. 

Carlos Álvarez (Rigoletto)
© ROH | Ellie Kurttz

The stylised choral choreography feels clunky, as does the gouging of Monterone's eyes, but Mears’ direction of his principals hits home as truthful; “honest” is a word I scribbled several times during the evening. The father-daughter relationship – vital in so much Verdi – was movingly portrayed by Carlos Álvarez and Lisette Oropesa. He is a protective, oppressive father and one senses her wish to rebel, to break free from this cage he keeps her in. Her trauma after the Duke has raped her is painful, Rigoletto’s furious desire for vengeance pulsating.

Lisette Oropesa (Gilda) and Carlos Álvarez (Rigoletto)
© ROH | Ellie Kurttz

Both Álvarez and Oropesa are great actors. Oropesa also happens to be the finest lyric coloratura in the world today. Her soprano is quite dark lower down – hers is no tweetie-pie Gilda – and “Caro nome” revealed rock solid technique including an excellent trill. She narrowed her voice daringly fine at the top, but just within the bounds of control. Álvarez’ baritone is rough hewn, but full of emotion. He phrases sensitively and knows his limitations – interpolated high notes were eschedwed until the final cry of “maledizione” at the end. Their vendetta duet rightly raised cheers.

Liparit Avetisyan (Duke of Mantua)
© ROH | Ellie Kurttz

Liparit Avetisyan was a stylish Duke, with something of the young Pavarotti about his demeanour and his Italianate tenor. His “La donna è mobile” had swagger, but there was elegance too in “Parmi veder le lagrime” – he’s a bastard, but an aristocratic bastard. Brindley Sherratt’s inky bass impressed as the tattooed Sparafucile, while Ramona Zaharia was a characterful Maddalena. Apart from a disappointingly reedy Monterone, the comprimarios were well cast. 

Driving Verdi’s score pungently in the pit was that dynamo, Antonio Pappano, finally conducting a full orchestra again with no social distancing (face masks for string players). Woodwinds were full of colour, the brass was secure (not always a given) and the strings plush. The loud ovation he received at the curtain call spoke volumes – a truly adored music director who will be difficult to replace when he leaves the post in three years time.

So, a strong showing for an often striking production. How revivable it is will be crucial to its long term success. It gets an early chance next February.