What happened to Rigoletto after the hitman he hired to kill his daughter Gilda’s abductor murdered her instead? He went mad and was committed to a mental institution. This is Damiano Michieletto’s twist on Verdi’s compact but tremendous tragedy Rigoletto for Dutch National Opera. Although intriguing, the production is overanalytical and is ultimately sabotaged by its own cleverness. The cast compensates with a good old Verdi singfest.

Luca Salsi (Rigoletto) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Luca Salsi (Rigoletto)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

Michieletto is too interesting a director to just tell the story through flashbacks. He inserts an extra narrative, partly by projecting scenes from Gilda’s childhood on the hospital walls. Rigoletto keeps her locked in a room with iron bars on the window. In the libretto he mourns his sainted wife, but the way Gilda scratches out a drawing of her mother with black crayon hints at violent deeds. To cope with his guilt, Rigoletto constructs an elaborate fiction, the actual opera plot, starring the staff and inmates of the asylum. He casts a psychiatrist as his libidinous employer, the Duke of Mantua, who seduces Gilda, then breaks her heart. Rigoletto arranges to have him killed, but the besotted Gilda offers up her own life to save his. In fact, it was Rigoletto himself who either killed Gilda or drove her to suicide. Abusively possessive, he was unable to accept that his little girl was on the cusp of womanhood. Michieletto has him direct his affection at a puppet double of his daughter. Only anger passes between him and the flesh-and-blood Gilda.

Lisette Oropesa (Gilda) and Saimir Pirgu (Duke of Mantua) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Lisette Oropesa (Gilda) and Saimir Pirgu (Duke of Mantua)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

Paolo Fantin’s single set, a decaying 19th-century asylum, is so chillingly detailed you can almost smell the carbolic acid. The forbidding iron walkway and huge apertures are lit with sickly secondary colours. Characters pop out of holes in the walls that open and close as if my magic. Gilda’s floral print dress sets her apart from the others, all in ghostly white, as the only non-fabricated person in her father’s head. Conceptually and visually, it all fits together, but the clinical distance undercuts the horror of the events. Another problem is the limited emotional range of the traumatised Rigoletto. Even as the sole perpetrator, the extent of his guilt, and Verdi’s music, suggest that there is more to Rigoletto than obsessive paranoia and rage. There is also more to the score than conductor Carlo Rizzi brought out: greater tragedy in the fateful knells of the overture, more lightness in the offstage dances, more sky-tearing drama during the storm. Intent on maintaining a nimble pace, Rizzi started a couple of arias too fast, but quickly adjusted to the singers. From the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra he got exactly what he requested – a stylistically correct performance that only surpassed itself in fits and starts. The tragic poetry in the woodwind solos and the cello accompanying Rigoletto’s pleading did not spill over into the overall performance. But then there was the singing.

First of all, needlepoint dynamics from the DNO chorus as the Duke’s henchmen. In the minor roles, the women outperformed the men, but secondary roles were strongly cast. Carlo Cigni’s Monterone cursed Rigoletto for his jibes in a serviceable, chalky bass. Rafał Siwek was sonorous as the cut-throat Sparafucile, trawling his low notes with ease. In a feather-trimmed peignoir, mezzo-soprano Annalisa Stroppa brought a touch of quasi-common glamour to Maddalena, singing cleanly and elegantly. Vocally and physically alluring, Saimir Pirgu was supremely confident in his clarion upper register, although did not exactly stunt with interpolated high notes – no high D at the end of “Possente amor”, for example. He came out all beef and bluster in the first scene, which is fair enough for a shameless philanderer closing in for the kill. During the love duet, he decreased his volume and his voice took on appealing shades of honey. It is a pity that Pirgu frequently, and needlessly, tried to make his voice sound bigger than it is.

Annalisa Stroppa (Maddalena) and Rafał Siwek (Sparafucile) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Annalisa Stroppa (Maddalena) and Rafał Siwek (Sparafucile)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

In the title role Luca Salsi limped and lurched about tirelessly. He is not a subtle singing actor, and his strong suit is unwavering steadiness rather than lyricism. Yet his emotional investment and the sheer power of his full Verdi baritone made for an exciting performance. Even without the traditional unwritten high notes, he supplied the blood and thunder missing from the pit. Slender and graceful, soprano Lisette Oropesa was simply world-class as Gilda, with flawless emission and generous top notes, crystalline up to high E. The long trill at the end of “Caro nome” would have traced a perfect zigzag on a pitch visualiser. Even more stunning than her bravura was the melting glow at the centre of her voice, her morbidezza (softness). At the curtain call there was a prolonged ovation for the soloists and a cocktail of boos and clapping for the production team – altogether a positive balance.