Envy, resentment, revenge; these are the traits associated with the title character of Rigoletto. Verdi gave the hunchbacked court jester an innocent daughter who is his emotional refuge. When she is kidnapped and violated by the Duke, Rigoletto’s world falls apart. He is cursed, even in his revenge however, as it costs the life of his daughter who sacrifices herself for her beloved Duke. Hendrik Müller’s stunning new production of Rigoletto at Oper Frankfurt portrays the title character as dark and sinister from the very beginning. As the prelude begins, Rigoletto appears in front of the dark curtain, dressed in black and made up as a white-faced clown. He kneels in front of a small altar bearing a cross, candles and a small portrait of the Virgin Mary and Christ in prayer, only to rise and tear the portrait out of the frame and ingest it.

The curtain opens to a tall vaulted interior of a somber church, with narrow wooden planks lining the walls. The chorus of men are dressed in black, some as military men and others as punks in leather. A few large cages hang from the ceiling. The men are openly cruel and violent; the Countess Ceprano, made up to look like Lady Gaga, wears dark glasses and limps with a cane. It turns out that she is a victim of domestic abuse, with a broken leg and a black eye. Later she appears with a sling in one arm. She is publicly abused by other men. The Duke descends in a cage, singing his opening aria “Questa o quella;” he is a thoroughly despicable man, dispatching Count Monterone, his accuser, with a gunshot early in the act. When Monterone returns in Act 2, he does so as a ghost. Darkness permeates the opera, with effecting lighting by Jan Hartmann probing psychological nuances.

Even Gilda, Rigoletto’s innocent daughter, is not entirely angelic in this production. She is trapped in a glass box with a wall decorated with crosses, and does not hide her frustration with her father. First dressed in red, she comes to resemble her abusers in dressing black after her fall from grace. The Duke gambles and drinks in the company of Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena, in a bar with a large curtain depicting the face of a clown. Gilda’s death is breathtakingly directed; as Rigoletto holds onto a large white cloth splattered with blood, Gilda slowly retreats into the inner sanctuary of the church walking backwards, bidding farewell to her father and the abusive world of men.

The musical performance was of the highest quality, with Carlo Montanaro drawing urgent, yet sensitive playing from the orchestra. Quinn Kelsey vocally and physically embodied the title character. His deep and warm voice has a slightly covered quality, and he caressed Verdi’s melodies with endless legato and thrilling power. His acting was understated and yet chillingly effective for its stillness. Brenda Rae was a stunning Gilda, her statuesque figure representing a mature and strong woman of her own will. Her voice had a slight vibrato on top but was secure and clear throughout with magnificent brilliance. Her coloratura passages were thrilling and beautiful, with solid technique. Extra ornamentations were generous but not excessive. She communicated Gilda’s emotional journey with exacting and physical acting.  

Mario Chang’s Duke showed off his beautifully projected tenor voice but his singing was at times underpowered and unfocused. The evil sibling pair, Önay Köse as Sparafucile and Ewa Płonka as Maddalena, were strongly cast, and the famous quartet was one of the highlights of the evening, excellent blocking of the singers helping to balance the voices. Smaller roles were well sung and energetically acted. While there was slight pit-chorus coordination issues in the beginning, it is one of the few complaints of this unflinching and insightful production focusing on human cruelty with few saving graces.