English National Opera describes Jonathan Miller’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto as iconic and there is no doubt that the production has become one of the most distinctive incarnations of the opera since Miller created it back in 1982. It speaks to its popularity that after an attempted retirement in favour of Christopher Alden’s less acclaimed version three seasons ago, it has been retrieved from the old folk’s home, given a hip replacement, and returned to the Coliseum once more.

Nicholas Pallesen (Rigoletto) and Nicholas Folwell (Monterone) © Alastair Muir
Nicholas Pallesen (Rigoletto) and Nicholas Folwell (Monterone)
© Alastair Muir

The production hasn’t aged too badly; the mafia concept, although prolific in opera stagings these days, is still a perfect fit for Rigoletto. Elaine Tyler-Hall’s direction was generally attentive; chorus direction was good for the party in Act I and the choreography of the abduction scene at the end of that act was nicely done. The atmosphere of back street New York was brilliant evoked in the alley outside Rigoletto’s apartment with gloomy fog, glowing amber lights and a handy assassin lurking nearby. Sharply suited, the Duke’s court was well depicted as mass of ambition, dislike and lust, while Rigoletto lumbered around in a white bartender’s jacket and Gilda’s purity is evoked in a decorously modest blue dress.

The cast for the revival varied in quality on opening night. This was baritone Nicholas Pallesen role debut as the hunchback jester, and dramatically he made a good fist of the role; not perhaps convincing in the first scene, either when taunting Ceprano and Monterone, or when the curse was declared, but bringing a sense of paternal desperation to his interactions with Gilda and deeply moving acting to the final scene. Vocally, Pallesen will need a few more performances to settle in; he showed a good, clean upper register with an appealing lightness that was deployed effectively in the Rigoletto/Gilda Act 1 duet, but the lack of power at the bottom of the voice deprived the character of teeth. It’s always pleasant, though, to be able to hear diction as crisp as Pallesen’s, where a glance towards the surtitles becomes unnecessary.

Joshua Guerrero (The Duke) and Anthony Flaum (Borsa) © Alastair Muir
Joshua Guerrero (The Duke) and Anthony Flaum (Borsa)
© Alastair Muir

Joshua Guerrero’s Duke was charmless with neither the sense of danger nor the charisma to do justice to one of Verdi’s best roles. Diction varied, breath control seemed uncertain and while the voice was easy on the ear, the Duke’s big arias “Possente amor mi chiama” and “La donna è mobile” were sung about as safely as possible, offering no generosity at the top at all.

Sydney Mancasola’s Gilda left me cold in the first act, offering little in charm or stage presence. This impression was then blown out of the water by some deeply impressive acting in the second act, bringing a sense of Gilda as victim to the forefront of her performance with subtle body language, moving expressions and impassioned singing. Mancasola displayed a sweet soprano at ease in all registers and with enough flexibility to make her high notes dainty, but her diction was blurred.

Sydney Mancasola (Gilda) © Alastair Muir
Sydney Mancasola (Gilda)
© Alastair Muir

Barnaby Rea gave a superlative performance as Sparafucile, his stage presence combining black menace with a sense of griminess that was entirely at home in this production, while his rich, resonant bass made for a thrilling vocal performance. His sister, Maddalena, was steadily sung by Madeleine Shaw, hints of the bad girl coming through without becoming a caricature, while Nicholas Folwell gave us a stridently sung Monterone.

The ENO Chorus was on typically excellent form, offering a particularly characterful performance. Conducting, Richard Armstrong may have occasionally remembered that there were singers involved in the performance, but generally seemed to ignore the fact. A marked tendency to drown out the singers was a major hindrance to the performance, and some lethargic tempi – much of the first scene felt dismally flat – kept the evening distinctly earthbound.