Continuing on this season’s Italian theme, the NTR Zaterdagmatinee took us to the court of Mantua by programming Verdi’s Rigoletto. This is something of an unusual choice, as over the years, these Saturday concerts at the Concertgebouw have become famous for bringing mostly obscure or rarely staged operas to the public.Verdi’s first opera of his middle-years trilogy hardly falls into this category. Based on Victor Hugo's play Le roi s’amuse, Rigoletto is famous for being revolutionary for its time. Barriers between formal melody and recitative are blurred, there is only one aria constructed according to tradition, and none of the acts finish on a conventional finale concertante: all things that contribute to making it a dramatically engrossing piece. James Gaffigan and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, aided by a fine cast of soloists, demonstrated that its powerfully dramatic music does not really need staging to keep the audience captivated.

A great deal of the credit has to go to the inspired conducting of Gaffigan. It was my first experience listening to the principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in an operatic work, and I was quickly engrossed. From the ovations he and his orchestra received from the public, I gather I was not the only one. His conducting style is expressive and communicative, very theatrical. He allies both finesse and gusto and, under his baton, the orchestra shone with articulate phrasing and outbursts of glorious sound that did marvels to convey the drama of the score.

In the title role Dimitri Platanias had an imposing stage presence, matched by a big, rich and beefy baritone. His is a full-blooded Rigoletto, as powerful and unflagging in his cynical and venomous attacks of Monterone and the courtiers as in his desire for revenge from the duke. He was somewhat less convincing as the broken and tortured soul, and the “Ebben, piango” of the second part of his big Act II aria did not have quite the same impact as his furious “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata”. Yet, in his duets with Gilda, his surly jester was capable of infinite fatherly tenderness.

Lisette Oropesa was a ravishing Gilda, her silvery tones and beautiful high range perfectly suited for the role of the young innocent girl. “Gualtier Malté”, that one and only traditionally-constructed aria of the opera, had unfortunately to be interrupted at first, so as to whisk away a member of the audience who was apparently unwell. When the performance resumed, Ms Oropesa sang the aria with elegant phrasing, top notes ringing to the rafters and exquisitely executed trills with which she has deservedly brought down the house.

As her seducer, Ivan Magrì was an utterly self-confident Duke of Mantua. The Sicilian tenor boasts a naturally powerful tenor which he used without restraint. One might have preferred slightly more nuance in volume, and a bit more subtlety, but the cocky aplomb with which he delivered his arias suited the character of the libertine count perfectly.

The other roles were all well cast. I particularly liked Ante Jerkunica, whose towering presence and deep and dark bass sound made the thug Sparafucile a thoroughly threatening character. The men of the Netherlands Radio Choir and Flemish Radio Choir gave a polished performance.