For an opera so melodically vibrant and so much beloved by audiences across the world ever since its 1851 premiere, Rigoletto has a remarkably dark heart. None of the characters come out well: the jester is spiteful and vindictive; the Duke is unmitigatedly evil; the supposedly honest hit man Sparafucile betrays his client; his prostitute sister Maddalena incites the murder of random strangers; even the oh-so-angelic Gilda betrays her father in a fatal and improbable bout of Stockholm syndrome after her abduction and rape.

Luca Salsi (Rigoletto), Francesco Demuro (Duke of Mantua)
© ROH | Helen Murray

Oliver Mears' new Royal Opera production receives its second cast this month, after opening last September. On a second viewing, I’m convinced that the staging is a winner. It’s hard-hitting, pulling no punches in showing us that dark heart while allowing the lyrical moments of father-daughter love to fill us with angst as to what might have been. The somewhat timeless sets and costumes avoid both period-drama kitsch and modern banality. 

I won’t repeat the broad outline of Mears’ staging described in Mark Pullinger’s review of the premiere. What struck me this time round is how much fine detail Mears weaves into his basic framework; everything has a dramatic purpose related to the libretto or to some other component of the visual storytelling. When Gilda settles down to her soon-to-be-interrupted sleep, she wears virginal white but is otherwise in the same pose as the giant (naked) Venus of Urbino who has festooned the Duke’s palace. Rigoletto’s removal of his white-face make-up parallels the melting away of his power over the courtiers. The appearance on stage and cruel abuse of Monterone’s daughter underlines the irony that Rigoletto is ridiculing the Count for suffering the exact tragedy that is about to fall upon himself. The stage movement of the chorus was compelling, seething like a shoal of predatory fish.

Rosa Feola (Gilda), Luca Salsi (Rigoletto)
© ROH | Helen Murray

Last night’s three main roles were all sung very strongly indeed. Luca Salsi has a huge, muscular baritone voice which he deployed to telling effect, especially thrilling in the ensemble passages of Act 1 and in a great “Pari siamo” as he compares himself to the assassin. The voice is never gentle, but Salsi produced many passages of legato beauty. Often, at other times, Salsi lapsed into dramatic parlando, which was effective in injecting spite and viciousness even though I thought he somewhat overused the effect.

Francesco Demuro was a superb Duke. He has a naturally bright and clear tenor which can be warm when wanted, but he was also able to imbue his voice with a steely core, which was particularly effective in Act 1. He also gave us a thrilling high D at the end of the often-omitted Act 2 cabaletta “Possente amor me chiama”. Anyone disappointed at the absence of the previously advertised Javier Camarena could hardly have asked for a better replacement.

Rosa Feola (Gilda)
© ROH | Helen Murray

Rosa Feola has firmly made the transition from “up-and-coming” to “upped-and-come”. The part of Gilda demands warmth, purity and gentleness while tackling some gymnastic coloratura. Feola met these challenges with aplomb, while staying as credibly in character as it’s possible for a Gilda to be. The sheer beauty of her singing ravished us away from the horrors of events, at least for a while.

All of these singers had the rare and precious characteristic of using their vocal colours to act their roles at the same time as acting physically. Ample support was provided by Evgeny Stavinsky’s Sparafucile and Aigul Akhmetshina’s Maddalena, with even the smaller roles impressing (Giovanna only gets a few notes to sing, but Kseniia Nikolaieva made the most of them).

Luca Salsi (Rigoletto)
© ROH | Helen Murray

Conducting his first Rigoletto, Stefano Montanari gave us an idiosyncratic reading of the score, choosing relatively fast basic tempi and then injecting substantial rubato to give the singers opportunities for dramatic effect. Most of the time, this worked very well in maintaining interest and forward pace, although the train very nearly came off the rails in "Cortigiani", with Salsi only just keeping up with the frenetic tempo of the opening.

The Act 3 Quartet
© ROH | Helen Murray

This wasn’t an absolutely perfect performance: the overture started with some fearfully uncertain brass playing; Salsi’s voice was way too powerful for Feola’s in their first duet; the Act 3 quartet suffered musically from having two pairs of singers a long way apart from each other on stage. But this was an exceptionally fine singing cast delivering superb vocal acting in a staging that is completely sympathetic to the work.