This Rigoletto was an admirable revival of late director Giancarlo Cobelli’s 1989 staging, which provoked a scandal for the nude scenes when it was first performed. Now it seems reassuringly traditional as far as the drama goes: gloomy, as it must be, with some gothic elements. Paolo Tommasi's sets and Giusi Giustino's costumes evoke paintings by Mantegna, depicting the magnificence of the Gonzaga court.

Transparent sliding panels divide the stage: when open, they show the back, with the luxurious ballroom of Mantua's Palazzo Ducale. When closed, in the forefront appears Gilda’s home with a single bed or, alternatively, in the third act, Sparafucile’s tavern with a wall in ruins. The ominous epilogue springs from the opera’s short prelude and the director emphasised this trait from the very beginning: Rigoletto, on his knees, wears quite reluctantly his jester’s clothes while the brass play the motif later to be associated with Monterone’s curse, which worries Rigoletto throughout the entire opera.

In the initial scene with the ball held at the court of the Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto returns to being a cynical “on the job” jester, as he will later prove a protective and loving father to his daughter Gilda, whom he keeps hidden from the corrupt world. In perfect accordance between pit and stage, the drama builds in intensity and eventually explodes: the girl sacrifices herself for the Duke she fell in love with, the orchestral storm depicts the dreadful events. Monterone’s curse has been fulfilled. In the final scene, Rigoletto is on his kneels again, as he was during the prelude, the drama thus coming full circle.

San Carlo's casting was fine. Baritone George Petean was excellent in the role of Rigoletto and seconded the conductor with a strong rendering of his tragic character. Petean’s voice was able to ride the orchestral climaxes and he sang his most famous aria, "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!" with a warm, dramatic, secure sound. Petean was well matched to Rosa Feola’s breathtakingly interpretation of Gilda, whose naivety she made entirely credible. The young Neapolitan soprano was captivating in all the passages, especially shining in the coloratura of "Caro nome". Her performance was both girlish and painful, and her outstandingly sweet singing made a memorable impression.

Much the same could be said about Piero Pretti, whose Duke was the impetuous libertine one could expect. He sounded  at ease in this role. "Possente amor" was wonderful, and this is probably the hardest aria in Verdi's score. Pretti portrayed the dissolute sensuality of the character with an unstrained, limpid voice, dramatic accents and robust high notes.

Secondary roles were adequately cast. Maurizio Piccolo’s Monterone was imposing (a better Monterone than many I've seen) and Anna Malavasi had the voice and physicality to back up the sensual flair of Maddalena. Giorgio Giuseppini was a strong stage presence, his Sparafucile was refined, both vocally and dramatically. The rest of the cast was adequate and sang with efficient professionalism.

Nello Santi, now 86, made his debut in 1951, also with Rigoletto. He has conducted it dozens of times since, and knows it like few others. Even so he was still capable of not making it sound routine, as he surprised us once more with a moving, yet robust reading of  the score.