Dynamic young Walter Sutcliffe, Artistic Director of Northern Ireland Opera, brought his vision of Verdi’s Rigoletto to Belfast in this first year of his tenure. The province is no stranger to controversy and under previous administration NIO delivered some challenging, gritty and graphic shows that saw some of the most conservative operagoers voting with their feet, most notably in Adès' Powder Her Face. Making his mark, Sutcliffe has delivered a somewhat different – but no less memorable – production.

Kaspar Glarner's sets and costumes, in collaboration with Ópera Nacional de Chile, place Rigoletto in a contemporary setting. Bringing one of the biggest and most complex sets to the stage of the Grand Opera House, it was clunky, wobbled, had several malfunctions, sounding like it needed several cans of lubricant. Gilda’s bedroom, with pink candy stripes wallpaper, had something of a tired Rapunzel tower atmosphere about it, which aided the feeling of vulnerability to Gilda’s fate. In Act 2, the inn, with its air of abandonment and 1970s decor, could have been a shipbuilder’s social club in Belfast Docks. The lighting design was very successful, illuminating the rustic set ingeniously in a moody way.

When the curtain rose, one was presented with a very dark stage, Rigoletto standing motionless at the far end, with a spot light as if to highlight him, his fate and the curse. One was immediately drawn into the tragic tale. However, this bubble was temporarily burst, with overacting the extras choral dad-dancing, but so convincing were the cast that it did not take long to recover from this tasteless hiatus. 

Principal casting was impressive. Taking the title role, Sebastian Catana made a splendid UK debut. He was a perfect Rigoletto, a fine and captivating actor with an understanding of Verdi’s tragic score. The warmth and depth of his baritone voice projected effortlessly, diction was clear and singing completely assured. His acting grabbed your attention from the outset, dragging you into his troubled world, which at times was truly uncomfortable. Catana completely filled the barren stage with his presence, clutching only a cheap teddy bear in a plain white plastic carrier. He captured Rigoletto’s complete susceptibility and laid out the character with complete conviction. His costume failed to bring out any physical disfigurement, which was disappointing as this is such an intrinsic part of Rigoletto's character. 

As Gilda, 2015 Cardiff Singer of the World 2015 Nadine Koutcher captured the virginal naivety of her character with childlike-innocence. Throughout her performance she was technically perfect, top notes were executed with complete precision. The chemistry between her and Catana was engaging and intense, which made one feel as if one was intruding on that special relationship between father and daughter. By the final scene this had grown to such a depth, one felt the virtual hammer blows of the curse as she died in his arms.  

Davide Guisti, as the Duke of Mantua, gave a masterclass performance, most notably in how to sing "La donna e mobile". His diction was crystal clear, diligently phrased and he had a sense of vibrant spontaneity. He was able to bring out the darker, sordid side to his character with effortless ease. 

Other singers were commendable too. Of special note were Fleur Barron as Maddalena, who brought out the lascivious Carmen-like qualities of the part with vividness. Taras Berezhansky as Sparafucile, who’s velvety yet sinister tone was beguiling, played his character with believable sincerity. Ann Jennings skills as an actress were totally convincing as Giovanna. Her mature voice contrasted perfectly with the transparency and delicacy of Koutcher’s Gilda. 

The chorus were a handpicked selection of local singers, flawless and totally unified in their singing throughout although their acting lacked finesse. The Ulster Orchestra were conducted diligently by Gareth Hancock. Their playing tonight had some exquisite detail in phrasing and articulation. One remarkable moment, was in Rigoletto’s Act 2 entry where there was a noticeable change in colour. 

If this had been a concert performance with those singers and musicians it would have blown one away completely. The music was incredible, well-rehearsed, detailed, unified and balanced. Distractions during set changes and some seemingly cobbled-together costumes, prevented this five-star performance from getting the full credit it deserves; the standing ovation for the musicians was a befitting recognition for this gala opening evening.