The elaborate show curtain for this new production of Rigoletto shows us that stage director Bartlett Sher and his set designer Michael Yeargan have decided to update the story to the 1920s by finding inspiration in the style of German artists George Grosz and Otto Dix, both known for expressionistic caricatures and the socio-critical commentary in their works. And yet, when the curtain rises, we see the highly traditional setting of an ornate and lavish ballroom at the times of the German Weimar Republic, its elegant columns and polished flooring all ready to receive the Duke of Mantua's guests. Large quasi-abstract paintings repeat the show curtain themes in the background, maybe an updated version of the monumental frescoes of the original Duke’s Palazzo del Te in Mantua. Rigoletto’s very comfortable, bourgeois dolls' house-like home slides in from the left, Sparafucile’s homey tavern from the right. Scenic eye-candy. Catherine Zuber has created elegant costumes for the initial ball scene – gowns and uniforms with a touch of leftover Prussian military pomp.

Rigoletto at Staatsoper Berlin
© Brinkhoff Mögenburg

If Sher intends for his direction to reflect any social or psychological commentary on the society and its morals, it certainly did not come across. Sher’s characters are stiff and one-dimensional, with practically no character development nor personality other than that set forth by the music, and they are doomed to sing their arias downstage in very old-fashioned poses. Only Gilda and Rigoletto – the former sung by the American shooting star Nadine Sierra, the latter by British baritone Christopher Maltman – show any believable emotions. He sings a very pithy Rigoletto, expounding great vocal energy but with little Italianità. Everything is glossy and beautified: even when Gilda steps out of the Duke’s bed, she does so in a virginal white nightgown, in stark contrast to the traumatic story she confesses to her father.

Sierra is currently surely the best Gilda with her nuanced timbre and a touching simplicity and passion of expression in all her scenes – her sustained pianissimo ending her “Caro Nome” couldn’t have been more beautiful and reminiscent of great divas of the past.

Michael Fabiano (the Duke of Mantua)
© Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Although tenors always have a bonus with the audience, this Duke earned a few boos with an almost too polished and empty-sounding rendition of the role. Michael Fabiano’s big-voiced, metallic timbre is more likely better suited to a large stage such as The Met than the more intimate Staatsoper. Sadly, there is no expression of pleasure in seduction or sexual desire in his rendition of the two most famous arias “Questa o quella” and “La donna è mobile”.

Jan Martiník’s bass – especially in the first encounter with Rigoletto – is not sinister enough to be convincing as Sparafucile. This hired hand is more at ease pouring beers than doing the dirty work. Mezzo Elena Maximova is a voluptuous-sounding Maddalena, an expert at what she does in an obvious red wig and daring green satin dress. Corinna Scheurle is Giovanna, and as Gilda’s keeper and a modern woman, most likely a member of the new political party, with her tie and androgynous suit straight out of what will become the Youth Movement in the 1930s.

The male chorus, rehearsed by Martin Wright, is impressive in their narrative in the second act, a sheer exemplary performance of choral articulation.

Nadine Sierra (Gilda)
© Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Not only is conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada making his debut on the podium of the Staatskapelle, but it is also his first Rigoletto. The brunt of this young conductor’s experience so far has been with concert repertoire. Maybe that is the explanation of his cautious approach to Verdi, which, while singer-friendly and supportive, lacks definition and passion, often sounding lame and uninspired – especially in the so dramatic last act with its meteorological and emotional thunderstorms.