Time will tell if Oliver Mears’s new Rigoletto for the Royal Opera will reveal more

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Rigoletto: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 13.9.2021. (CC)

Carlos Álvarez (Rigoletto) and Lisette Oropesa (Gilda) © Ellie Kurttz

Director – Oliver Mears
Set designer – Simon Lima Holdsworth
Costume designer – Ilona Karas
Lighting designer – Fabiana Piccioli
Movement director – Anna Morrissey

Duke of Mantua – Liparit Avetisyan
Rigoletto – Carlos Álvarez
Gilda – Lisette Oropesa
Sparafucile – Brindley Sherratt
Maddalena – Ramona Zaharia
Giovanna – Kseniia Nikolaieva
Count Monterone – Eric Greene
Marullo – Dominic Sedgwick
Borsa – Egor Zhuravskii
Count Ceprano – Blaise Malaba
Countess Ceprano – Amanda Baldwin

Wonderful to see a full Royal Opera House, for the first time since March 2020, for the season opener 2021: Verdi’s magnificent Rigoletto in a new staging by Oliver Mears. In the pit, Sir Antonio Pappano directing these forces he knows so well in what really is his home musical territory: his finest performances seem to have been of Verdi. His Otello in 2019 (review click here) – which also featured Carlos Álvarez in the cast (Iago) – was a triumph (the director there was Keith Warner).

Musically for this Rigoletto, there was triumph after triumph. Pappano marshalled his forces with expert command; his sense of direction was never in doubt, allowing time to bend with the singers when necessary. The Covent Garden orchestra was in fine form, the difficult brass balancings of the Prelude (to a static tableau that links to Italian art of the time of Caravaggio) magnificently managed. That image was echoed in other art references, too (Titian’s Venus of Urbino and detail from his Rape of Europa); and I wonder (possibly fancifully?) if, at the other end of the spectrum, two coloured windows were a reference to Rothko?

Rigoletto featuring Liparit Avetisyan’s Duke of Mantua (centre) © Ellie Kurttz

This is Mears’s first production since taking up the post of Director of Opera in 2017. We find ourselves at an indeterminate time in history, given the mixed costumes, and a staging which acts as something of a blank page on which Verdi can paint his tragedy. There is effective use of graphics for the glowering weather in the last act, where we see into a raised first-floor bedroom where Sparafucile pimps out his daughter. Maddalena, her name here surely referring to the alleged holy prostitute Mary Magdalene, as she anaesthetises her life via alcohol glugged straight from the bottle. This Mantua is a place of base instincts in which Gilda is entangled. Monterone’s eyes are gouged out mercilessly, and he is left for all of us, the audience, to gawk at. The effigy of Gilda in the end at the end of the second act discovered by Rigoletto only partly works; the intent is surely that this is chilling, the stuff of horror movies, a psychological twist that can break a mind. But we, the audience, have to feel that shock reciprocally …

Full credit certainly to Fabiana Piccioli’s lighting, certainly, which creates the mood of each scene to perfection. All of which forms a relatively neutral backdrop for Verdi’s drama; and that in turn puts a lot of pressure on the singers. Let’s start from the one absolute stellar contribution: that of Lisette Oropesa. After she cancelled singing Elvira (I puritani) in Gstaad recently, one did wonder if she would (a) show and (b) be at her best. Show she did, and this was the best Gilda I, for one, have heard. Her voice is beautifully pure and agile yet has a fullness that carries right to the back of the theatre. Her ‘Caro nome’ was a showstopper; she has an innocence, and yet we feel that underneath that is a knowing which is powerful.

As the Duke, tenor Liparit Avetisyan seemed to find his feet as the evening went on, his Act II ‘Parmi veder la lagrima’ finding him settled in. The title role, Rigoletto, was taken by Carlos Álvarez, on good form (if not in that exalted space that made his Iago so great). Much of the final act found him in full voice and dramatically cogent, but his final railing against Monterone’s curse sounded strangely unconvincing. And his character’s limp, too, felt false.

Brindley Sherratt was a wonderful Sparafucile, though, cut-throat and with magnificent stage presence, while mezzo Ramona Zaharia excelled as Maddalena – her voice is resonant and deep and it comes as no surprise to know she is also an Erda. Good to see Blaise Malaba as the Count Ceprano (he sang Alidoro in La Cenerentola at the New Generation Festival in Florence in August 2020). Eric Greene made a fine Count Monterone, and one must pay tribute to the excellence of the Royal Opera Chorus, on superb form (chorus director William Spaulding).

It is good to be back beyond a shadow of a doubt; one wonders if repeated exposure to Mears’s production will yield other layers of revelation? Striking though that initial image during the Prelude to Act I is, it seemed to sit somewhere between providing a canvas for the singers to create on and posing questions about the nature of the opera itself through its string of visual art references. Time will tell.

Colin Clarke

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