Given his unrivalled mastery of the Italian repertory, it’s almost inexplicable that Antonio Pappano has not conducted Verdi’s perennially popular Rigoletto for nearly thirty years – not even at Covent Garden, where David McVicar’s 1991 staging has been frequently revived during his musical directorship. Now in his final seasons at the house – the Royal Opera’s loss is the LSO’s gain – he has taken the opportunity to bring his insights to bear in a new production by the director of opera, Oliver Mears, his first for Covent Garden and first in collaboration with Pappano.
Where McVicar’s priapic Mantuan courtiers indulged in fellatio, spanking and buggery – not exactly family fare – Mears’ approach is more thoughtful. Cinquecento canvases such as might have adorned the original Duke of Mantua’s walls are prominent in Simon Lima Holdsworth’s design, skilfully lit by Fabiana Piccioli. Two of them are positioned in Act 2 to suggest an incomplete triptych. Instead of completing it, or mirroring the stunning martyrdom tableau with which the show opens, the final set represents the sea and the heavens, where Rigoletto’s dying daughter Gilda seeks eternal rest. Does her redemptive death perhaps offer the hope of an extinction of the bestiality of the Mantuan court?
The scenes involving the lecherous courtiers are often the most imaginatively done. The conspirators’ account of their abduction of Gilda to the Duke is accompanied by an amusing mime, but generally the locker-room mentality is ridiculed. Parallels with King Lear, with which subject Verdi was toying at the time, are heightened by the gouging out of Monterone’s eyes.
Carlos Alvarez’s well-sung Rigoletto is suitably anguished, even if he doesn’t quite wring the withers on discovering his daughter’s murder. As often happens, the show is stolen by his daughter. Frequent reference is made to Gilda’s virginal purity. In her celebrated aria Caro nome, Lisette Oropesa succeeds in showing us both the virtuous flower and, with a flash of bare legs and an innocent roll on her bed, the sensual attraction she feels for the duplicitous duke. The extravagant ornamentation of the aria is delivered superbly, complete with real trill, yet with delicacy and subtlety. Brindley Sherratt is an aptly flinty Sparafucile, with Ramona Zaharia alluring as his sister, Maddalena.
Liparit Avetisyan is a stylish, full-throated Duke and it’s in no way to his discredit that Pappano’s accompaniment of his famous aria La donna è mobile, with its animated woodwind flecks and swagger, elicits equal admiration. Indeed, Pappano brings his signature command of textural detail and rhythmic propulsion to the whole score. It was worth the thirty-year wait.