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The scenes of medieval carousing in this production have always been noisy affairs, but the comically exaggerated whooping this time round sounded almost Neanderthal. It seems the royal court at Mantua has been reduced to the Stone Age and one half expects Fred Flintstone to walk on as one of the courtiers.
The Royal Opera describes David McVicar’s 2001 production of Rigoletto as “gritty”. In its darkness and unforgiving atmosphere it certainly is – the mood of Shakespeare’s grimmer history plays comes to mind – but there is also a hefty dollop of camp to its scenes of sex and violence that serves to undo the serious aspirations.
At this revival the severe tone was set by the Rigoletto of Franz Grundheber. The days when he could shape Verdi’s music with bel canto elegance are now gone – the higher-lying phrases are a struggle for him and hardly easy listening – but there is compensation in the fearless way he confronts the darkest corners of the character. His Rigoletto is a downtrodden Wozzeck out of his period, a raging ball of resentfulness.
In Patrizia Ciofi he has the most delicate of Gildas, a slight figure who floats the softest high notes like feathery puffs of cirrus floating in the sky. It is ironic that, as the only Italian among the principals, she also has the cloudiest diction, but in every other way she is near perfection.
In the role of the Duke of Mantua, South Korean tenor Wookyung Kim is making his Covent Garden debut. He is not a natural stage animal – this Duke was too much of a puppy for his licentiousness to be at all disturbing – but he really can sing the role. His youthful voice rang out with joie de vivre, loving the way the Duke’s music lies so high rather than sweating over it like most tenors do.
With strong performances from Raymond Aceto’s Sparafucile and Jana Sykorova’s Maddalena there are no weak links. Conductor Renato Palumbo is apt to micro-manage the score with too many fussy changes of gear, but his instincts are otherwise in the right place, energetically driving ahead an exciting – and, yes, “gritty” – performance.
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