Rigoletto, Grand Theatre, Leeds

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With the national opera companies of England, Scotland and Wales all opting for fewer performances this season, the UK’s subsidised opera scene outside Covent Garden is not blossoming.

The only company boasting ruddy cheeks is Opera North, which returned to its renovated home at the weekend after two years on the road. The Grand Theatre always was the most Victorian of opera houses. Its period features emerge much enhanced and the new seating is excellent. The acoustic needs further tweaking – the sound is dry and far from integrated – and there is still work to be done backstage. But at least the company is now properly equipped.

It would be nice to report that Rigoletto was equally auspicious. Sadly the maledizione (curse) that haunts Verdi’s opera was all too real on Saturday – most obviously in the indisposition of Alan Opie, one of the UK’s most esteemed baritones, whose club-footed jester lacked his customary venom. But this turned out to be the least disturbing factor in a production that plays fast and loose with Verdi.

Instead of treating each act as a continuous arc, as the composer intended, the conductor Martin André serves up a succession of hot-and-cold numbers. Vocally the performance seesaws between Rafael Rojas’s out-of-tune Duke and Henriette Bonde- Hansen’s immaculately trilled Gilda.

The staging – by Charles Edwards, a designer with pretensions as a director – turns Verdi’s Mantuan court into a dowdy Camorra headquarters of the 1980s, where the local capo, a greasy Latin thug sporting baseball cap and boxer shorts, executes summary justice.

The first scene gives Opera North’s male chorus a chance to shine, but thereafter things look increasingly blunt and clumsy. Giovanna and Maddalena are merged into one person; Rigoletto’s home is the same caravanette where Sparafucile does his dirty work. Ultimately the staging crumbles beneath its own contrivances.

Why did Opera North choose to open with a B-team Rigoletto rather than the A-team Peter Grimes scheduled for later this month? ★★☆☆☆

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