Rigoletto at the Rome Opera

Rigoletto is such a familiar piece that directors wanting to leave their imprint on it are tempted to turn it into something grotesque, vulgar or – worse still – trivial. Not so Daniele Abbado at the Rome Opera. Although he updated the setting to the period 1943-1945 when the so-called “Italian Social Republic” was a German puppet state, this enhanced rather than detracted from the dramatic context and, while his production remained faithful in all other respects to the original, it emerged with a freshness and poignancy which made for a very satisfying evening.

In some measure this was due to the astute designs of Gianni Carluccio. Simple building structures were used to contrast the glitziness of the politicians’ playboy world with the dourness of Rigoletto’s dwelling and the sleaziness of Sparafucile’s bar. But the key to the visual impact lay as much with Carluccio’s brilliant lighting effects: clear and strong from above for the political scenes, dark and murky for the conspiratorial encounters; sombre interspersed with bright streaks from below for the domestic scenes.

As regards movement and action, Abbado reached the tragic climax in the Third Act by a process of exploring and exposing Rigoletto’s character, as if he were peeling an onion. The jester’s masks, costumes and coarse gestures were gradually put aside as the truth of his self-deception became increasingly evident; and the breadth of the social and political world was replaced by the loneliness of his isolation.

Musically, the hero of the performance was conductor Daniele Gatti. The attention to instrumental detail was not only compelling in itself but it also served to underpin every dramatic action on the stage. One felt, for example, through the wispy chords from the strings, the tense hesitancy of Rigoletto’s first meeting with Sparafucile as future assassin, and then, with their urgent staccato, the sudden increase in heart-rate, as he opens the corpse-filled sack.

Lisette Oropesa was superb as Gilda. Purity of tone was combined with agility for the coloratura passages, the softest of notes achieving as powerful a dramatic intensity as the loudest, most forthright utterances. The other principals were not in the same class. As Rigoletto, Roberto Frontali offered a fully rounded portrayal, which was deepened through interpretive phrasing and colouring, but vocally he was insufficiently dominant as the tragedy moved to its climax. Ismael Jordi, while possessing a tenor ideal for the role of the libertine Duke of Mantua, was also too subdued, both in characterisation and in sound.

One of those performances when the combined talents of conductor, director and designer eclipsed the vocal stars.