Inspiration flowed from Verdi's pen like water from a tap when he was writing his seventeenth opera, Rigoletto.
Although he spent a long time thinking about the project, and sketches for the aria 'Caro nome' suggest that he was originally intending to include the number in his previous work, Stiffelio, the composition of the majority of the score took Verdi barely three months. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the opera is so densely packed with the most extraordinary arias and ensembles. And while these include famous items such as the Duke's canzone 'La donna è mobile', the quartet 'Bella figlia dell'amore' and Gilda's aria 'Caro nome', the composer doesn't put a foot wrong for a second in this concise and taut drama.
Any performance of the work has a lot to live up to, therefore, and sadly the Royal Opera's latest revival doesn't impress on certain fronts.
The good news is that David McVicar's production remains as atmospheric as it was on the day it was first unveiled, with Paule Constable's meticulous lighting contributing significantly to the success of the staging. The opening scene is a true bacchanal, while Rigoletto's dwelling is a suitably shadowy background for his duet with his daughter, doubling well for Sparafucile's home in Act III. The direction was largely responsible for the success of this uneven performance. McVicar traces Gilda's torn loyalties between lover and father with conviction, and Rigoletto's dual personality as a bullying jester and a vulnerable father is carefully portrayed. Both the large scale and intimate elements of the drama are catered for; it's a brilliant production.
The bad news is that the musical performance was extremely uneven. Renato Palumbo's debut at Covent Garden was not the success I had hoped for, and it is odd that an Italian conductor who knows the score of Rigoletto well (having previously performed it in Paris and Vienna) gave such a slack account of the piece. The lingering over individual words and the sudden changes of tempo mid-phrase were excessive. I've rarely heard a less chilling rendition of the prelude, which was spoilt by the decision to have the brass ignore the wide range of dynamics indicated by Verdi (not once did they play pianissimo), while 'Questa o quella' was too slow for the singer. The neoclassical dances in the opening scene lacked grace, and indeed the whole score lacked the lucid, precise, classical quality that pervades so much of the writing. The converse attribute was also absent: there was no intensity. The Rigoletto-Sparafucile duet in Act I mixes both of these qualities - highly classical in structure (as Christopher Wintle's programme note reveals) but psychologically intense - and Palumbo failed to bring out either characteristic with his tepid and sloppy conducting.
The accompaniment to the ravishing Rigoletto-Gilda duet of Act I lacked levity and was full of heavy accents; the otherwise lovely Duke-Gilda duet was marred by an irritating use of rubato in the Andantino section (something that caused problems in most of the lyric pieces throughout the evening); and the male chorus was lacklustre throughout most of the performance, especially when singing in the quiet comic style that Verdi used as a contrast to the darker colours in the score - and they weren't audible at all in the hummed offstage evocation of the wind in the final scene. In all, this was a disappointing reading of one of Verdi's greatest scores, and although Palumbo did bring some fire and excitement at times, on the whole it was a dissatisfying experience for me.
Dramatically, Franz Grundheber was faultless in the title role. He looked the part, and acted the torture of the character as convincingly as one could ever hope. However, his voice is sadly past its prime. There is still some power behind it, but all the lyricisim is gone and he has no tone for most of the big moments. Although Rigoletto does not have an aria, he is present in ten of the fourteen numbers in the score and has to carry the evening. Grundheber's stage presence is undimmed and he interprets the libretto unusually vibrantly, but he no longer has the vocal stamina to cope with this part in a big house.
The only wholly satisfying performance came from Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi (interviewed last week). Her voice knows no bounds (despite the odd forgivable ill-tuned note), sailing the heights of 'Caro nome' with ease and punching out an equally meaty tone at the bottom of her range for the final scene. The highpoint of the evening was her duet with the Duke, in which she sang the a cappella cadenza with the utmost beauty and a formidable technique. She also made the character of Gilda far more multidimensional than is often the case, playing the passionate lover and the adoring daughter with equal assurance, and she disguised herself as a boy very convincingly in the last act. This was a worthy return to London for an underrated singer.
South Korean tenor Wookung Kim's Duke was a bland character indeed, failing to portray either the aristocratic or rakish elements that motivate his actions in the drama. However, his voice really is naturally Italianate, and although he is not yet fully equipped with all the musicality and verve to completely perfect the big moments, 'Parmi veder le lagrime' showed the brilliant tone of which he is evidently capable and there was great beauty in all of his singing.
Former Young Artist Darren Jeffery was a particularly good Monterone - both physically and vocally imposing - and current Young Artist Jacques Imbrailo (interviewed in April) was an excellent Marullo. Czech mezzo Jana Sykarova made a strong impression with Maddalena's brief appearance, and Raymond Aceto was a sinister Sparafucile.
This is undoubtedly an efficient revival. However, with memories still strong of Sir Edward Downes' last appearance at the House conducting this production with an outstanding cast of Paolo Gavanelli, Piotr Beczala and Anna Netrebko, it is difficult not to be a little disappointed by the unevenness both of the conducting and some of the singing this time around.