Reviewer's rating

The new production of Rigoletto, the opening opera of the 2023 Opera Holland Park season, is a triumph. Directed by Cecilia Stinton, it is set in a 1920s Oxbridge college, with echoes of feckless bright young things, tails, initiation rites, and booze. Verdi’s orgiastic court of Mantua is consequently somewhat neutered, but the transposition provides an intriguing vehicle for some of the most brilliant and dramatic music Verdi ever composed. The choreography and set were handled creatively, with an ongoing dinner party left-of-stage keeping the audience grounded in a world of wine, women, and song.

Both Gilda and Maddalena fall under the spell of the libertine Duke of Mantua. So does the audience. Who would not be wowed by ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ and almost forgive him for ‘Questa o quella’ and ‘La donna è mobile’, his scintillating credos of philandering? The role of the duke was performed with considerable panache by Alessandro Scotto di Luzio, who hit the high notes with ease and who positively glittered in ‘La donna è mobile’, probably the most famous aria in Italian opera. Stephen Gadd’s Rigoletto (baritone), in an inventive departure from Verdi’s hunchback, wore a knee brace and limped. His singing and acting were impressively sure-footed even if, somewhat surprisingly, he chose not to use the higher registers of the score, dropping down to mezza voce instead repeatedly.

Alessandro Scotto di Luzio as The Duke of Mantua and Hannah Pedley as Maddalena
Alessandro Scotto di Luzio as The Duke of Mantua and Hannah Pedley as Maddalena

While the opera is hugely demanding for the titular court jester, it is the tenor and soprano who almost invariably steal his thunder. This was true here too. If di Luzio was impressive, Alison Langer’s Gilda was quite simply magnificent. She first enters through the serried ranks of the audience, carrying a bottle of wine: would she be a party girl the worse for wear, her churchgoing notwithstanding? After all, as we discover presently, after a mere three months of cloistered living in Mantua she has already been deceiving her father by accepting the advances of a young student who, unbeknown to her, is the serenading Duke himself. Would we be treated to a radically reimagined Gilda, her secret drinking echoing the boozing of the all-licensed court of Mantua-in-Oxford? Not so. The moment Gilda sang, duetting with her father first, then her lover, and finally, solo, singing the pathos-ridden ‘Caro nome’, the audience were enthralled. A classic Gilda indeed. Alison Langer’s ‘Caro nome’ was without a doubt the outstanding moment of the night. Her exquisite soprano voice was pitched to perfection to chime seamlessly with the two solo violins that gently shadowed her. In an opera replete with so much drive, thrust, and melodious music, the delicate lyricism of ‘Caro nome’, perfectly captured by Langer, stood alone.

A further highlight of the evening was Lee Reynolds’s inspirational conducting: brilliantly energetic, yet delicate and graceful too, and attuned to the most hidden nuances of the music, letting it soar as one imagines Verdi intended all along. The City of London Sinfonia were superb in turn with, it appeared, ne’er a mistimed note. If there was just, arguably, one awkward oddity it was the playing of the opening party-music on a tinny gramophone that barely reached into the audience. In Verdi it is on-stage banda music, to set the mood key. It was drowned out here by voice and noise. That may have been the intention, but it seemed a pity to deprive the audience of it and not to launch them too into the heart of the opera from the very start.