Rigoletto, Holland Park Opera

The last scene in ‘Rigoletto’ is extraordinarily powerful, but it poses a problem for those who stage it.

Gilda has been fatally stabbed, and her inert and bleeding form is concealed in a sack. As her father cuts it open and discovers her identity, she opens her eyes and launches into a vocally-demanding three-minute aria, before slumping back dead. I won’t reveal the dramatic device with which director Lindsay Posner deals with this inherent implausibility for Holland Park Opera, but it’s a brilliantly successful solution.

There’s an odd disjunction between the mock-Elizabethan pile at the back of the stage and the rough industrial-estate containers occupying the front of it, but the containers – which become miniature theatres - are where the action is. Like David McVicar’s staging for Covent Garden, this one begins with an orgy, but it’s an oddly decorous and half-hearted affair. We are in Mafia-land, with Reservoir-Dog heavies dealing drugs and fondling pole-dancers: Jaewoo Kim has appropriate swagger as the Duke, but his sweet sound lacks heft. However, when Robert Poulton makes his entry as Rigoletto, in a cap with bull’s horns and a red-paint-daubed shirt, the drama instantly catches fire: his deformity is less a physical one, more a maiming bitterness in the soul. Yet this is a very physical performance: every movement he makes, as well as every sound he utters, exudes baleful authority.

Stuart Stratford’s music direction is one of the strengths of this production, with Graeme Broadbent’s satanic Sparafucile and Julia Sporsen’s Gilda outstandingly sung; the father-daughter duets, in their shanty-town shack, wring the heart. There are just two moments when Posner makes a misjudgement and gets unwanted laughter: the Duke’s self-revelation to Gilda is clumsily staged, and the couple’s initial love-duet gets randily physical at a point when the drama demands that they still be tremulously respectful.

But the production steadily acquires majestic power. The abduction is effective, with Gilda’s absorption into the pole-dancers’ troupe a neat touch. The scene in Sparafucile’s bar – where Pavarotti, zapped by the Duke’s remote, briefly appears on tv – is cleverly conceived; the two ironically-contrasting duets – father and daughter, Duke and bar-girl – merge into one single quartet with searing force. The murder scene hits you in the gut, but the final duet takes you into the world of ‘King Lear’.