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Verdi Rigoletto, Royal Opera House

The passing of La Stupenda, Dame Joan Sutherland, cast a long dark shadow over the evening and maybe it was that which gave this revival of Verdi’s Rigoletto (Gilda was one of many roles she famously sang at Covent Garden) an added frisson of commitment and excitement.

That and the young conductor in the pit – Dan Ettinger – whose auspicious debut in this house rained down the fire and brimstone and reckless urgency of a world teetering on the brink of collapse.

That’s how David McVicar portrays the court at Mantua. Against crumbling stone walls and centuries of decay, a façade of cold distressed steel and perspex (Michael Vale) is set precariously off-kilter spilling out the roaring courtiers and whores in various states of period undress. The clash of now and then gives the sordid underbelly of this piece real immediacy. Pretty it ain’t.

Rigoletto (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) enters, a scaly leather beetle, his crutches wielded like pincers, his mouth spewing venom at everyone’s expense – including his own. Hvorostovsky quickly shows us much more of the pain that lurks beneath, though, and this wonderful singer – master of the long legato – unrecognisable physically but unmistakable vocally, colludes with Verdi to show us the misguided father whose love imprisons his daughter Gilda (Patrizia Ciofi). Their duets together exude tenderness but when Rigoletto’s dark heart turns to vengeance his humanity deserts him. It is at these moments that Hvorostovsky pushes his lyric baritone to unsettling extremes, the terrible bitterness of his cry of “Joy” over the dead body be believes to be the Duke as painful as it is chilling.

Patrizia Ciofi’s Gilda doesn’t quite nail everything this time around: one or two placings above the stave are a little sour and she goes for the high E-flat in the vendetta duet and almost doesn’t deliver it. But stylistically she is the business, the ideal blend of sweetness and Italianate plangency with every ecstatic phrase of coloratura in “Caro nome” meaning something.

With Wookyung Kim’s Duke the style is more applied or “coached” and despite the lovely sound, so smoothly produced over the whole range, he does seem slightly counterfeit and, though hardly his fault, not at all credible or comfortable as the hateful womanising playboy. It’s like he’s come to the wrong address.

But even so, an exciting, dashingly conducted, evening and a whisker short of a fifth star.