opera review: Rigoletto English Touring Opera Sadler's Wells, London

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No wonder the censors objected to Rigoletto, with its meticulous musical and dramatic anatomy of a society sweating corruption from every pore. Perhaps the opera might have been still more telling if Verdi had been allowed to follow Victor Hugo's original plot, in which the putrescence emanates not from a mere Duke, but from a king. Still, we get the point: there is something rotten in this state. That, it has to be said, makes Rigoletto's daughter Gilda problematic, her utter virtuousness hard to swallow. Nor does Rigoletto's fondness for her seem as healthy as Verdi presumably intended. The sack in which she dies is as stifling as his love.

In Stephen Medcalf's new production for English Touring Opera (performed in Amanda Holden's translation), the cage of paternal love is graphically represented by a raised, tilted box at centre-stage. Initially curtained, this becomes the drama's focal point: the room in which Rigoletto keeps his daughter, the bedroom in which the Duke deflowers her, and the tavern in which the assassin Sparafucile plies his trade. As befits a production that visits 17 towns in three months, this is deft use of restricted space, creating three stages from one: the main stage, the tightly focused inner room, and its roof. Economy of means can be useful.

Not everything works as well. There is some funny business with characters applying make-up at a dressing table, and a chorus of seven makes the Duke's party looks like a the dansant. In every other respect, reduced resources in no way diminish the drama. In one instance, they may add something: is it penny-pinching that has Michael J Pearson doubling as Monterone and Sparafucile, or a subtle reminder that the tavern keeper is the instrument of Monterone's curse?

Perhaps trimming the orchestra is less successful in Verdi than in, say, Mozart, and at times the colour seems to have been bleached from the score. Yet conductor Martin Andre controls the pace and texture sufficiently skilfully that the listener rarely notices what is missing: the strings in particular give a good account of themselves, juddering spookily through the climactic storm. With a real air of menace, this is the production's most effective scene, unfolding in murk as dank as the opera's morality.

This was the first night of a long tour, and there were signs of nerves. Jeffrey Stewart's Duke wobbled in quieter moments, strained at the top, yet still managed to swagger. Pearson's Sparafucile was dark and menacing, while Joanna Colledge displayed a weighty mezzo voice as Maddalena. At the centre of the drama, Glenville Hargreaves's Rigoletto and Gail Pearson's Gilda were well matched. His hunchback was Laughtonesque, and the frayed edges in the voice suited the part; while her pure tone had enough substance to suggest a real woman rather than some embodiment of virtue. The production may not match the panache of Jonathan Miller's Mafia Rigoletto for English National Opera, but it's thoughtfully staged and often winningly sung. I wish it bon voyage.

n ETO's spring tour runs until 1 June. Sadler's Wells, to 24 Feb (0171- 713 6000), then Poole Arts Centre, 27 Feb to 2 Mar (01202 658222)