Rigoletto, New Theatre, Cardiff

Verdi in the White House
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The Independent Culture

Relocating well-known operas is a popular after-dinner entertainment among jaded opera-fans. Someone once came up with the Ring as a satire on London politics, with Ken Livingstone as Alberich, Niebelheim as the Circle Line, and Blair as Wotan, but (luckily) got stuck on the incestuous lovers.

By contrast, James Macdonald, whose new Rigoletto for Welsh National Opera opened in Cardiff on Friday, has pushed through his transfer of Verdi's Mantua to JFK's Washington, not noticing – or hoping his audience will overlook – the silly contradictions: the vital mechanism of the curse, for instance, or the fact that Gilda is sent off to Verona (New Jersey?), or that if Rigoletto lives in a downtown tenement, the courtier Ceprano has to as well.

It's all good fun, of course. The Oval Office (designer James Hoban, alias Robert Innes Hopkins) gets its laugh, and the Capitol is always there in the background, just in case we forget where we are. As to how Rigoletto himself fits in, only Fidel Castro knows, and he, perhaps surprisingly, doesn't feature.

A shame, this, because Macdonald proves a strong director of singers and this is an eminently watchable, musicianly Rigoletto, which, for stillness and movement (with the odd exception, like Maddalena's business with a needle during "La donna e mobile" – another after-dinner joke), maps admirably on to this wonderful score. WNO, staging the piece in Italian, has come up with singers I would happily listen to even if it were set in a sewer (hmmm...).

The young Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja has not yet learnt what to do with his hands, but so long as he keeps them in his pockets – a cool enough device for a bright young president – he can do anything he likes with a God-given voice and what seems an innate sense of style. The moment he opened his mouth for "Questa o quella", memories of a squeaky and out-of-tune prelude totally evaporated.

One could well believe that Gilda, like Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, had fallen in love just with the voice. Celena Shafer's "Caro nome" made sense of this idea. It was candid, bubbly, overexcited, exactly in tune with Macdonald's disturbing bobby-sox portrait of the girl as an over-nannied 15-year-old; but it was also marvellously controlled as she feverishly twined herself round the tenement railings.

Chen-Ye Yuan's Rigoletto was less pleasing vocally, and he lacked the grandeur to explain the sudden effect of his dismissal of the courtiers in Act II, or make the most of the final duet. It was a touching, intelligent reading none the less, made harder by the virtual suppression of the jester element after the party hats of the first scene.

Much good support, notably from Alan Fairs as a boardroom Monterone, and Anna Burford as the blonde-haired but dark-voiced Maddalena. Patrick Summers, from Houston, conducted, not always attentively to the singers' needs. There were untidy ends and some noisy detail. Rigoletto is superbly scored, but it isn't an orchestra's piece. The singers should rule.

Further performances on 9, 14 & 23 May, then on tour. New Theatre box office: 029-2087 8889. Information on 0800 328 2357 or www.wno.org.uk

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