I've long wondered how much crossover there is between the Coliseum's audience and that of the Royal Opera House. Is it like football, with ENO as Manchester United to Covent Garden's Man City? Is it tribal, with back-combing for Bow Street and crew-cuts for St Martin's Lane? Or is it generational? Watching David McVicar's new production of Rigoletto this week, it seems that some form of club loyalty is assumed – for only in Covent Garden could this production be thought radical.
From the Mad Max-meets-Velazquez aesthetic to the mass copulation, the nudity, the rape, the oral sex and the casual violence, my overall impression of McVicar's Rigoletto was one of tired familiarity. Haven't we seen this before? Yes, we have. At ENO. Of course, it's not McVicar's fault that opera has seen more sex than Streatham Common recently, but I don't think that it adds anything to the understanding of a work that is, in the end, less about corruption than the survival of virtue. Furthermore, I suspect that were McVicar directing this for a company with a less conservative audience, he would have produced something rather more subtle.
Setting aside any gripes about the orgies and the non-singing rape victim who falls in love with her rapist (an irresponsible invention), the production looks good. Paule Constable's beautiful lighting gives a slick definition to the shadowy swagger of the courtier bully-boys, while Tanya McCallin's smuttily authentic costumes underline the image of a society on the slide. Rigoletto himself (Paulo Gavanelli) is kitted out in articulated saddlery like a deranged armadillo. The Duke of Mantua (Marcelo Alvarez) has his wide-boy character emphasised by line-backer shoulder-pads and cod-pieces dripping with bling. Michael Vale's revolving set exposes corrugated squalor behind the Duke's smoked Perspex pleasure palace. Like much of this fast-moving and energetic production, it's crude but elegantly executed – like hearing Dame Judi Dench use the c-word. But the most radical thing about this Rigoletto is the casting: an uneven but laudable attempt to blend dramatically adept and textually aware performers with the kind of big voices who can deliver the high notes.
In some ensembles it is as though members of two different casts were singing together. On the one hand there's Alvarez knocking out the legato, on the other there's Gavanelli reprising his half-sung, half-spoken Falstaff alongside tiny Straussian soprano Christine Schäfer (Gilda). Expecting Alvarez to act convincingly is like asking Tony Danza to do Hamlet, but that's not the point of tenors. He sounded good and looked wooden, so business as usual. And though Schäfer is a controversial Gilda – too intellectual, stylised and quicksilver of tone for those wanting Italianate oompf – she was the performer who stole my heart. Quite why conductor Edward Downes, who frequently took the orchestra down to an absurdly quiet level at other points of the opera, could not nurture her delicate voice during the larger numbers is beyond me, but this was not conducting that served either the singers or the orchestra or the music terribly well.
Despite my irritation with aspects of this Rigoletto, I'd still recommend seeing it. The supporting cast are superb, and the pivotal father-daughter relationship shows signs of coalescing. But I couldn't help feeling disappointed after seeing the subtlety and complexity of McVicar's Rape of Lucretia and Madama Butterfly. Any quibbles about his Kirov Macbeth were squished by recognising the dinosaur weight of anti-theatricality he was attempting to shift. Here there's no such excuse. McVicar and I are of an age, so I understand the desire to kick against tradition. Going to Covent Garden can be like going to your parents' house for Christmas: for the rest of the year you may drink, swear and smoke in moderation, but once you've stepped into that building it's 1981 all over again and piercing your nose seems like a jolly good idea. But what do you do when your parents are coming to you? That's the position our generation is in. I won't be the youngest critic for much longer. McVicar won't be the youngest director. We're growing older and growing up. McVicar may not like it, but he's part of the establishment now and it's up to him to prove that there's more to opera than a flat choice between Pavarotti and post-punk.
The changes to this year's Last Night of the Proms as a mark of respect to the victims of the New York and Washington atrocities have been heralded as marking a sea-change to an increasingly irrelevant event. Having been there for what was a slalom between sentiment and sentimentality, I share no such hope. The most striking thing was how little the atmosphere was changed: the flag-sellers were doing a roaring trade and, if you so desired, you could even purchase an inflatable hammer covered with tiny Union Jacks. A hammer! But most tickets had been pre-booked in full expectation of the usual bombastic singalong, so ignoring subtext was the order of the day (hence programming Va pensiero while Israel shelled Gaza, and Tippett's negro spirituals from A Child of Our Time while America debates slavery reparations). That John Adams's vertiginous orchestral fanfare Tromba Lontana – its two solo trumpets suspended over the orchestra like the twin towers over Manhattan – had the greatest impact was no surprise. Barber's Adagio did its heart-wrenching job, while Beethoven's Ode to Joy dazzled with the irony of human potential against the recent outrage. If only we could have left it there. To tack Jerusalem onto this was a concession of such knee-jerk conservatism as to be obscene.
'Rigoletto': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), to 8 OctoberReuse content