OPERA / Playing the fool: Rigoletto - Leeds Grand

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When Patrick Mason's staging of Rigoletto reached Leeds in May, it was severely hampered by illness. It is now revived with a new conductor, Paul Daniel, and a largely new cast; and, after a rocky start and muted first act, it again delivered the goods in the end.

The opera began with some lax brass ensemble, but the players soon redeemed themselves: cello and oboe solos gave particular delight in Verdi's chamber-like textures, and the shapely accompaniments were lovingly controlled by Daniel, who also allowed the orchestra to let fly at the big moments without covering the voices.

The conception of the opening scene remains difficult to grasp. Joe Vanek's set is routinely ugly and the costumes modishly mix up periods while remaining mostly monochrome, bar a display of red braces and Rigoletto's scarlet gloves. Some suggestive architectural grotesques apart, the ambience is not one in which a court jester is a remotely credible figure. Worse are the lacunae in the action: for long moments the cast stands still and Mason seems to have run out of ideas. Why not do what libretto and music suggest: organise some dancing? The programme credits a choreographer, but it is hard to see why. The set broods tragically, but Verdi's rich irony would be better served by an opening in the comic spirit.

The sets function effectively in the abduction scene and the final act, where Gilda unforgettably gropes her way to her doom through mist; Paul Pyant's lighting then evokes the sinister river and savage rain and thunder which coordinate with the music for a climax of the grandest pathos.

The cast, like the orchestra and the direction, improved steadily during the evening, led by Rosa Mannion's beautifully sung Gilda. Her adventurous response to the harsh regime of isolation inflicted by her father is more credible than the usual virginal interpretation of the role; the voice is not enormous but it is sensuously appealing and finely controlled. Michael Lewis brings out Rigoletto's cruelty but is less successful in attracting sympathy. His attack seemed sometimes insecure: no doubt this will improve. But he lacked the stage presence to create the sense of self-belief (actually self-delusion) which makes Rigoletto a tragic figure. David Maxwell Anderson's Duke seems less ingratiating than in May, and he showed a malign tendency to shout from the throat; but this remains a finely acted performance and one capable of real vocal excitement. Yvonne Howard as Maddalena and Clive Bayley as a cadaverous Sparafucile complete the principal roles; Donald Adams was a powerful Monterone but was made to hurry his music, weakening its intended and nearly supernatural effect.

Also 9, 16 Oct at Leeds Grand (0532 459351) and on tour.

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