In Oliver Mears’s new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, the curtain rises on a work of art. The stage is in deep shadow, the backdrop glowing with the rich impasto of an old master painting. Out front, and lit like a Caravaggio, the Duke of Mantua poses amid a mass of human figures in sculptural attitudes. It’s a living representation of some allegorical Renaissance swagger portrait and, as we’re about to see, this Duke is something of a connoisseur. A colossal Venus of Urbino reclines lasciviously above the Act One orgy, replaced in Act Two by an equally gigantic Rubens: Europa riding a wild-eyed bull. Anyway, it looks classy and suitably historic. The offstage band chunters away, and the audience can breathe a sigh of relief.
It could have been very different. Every opera company needs to maintain a store cupboard of accessible, revivable productions: get it right (like Jonathan Miller’s 1980s-vintage Mikado and Rigoletto at ENO) and you’re looking at guaranteed box office decades into the future. Mears’s Rigoletto replaces a 20-year-old version by Sir David McVicar — last reheated in 2018 as a sort of upmarket post-Christmas show, presumably for families who feel that traditional panto doesn’t have enough sexual violence. But hey: nice costumes. This new staging — the first opera to be directed by Mears at Covent Garden since his appointment as director of opera in 2017 — represents something of a gamble. It’s never a good look when an artistic leader slaughters a cash cow.
So Mears hedges, but he hedges skilfully, and the result generates a potent atmosphere even beyond that opening tableau. The sets are semi-abstract; the costumes (by Ilona Karas) are multi-period generic but have obviously had some money spent on them, which always goes down well with this crowd.