If you want a kinder, gentler "Rigoletto," this may not be the production for you. It's as if the director is examining the underbelly of the all the characters. Even Gilda, although still sympathetic, doesn't make her initial entrance as the innocent bird-like creature we're used to. That said, this production excels in every way: the performances, the conducting, the direction, the sets and costumes.
As the Duke of Mantua, Marcelo Alvarez is a revelation. His interpretation of the role has deepened since his 2001 Covent Garden performance (also on DVD) where he is essentially arrogant and full of raging hormones. Here, he's all that and more: a demonic, cruel bastard. It's the best interpretation of the Duke I've seen. (If Rudy Maxa could hear Alvarez's sarcastic and bullying rendition of "Questa o quella," he'd stop using it as the bouncy theme music for his "Smart Travels" TV show! I'll never again be able to relate to that song as fun and frivolous.) Alvarez's tenor voice just rings out throughout the opera. He sings the bel canto-style "Parmi veder" beautifully, but we can still hear his self-centeredness underneath the sentiment. And he performs "La donna e mobile" right in our faces, as if the Duke knows this tune is destined to become an opera cliché. What a brute.
Carlos Alvarez is superb as Rigoletto. I've never seen a role so well-studied. He appears to have a specific intention behind every word, every note, every move. His voice is powerful and expressive. In "Corteggiani, vil razza," by the time he gets to "Give an old man his daughter back," our heart is breaking for him. His deformity is no longer wretched for us to look at - it's just his outward physical appearance. Inside, he's just another parent suffering over a child.
I'd never heard of Inva Mula before, but she has an especially full-sounding and strong voice for a lyric soprano. She takes a different approach to Gilda. Yes, she's devoted to her father, but she's not as innocent initially as she's usually portrayed. You can tell from her first duet with Rigoletto that she wants a life of her own. I think it makes her character more realistic. She's an equal participant the lover's duet with the Duke. She's her own woman in "Caro Nome," seeming at times to flirt with the audience as if we were a stand-in for the Duke. I've never seen this famous aria performed in this way; she's no chirping bird, that's for sure. It definitely works for me. At the opera's end, the director wisely has Rigoletto lift the dying Gilda into a chair during their final duet which allows her voice to project the final moments of her life out into the audience. It makes for a riveting and powerful end to the opera.
The conductor, Lopez-Cobos, makes the right choices throughout. Two examples. The fast orchestral pace of the first scene gives the impression that events are spiraling out of control, something only the audience and Rigoletto sense by the time the scene is over. Later, the conductor's lively, "not a care in the world" orchestration upon Rigoletto first seeing Gilda is incredibly jarring after the decadent and sinister scenes that have preceded it. Lopez-Cobos' approach serves to remind us that this is an opera of stark contrasts - between love and cruelty, between goodness and depravity (Rigoletto himself manifesting all these traits at one time or another during the opera). This production presents these contrasts in the most compelling and honest manner I've seen. I don't think you'll find a better "Rigoletto" on DVD.