Orgy and mess

Opera - <strong>Patrick O'Connor</strong> is not shocked by a sleazy new production of <em>Rigoletto

While Verdi was at work on Rigoletto, he made sure that no one could hear in advance the aria that he was convinced would make the biggest impact, "La donna e mobile". This rollicking song in the last scene immediately became, and has remained, one of the most famous tunes in the world. Yet the new production, which opened the season at the Royal Opera House, is the first I have ever heard in which this aria drew no applause from the audience. It was not the fault of Marcelo Alvarez, who is an accomplished interpreter of the role of the libertine Duke; rather, it was the gloomy mood of the whole production, which, by that stage in the evening, had probably depressed most of the average opera-goers present.

Rigoletto is a very unpleasant story. The hunchbacked jester is an unforgiving, malevolent character, and his master, the Duke, is a serial rapist and despot. The courtiers are cruel practical-jokers, and Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter, is a young woman with courage but little imagination. To be a success in musical and dramatic terms - ever since the premiere, there have been jokes about the body in the sack in the final scene - it needs less of a sledgehammer approach than David McVicar's wallow in sleaze. The opening scene is meant to be a party with dancing; instead, we were forced to watch one of those tedious orgies, with girls shaking their breasts out of their bodices, a few same-sex flirtations and then a naked couple being doused in wine to encourage their fornication. It wasn't shocking. (We've seen it all before - the first naked orgy at the Royal Opera House was in Peter Hall's production of Moses and Aaron back in 1965.)

Michael Vales's single set has a high-mirrored wall with a broken portico doorway, which revolves to show the underbelly of society behind it, a rubbish dump of wire netting, corrugated iron and broken fences. McVicar's greatest strength lies in his detailed direction of the smaller roles: characters who have just a line or two to sing emerge as definite personalities. The fault of the production is that it does not allow the character of the Duke to progress from his light-hearted Act 1 aria "Questa o quella", through his romantic Act 2 change of heart, all leading up to the final cynicism of "La donna e mobile". Alvarez is made to play him as the same leader all the way through. Cossutta, Tagliavini, Kraus and Pavarotti, who sang the part in the old Franco Zeffirelli production, were all dangerous charmers. This Duke just seemed like a sulky brute.

Paolo Gavanelli is a magnificent Rigoletto, his singing alive with detail and expressive gradations of tone. Christine Schafer, although her voice is un-Italian in timbre, cuts such a tiny figure beside him that she makes one of the most convincing Gildas I have ever seen. On the first night, a mobile phone went off, and rang for about half a minute, at the climax of her aria "Caro nome". She looked understandably fraught. In the BBC television broadcast a few nights later, the production concentrated viewers' attention on Schafer's face and brought out a more sensitive impression.

What is Rigoletto about? In the TV interval feature, McVicar described his quest for what made Verdi angry, and the idea that there was a sort of Dickensian filth lying beneath all the pseudo-glamorous goings-on at the Duke's court. The story, however, is about hope - as portrayed by Gilda, who dies to save the no-good man she loves - and the uselessness of revenge. Act 3 is meant to take place in a tavern on the banks of the River Mincio, but here, we were just back in the rubbish dump.

Sir Edward Downes conducts with all the energy of a young man, but with a wealth of experience - he is celebrating 50 years at the Royal Opera House this season. On the opening night, the performance was relayed to a big screen in the Covent Garden piazza, where several hundred people endured a very cold evening to watch it.

Between 1971 and 1990, the Royal Opera House had regular seasons of Proms, when the stalls area was cleared of seats, and people queued up to pay a modest entrance fee and take their place near the stage. Anyone who ever attended one of these will confirm that they were among the most exciting evenings ever to take place at Covent Garden. The big screen is fine as far as it goes, but is it really too much to hope that those resilient types sitting on the cobblestones will one day be inside again, rather than out in the cold and wet?

Rigoletto is in repertory at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), until 8 October