“Rigoletto” at the Met

New York City, Metropolitan Opera
Opera in tre atti di Francesco Maria Piave, tratto da Le Roi s’amuse di Victor Hugo.
Musica di Giuseppe Verdi
Duca di Mantova PIOTR BECZALA
Sparafucile STEFAN KOCAN
La Contessa Ceprano EMALIE SAVOY
Paggio della duchessa  CATHERINE CHOI
Orchestra e Coro del Metropolitan Opera
Direttore d’orchestra Michele Mariotti
Maestro del Coro Donald Palumbo
Regia Michael Mayer
Scene Catherine Jones
Costumi Susan Hilferty
Luci Kevin Adams
Coreografie Steven Hoggett
New York City, 12 febbraio 2013
Otto Schenk’s production of Rigoletto (from 1989) is the latest casualty of the Metropolitan Opera’s systematic elimination of many of the company’s most durable hits. The ostensible goal is a greater commitment to theatrical values, with the hope of appealing to new audiences; all of the new productions have entailed uncluttered scenery, instead of picture-book literalism, as well as (coincidentally, perhaps) attractive lead singers that translate well to video, since the productions are also simulcast in high-definition to movie theaters worldwide, and later marketed commercially as DVDs.
The new
Rigoletto, which opened on 28 January, boasts a creative team of Broadway luminaries, beginning with stage director Michael Mayer, whose recent work includes the rock musicals Spring Awakening (based on Wedekind, music by Duncan Sheik) and American Idiot (music by Green Day). The design team of Christine Jones (sets), Susan Hilferty (costumes), and Kevin Adams (lights) will proceed directly from the Met to Broadway with another new musical, Hands on a Hardbody. These are solid theatrical credentials by American standards (or most others), but as far as attracting younger audiences, it must be said that the crowd at the Met on 12 February looked as grey-haired as ever.
Mayer has chosen to relocate
Rigoletto to the casinos of Las Vegas in the era of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, circa 1960. Mayer and the Met persistently describe this choice as “bold,” even though it’s not far removed from Jonathan Miller’s Rigoletto for English National Opera (in 1982), which was set in New York’s Little Italy in the 1950s; or from James McDonald’s production for Welsh National Opera (in 2002), which was set in the Kennedy White House. Mayer’s concept certainly is lively, however, and best of all, it invites impressive displays of neon. These reach a climax in the storm scene, when the lighting is choreographed, creating a visual accompaniment to the music. In this telling, the Duke is a Sinatra-style lounge singer who owns his own hotel–casino; Rigoletto is the opening act, an abrasive standup comic, dependent on the Duke’s favor for his livelihood, and Sparafucile owns a strip-club outside of town. In this historical period, the Mafia was active in Vegas, and as Miller also demonstrated with his ENO Rigoletto, American gangsters can provide a handy equivalent to Verdi’s Mantuan courtiers. Elements of violence, vendetta, corruption, and sexual exploitation do play a part in the history of the Las Vegas Strip. Easy to understand why Rigoletto would want to shield his daughter from this atmosphere.
But the stage director who strays from the original dramaturgy of an opera has an extra responsibility to think through his concept: here, Mayer has succeeded only partly. For example, in Act I, Scene 2, we learn that Rigoletto is concealing Gilda in the very same hotel–casino that’s run by the Duke and overrun by his minions. Because the courtiers must be able to spy on Rigoletto and Gilda, the scene can’t take place inside a hotel room; Mayer devises a sort of foyer between the elevator banks that flank the stage, forcing Rigoletto to bring Gilda out into the open. The sterile décor suggests that nothing was left of the budget after the neon was paid for, and although abducting Gilda by elevator instead of by ladder may be a fun idea, it comes at a cost of credibility and visual flair. In Act III, Sparafucile disposes of Gilda’s body in the trunk of a car, then gives the key to Rigoletto. Somehow it didn’t occur to Mayer that a father who’s just discovered his mortally wounded daughter might get in the car and
drive as fast as possible to the nearest doctor.
Most American critics faulted Mayer for making Monterone an Arab sheik, perhaps a plausible choice in the context of Las Vegas history, though in the libretto he’s not a foreigner but a Mantuan courtier like everyone else. Instantly, accusations of insensitivity and “political incorrectness,” a grave sin in New York, rang out in the press and on the Internet; worse yet, the sight of Monterone in a burnoose provokes laughter in the audience. Later, by setting Act II in the Duke’s penthouse, Mayer requires the Duke’s henchmen to bring Monterone there, whereupon they shoot him — as if Las Vegas hitmen typically brought their victims to Frank Sinatra’s apartment.
In a highly unusual move, the Met has reinforced the staging concept by rewriting the English titles for this production, incorporating Rat Pack slang. For the most part, this is irritating at worst: yes, one loses something when “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” becomes “You’re a pack of lousy rats,” but then, “Courtiers, you vile damned race” isn’t high poetry, either. The titles, too, elicited laughter from the audience, which disrupted the mood that Verdi and Piave sought to achieve.* In sum, Mayer and his collaborators created a colorful, evocative environment and they certainly managed to tell the story, but with uneven and sometimes inappropriate deviations along the way. Where Mayer really excelled was in eliciting detailed acting performances from individual singers.
Serbian baritone Zˇeljko Lucˇic´’s Rigoletto was much improved since I saw him in the Schenk production here two years ago. Previously he showed scant interest in the hunchback’s physicality, and Mayer doesn’t seem to have required him to do so: he walks pretty much normally. This smoother stride accompanies a smoother vocal line, and now Lucˇic´ sings with greater attention to dynamic nuance: his tender declarations to Gilda proved genuinely affecting, and the audible venom in his exchanges with the courtiers registered even more strongly. German soprano Diana Damrau, a favorite of Met audiences, offered a thoroughly winning portrayal of a besmitten adolescent, though here Hilferty’s costumes (not only conservative but also matronly) could have helped her. Singing “Caro nome” while writing in her diary, for example, Damrau established a credible character whose later distress seemed more poignant by contrast. Throughout the evening she produced a full-bodied lyric sound, never brittle or shrill even in her highest registers, with a bright agility. To this she added physical agility, managing to sing her death scene flawlessly while sprawled out of the trunk of the car. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala likewise tapped into a youthful spirit, even taking a few spins around the (anachronistic) stripper’s pole at Sparafucile’s club. It wasn’t difficult to understand how this vivacious, good-looking Duke might charm casino audiences and convent girls alike, and these charms were reinforced by those of Beczala’s voice, a gleaming clarion, always fresh and exciting.
Slovakian bass Stefan Kocán cut a lean, menacing figure as Sparafucile, and he sang with authority if not quite with the ideal heft. More troubling was mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova, from Belarus, who made her Met debut as Maddalena in this production. Tall, slender, and striking-looking, she was underpowered vocally and inaudible at key moments, including the quartet. The bass voice of Canadian Robert Pomakov lacked the sepulchral sonority to make Monterone’s lines hit their target, though he struggled valiantly to play the character despite the silly costume.Other, smaller roles yielded greater rewards, most notably the Giovanna of American mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak and the soloist courtiers, who made a far more vivid impression than their counterparts in the Schenk production did. Thanks to Hilferty’s updated costumes, you may not always be able to find Ceprano among the crowd in Act I, Scene 1, but you surely know who he is when you see him.
Principal conductor of the Teatro Communale in Bologna, Italian Michele Mariotti also made his Metropolitan debut with this production. He performed with real flair and proved especially generous to singers who wanted to hold onto notes for effect. Commanding forces as large as those of the Met, however, he drowned out several of Rigoletto’s outbursts, including the final “La maledizione,” which came out merely “La maledizi’.” The massive forces of the men’s chorus, under the direction of Donald Palumbo, sounded marvelous and seemed to enjoy playing Vegas toughs — but there were so many of them, overpopulating the stage! Even Sinatra couldn’t afford to keep all these wiseguys in tow. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
*NOTE: Met Titles are provided on little devices at each seat in the house, so that audience members have a choice of language, and the original Italian text is available (as it now is for all Italian operas, following a request from representatives of the Italian government); the program synopsis is available only in English, and it reflects Mayer’s staging concept.