Met’s Rat Pack “Rigoletto” gives us Vegas minus the Viva
The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, which opened at the house on Monday, is a sorry thing. In point of fact, there is little “new” about Michael Mayer’s staging: it is a dreary, conventional park-and-bark show, in which singers by and large plant themselves stage center, at the footlights, and address their lines with great urgency to the conductor. Verdi surely had something different in mind when he described Rigoletto as “a long series of duets.” Then again, at the Met on Monday evening, Verdi seemed only a peripheral concern.
Director Mayer did choose to move the opera’s timeframe forward to Las Vegas at the time of the Rat Pack, a decadent, corrupt time and place, he told The New York Times, much like sixteenth-century Mantua (the setting in Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto) or the court of François I, the title character of Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse, on which Rigoletto is based.
There is nothing inherently wrong with updated stagings. Mayer’s conceit, though, removes a crucial layer of irony. The members of the Rat Pack are here presented in their brazen personas as thugs and lushes, whereas Verdi and Hugo’s lords claimed divine sanction, basked in the reflected prestige of artists and intellectuals, and, yes, blithely indulged their private and civic vices.
The jester here is a two-bit casino comic in the entourage of a lounge-lizard Duke and his louche, bibulous hangers-on. What’s more, the 1960s setting leads the director badly astray in his presentation of Monterone, the outraged father mocked by Rigoletto who, in thunderous words and music recalling Mozart’s Commendatore, calls down a curse on the jester. In a despicable bit of ethnic profiling, Mayer depicts Monterone as an Arab sheikh. The choice manages to be both racist and laughably ingenuous: wrath and vengefulness, after all, are human stains, hardly specific to a single group (Monterone is the only character on stage with a discernible national identity); and honor-based societies most often take out their murderous fury on women, not their alleged seducers.
In musical terms, this Rigoletto is somewhat more successful. Apart from his unfortunate tendency to dawdle and to interpolate harmonically dubious high notes, Željko Lučič is a vocally irreproachable Rigoletto, singing with satiny legato, handling the role’s killer range with insolent, even astonishing ease, and delivering the text with the clarity and emotional depth of a great Shakespearean. Lučič’s acting in this staging differs very little from what he served up in the last, tragically awful revival of the old Otto Schenk staging in 2011: rough-and-ready, semaphore-style gestures suited to the Arena di Verona, perhaps, but not to a company that so strenuously markets itself as a bastion of theatrical vitality.
Diana Damrau is an artist of pith and intelligence, and it is painful to watch her Gidget-like twitching and scampering about the stage in this production. Her timbre is richer and her Italian enunciation markedly better than in seasons past, and her singing, apart from some intrusive gasps in Caro nome, is almost uniformly ravishing. She summons an opalescent pianissimo as she bids her father farewell in Act I; and in the final scene, in the trunk of a Cadillac with the name “Sparafucile” on its vanity plate, still manages to rise to tragic, heartrending heights in Lassù in cielo.
In this production, Sparafucile presides over a downmarket bordello complete with pole dancer. Štefan Kocán exudes oily allure as the assassin, slinking and slithering with a serpent’s lethal grace. Kocán applies himself nimbly and gracefully to every vocal aspect of the role, garnering well-earned applause for his final note in the Act I duet with Rigoletto, low, resounding, and held spectacularly long.
Piotr Beczala as the Duke sounded stretched beyond his vocal limits in the highest reaches of his duet with Gilda and La donna è mobile. His basic sound is dapper, with a fine edge that allows it to penetrate in a large house, but it lacks the liquid quality and morbidezza of supreme importance in Italian music. His Questa o quella, delivered as a nightclub number in the midst of shimmying chorus girls, is neatly done, and he ably captures the Duke’s genial and fundamentally blank appeal.
Oksana Volkova sings well and vamps and sways predictably as a tiki-lounge-style Maddalena—in this show, surely the most ungrateful of debut roles. All of the smaller parts are strongly cast: young Emalie Savoy, lately a searing Fiordiligi in the Met-Juilliard Così fan tutte, is a lovely Countess Ceprano, here got up à la Marilyn; Robert Pomakov does what he can with the staging’s hatefully drawn Monterone. Alexander Lewis, Jeff Mattsey, David Crawford, Maria Zifchak, Catherine Choi, and Earle Patriarco all add telling bits.
The evening’s proceedings were undermined by the weak conducting of Michele Mariotti, who dutifully caters to his singers’ many whims and makes of Verdi’s seething, sinewy score a shapeless mass of rum-ti-tums and oom-pah-pahs.
Christine Jones’s scenic designs in the First and Third Acts are set against a neon backdrop that appears to spew more wattage than the genuine Las Vegas Strip. The sets, along with costuming by Susan Hilferty, have a lurid charm that will do nicely should the Met ever decide to mount Guys and Dolls. Kevin Adams’ lighting, expertly wrought, is in line with the rest of the production: he predictably floods the stage in red after Monterone is rubbed out and Rigoletto swears to take bloody revenge on the Duke.
The men of Donald Palumbo’s chorus perform Zitti zitti with hellish comic zest, and Steven Hoggett’s choreography is your basic bump-and-grind routine. The staging has a few meta-operatic frills: Met chandeliers in the Duke’s penthouse, an Aida-style mummy coffin for Gilda’s abduction. What point they might have is not evident. As Marullo sings in Act II, “Povero Rigoletto.”
Rigoletto runs through May 1. It will be broadcast as part of the Met’s Live in HD series on Saturday, February 16, with encore showings on March 6 (U.S.) and April 6, 8, and 24 (Canada). Lisette Oropesa, Vittorio Grigolo, and George Gagnidze portray Gilda, the Duke, and Rigoletto in the April and May performances, and Marco Armiliato conducts. metoperafamily.org; 212-362-6000.