New cast strikes sparks in Met’s ground-breaking Sin City “Rigoletto”

November 13, 2013
By George Grella
Irina Lungu and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi's "Rigoletto." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Irina Lungu and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, has been clear about his ambition to bring artistically relevant new productions of the operatic repertoire to the stage. Results over the past few years have been inconsistent, but the Met’s new production of Rigoletto, which premiered in January and returned last night, is a total success and a prominent example of what the house can do at its best.

This is Rigoletto set not in Mantua but 1950s Las Vegas before it became a family vacation destination. The Duke is no aristocrat but an entertainer like Johnny Fontane, the Sinatra-esque singer from The Godfather. He’s a middling big-shot, louche and mobbed up enough to hold a loutish entourage in his sway.

Rigoletto is a modern-day jester. Played with depth and humanity by Dmitri Hvorostovsky (almost unrecognizable in a bald wig) in his role debut at the Met, he’s a hostile, sadistic comic, an unfunny and dangerous Don Rickles.

Michael Mayer’s production is visually outstanding and the set details by Christine Jones and costumes from Susan Hilferty root the opera firmly in mid-twentieth century American culture. The hipster dinner jackets, and dark green curtains in the Duke’s apartment—in the long-lost shade of swank cocktail lounge—is a brilliant update to fusty ‘traditional’ stagings and makes for a verité milieu that is a match for Verdi’s embattled humanism. What seals the deal are the innovative Met titles, translated into vernacular American English.

This Rigoletto is alive, and the cast is deep and dynamic. As the Duke, Matthew Polenzani sings beautifully and projects a character who has managed to convince himself of his own sincerity and morals, even as they change from moment to moment.

There are two other notable debuts: Pablo Heras-Casado in the pit and Irina Lungu as Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter, the object of the Duke’s lust, and the axis around which the lurid plot of sex, mockery, kidnapping, and revenge turns.

Heras-Casado gets less press than a certain other young conductor with good hair, but he is a superior musician, masterly in everything from period Schubert to contemporary music. He led the score with his typical precision and drive, and was a sympathetic accompanist to the singers, managing dynamics and tempos with flexibility and care, and shaping the all-male chorus with style.

Lungu seems on the verge of stardom. She has all the tools for Verdi: rich color, extensive range, excellent technique and real stage presence. Her “Caro nome” was a tour de force. More subtly impressive was her vocal and dramatic relationship with the other singers, especially Hvorostovsky. In the Duke’s apartment, after Rigoletto pleads for his kidnapped daughter’s return, the duet between father and daughter was affectingly intimate, the family bond fully realized.

Making that filal devotion believable is a crucial element in the reality of the drama, and nothing works in the opera without it. At that moment the audience understands Rigoletto’s shame and weakness, and how real his quest for vengeance is.

It is difficult to understand the culture of “La vendetta” from the viewpoint of a twenty-first century middle-class American. It’s an atavistic relic that belongs to foreign cultures and domestic subcultures. One of those is the criminal class, and everything about the production – the sets, clothes, the tough guy language – puts this Rigoletto inside the long shadow of the American answer to opera, the gangster film. In that context, revenge is easy to comprehend—it’s what motivated Michael Corleone to have the Vegas boss Moe Green shot in the eye.

Yet as smart as it is, the update is nothing more than clothes and props, and still requires inspired singing and acting to make the music and drama come alive.

Hvorostovsky invigorates the action with a sense of brutality that, theoretically, should be impossible in a context where beautiful singing is the primary value. But he makes it work, projecting force, desperation, vulgarity, and delivering an impassioned “Cortigiani.”

Polenzani is an ideal foil, seductive and insinuating. The action is rounded out by the superb Stefan Kocán, a confident, fascinating sociopath as the pimp and killer Sparafucile. As his enabling sister Maddalena, Oksana Volkova looked great but didn’t project consistently into the hall.

Heras-Casado keeps the music moving and Mayer’s direction keeps the principles active while the chorus stays out of the way until they are needed to sing or kidnap Gilda. Everything about the final act was top-notch, the clear, tightly organized staging matching Verdi’s music. The vocal quartet, the rapidly shifting moods, the ominous foreboding the composer creates with minimal means are even greater musically than the famous set-piece arias.

Beyond the plot, there is nothing archaic about Rigoletto, the opera where Verdi pioneers naturalism in the form. Innovative productions like this one make the plot, along with the music, as relevant as the daily news, and more deeply involving and affecting. This memorable production will shape the future opera-going experience of everyone who sees it.

Rigoletto plays at the Metropolitan Opera through December 7. 

Matthew Polenzani in Verdi's "Rigoletto." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Matthew Polenzani in Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

One Response to “New cast strikes sparks in Met’s ground-breaking Sin City “Rigoletto””

  1. Posted Dec 09, 2013 at 10:18 am by Stephanie

    I saw the first original cast in HD with Damrau as Gilda, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as the Duke, and Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic
    as Rigoletto, then I went to see the second cast live at the Met with Polenzani, Lungu and Hvorostovsky. All did a great job in the their own style except for Polenzani. He projected zero charisma, was not only stiff as a board and totally unappealing, but seemed old in the role. Beczala blew him away!