By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note the Met streams at their own Website www.metopera.org
Saturday, May 16
Verdi’s Rigoletto ~ 2Hrs. 31 Mins.
Starring Diana Damrau, Oksana Volkova, Piotr Beczała, and Željko Lučić, conducted by Michele Mariotti. From February 16, 2013.
Michael Mayer’s “Rat Pack Rigoletto” was first seen in the Met’s 2012–13 season. Believe it or not, it sets the action of Verdi’s masterpiece in 1960’s Las Vegas—a neon-lit world ruled by money and ruthless, powerful men (actually, not all that different from Mantua in the 16th century). Piotr Beczała is the “Duke” – now, not of Mantua – but a wealthy and popular Vegas entertainer and casino owner who is in the habit, shall we say, of getting anything he wants. Željko Lučić sings Rigoletto – now, not the Duke’s hunchback jester – but his comedian sidekick (think Don Rickles). Diana Damrau is Gilda, Rigoletto’s innocent, sheltered daughter. Dramatic bass, Štefan Kocán is the slimy assassin Sparafucile and Michele Mariotti conducts.
How to begin on this one…. it was better than I thought it would be when I first made the decision to see it live, and the sets and costumes are certainly clever, fun, and eye-popping. However, in the end, it fell for me as a serious, human tragedy. By now, you are probably aware that I am partial to more traditional (or at least, non-trashy) settings. Updating tired old productions can be wonderfully effective, but the sadly ubiquitous modern tendency to gratuitously update almost any serious opera to Nazi Germany – or some dark, dystopian fantasy land – or even to a technologically enhanced modern wonderland somehow leaves me quite cold – and often, just plain disgusted. This particular re-do uses almost as much neon as you can find down the street on Times Square and is certainly fun to look at – but just doesn’t quite work for a serious tragedy. While Beczała has a fine voice, and is convincing as a Vegas entertainer, he’s not quite convincing as the lecherous, narcissistic, degenerate-to-the-core Duke. Diana Damrau is a wonderful Gilda – in whatever setting you put her, and I have appreciated Željko Lučić as Rigoletto in both traditional and re-set productions, although here, his relationship to the “Duke” seems less fathomable.
My other niggling objection to this production, and I have seen it live twice with completely different casts, is the subtitles. In a well-intentioned, but clumsy effort to update the dialogue and shoehorn it into a Las Vegas mob vernacular (doll, babe, etc.), it moves even farther than usual from a faithful translation of the actual lyrics being sung. The language just feels wrong.
When the curtain rises, we are introduced to the Duke as he celebrates his life of pleasure with as many women as possible, and boasts that he particularly enjoys cuckolding his courtiers: “Questa o quella” (“This woman or that”- it really doesn’t matter, they’re all the same!). He tells a courtier (rat pack member?) that he has recently seen an unknown beauty in church (are you kidding me!) and desires to possess her, but first he will seduce the Countess Ceprano with whom he is flirting at the moment.
Rigoletto, the Duke’s sidekick, openly mocks the husbands of the ladies to whom the Duke is paying attention, including the Count Ceprano. He advises the Duke to get rid of him – either by throwing him in prison or just having him killed (really! – you see what I mean – a lot of this just doesn’t quite work in 20th century Vegas where they might well have had someone “convinced” to pay a gambling debt – but certainly not murdered so they could bed his wife).
At the end of this scene as it is usually presented, Count Monterone arrives at the court to denounce the Duke for having seduced his daughter – presaging Rigoletto’s own fate. This production has turned the Count, almost offensively, into an Arab gambler in traditional dress, all but marginalizing him. Monterone’s curse on both the Duke and Rigoletto, so central to the entire plot, should be understood as both serious and frightening but here is almost completely impotent (and in fact, sometimes even gets a laugh from the audience).
So, we have been introduced to the degenerate Duke and his nasty sidekick, Rigoletto, but now we learn that Rigoletto has secretly brought his daughter – his only love since his wife died – to live with him. His devotion to her, and his wish to protect her from his life on ‘the strip,’ have led to his keeping her locked away in his private rooms. She, of course, longs to see the world, but is allowed only to go out to church (Right!). As you have already guessed, she has fallen in love with a man in church she thinks is a starving student named Gaultier Maldè.
After Monterone’s disturbing curse at the casino, Rigoletto meets Sparafucile, an assassin for hire, and we hear his touching, introspective aria “Pari siamo!” (We are equally skilled – at wounding – he with a knife, I with my tongue). Returning to his rooms, Rigoletto and Gilda sing a beautiful father-daughter duet and he leaves her in the care of (an easily bribed) maid. The Duke (now dressed as Gaultier) naturally bribes his way in where he continues the seduction begun in church – not yet realizing Gilda is Rigoletto’s daughter – not that it would matter anyway. Their love duet is particularly wonderful and her aria “Caro nome” (Dearest name) after the Duke has left her, is glorious.
The remainder of this classic tragedy is absolutely filled with wonderful – and familiar – arias and duets: The Duke’s disingenuous “Ella mi fu rapita!” (She has been stolen from me) and “Parmi veder le lagrime” (I see the tears) – when his henchmen have kidnapped Gilda for him; Gilda’s “Ciel! dammi coraggio!” (God, give me courage … to tell her father she has been seduced); Gilda’s and Rigoletto’s touching “Piangi, fanciulla,” (Cry, my child…. before he hires Sparafucile to assassinate the Duke); the Duke’s famous “La donna è mobile” (Woman is fickle) – accusing women of being what he himself actually is; the fabulous Act III quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Fairest daughter of love – sung by the Duke to a prostitute while Gilda is outside listening with her father); and finally, when the planned assassination has gone horribly wrong, Gilda and Rigoletto’s “Who ingannato… colpevole fui…L’amai troppo… ora muoio per lui!” (I deceived you … I was guilty …I loved him too much … and now I die for him!)
You might want to consider taking a quick look at the neon and the splashy Las Vegas glitz of this set for the fun of it, and then mostly just listening while you get other stuff done – the cast is quite good. The listening is wonderful – much of the rest is just an unnecessary – if clever – distraction.
1. Act I, Scene 1 of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera at the Met.
2. Piotr Beczala, center, as the Duke of Mantua at the Met. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.
3. Diana Damrau as Gilda in “Rigoletto” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
4. Piotr Beczala as the Duke, Oksana Volkova as Maddalena, Željko Lucic as Rigoletto and Diana Damrau as Gilda in Act III of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
5. Diana Damrau and Zeljko Lucic in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Met. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.