Updating the settings of nineteenth century works to modern times is a fairly common practice in many opera houses, particularly in Europe. So it was not at all surprising that the Metropolitan Opera’s February 16 presentation of Verdi’s Rigoletto, an 1851 work I much admire and have mentioned on numerous occasions in other posts, finally got an extreme makeover in debuting director Michael Mayer’s new production.
In this version, the story takes place in Las Vegas around the year 1960, with the action revolving around a glitzy gambling casino, and its principal characters carbon copies of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. Here, the Duke of Mantua is Ole Blue Eyes himself, with Rigoletto a cross between the acerbic Don Rickles and the razor-tongued Joey Bishop. The other courtiers – Borsa, Marullo, the Count and Countess Ceprano – are more or less operatic embodiments of Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Shirley MacLaine (or was it Marilyn Monroe?).
Of course, it’s impossible to “see” this latest venture on the radio, but one could “hear” the new story line in the singers’ voices and in their words. I’ll have to wait for the HD telecast in order to express my full opinion as to the visual qualities of this program, but for the most part (sonically speaking) what I heard I liked.
One of the more enjoyable aspects was the manner in which the conductor, a young man named Michele Mariotti, whipped the orchestra into line by coaxing a real performance out of the players. For the first time in my 45 years of listening to this work (live and in recordings), the orchestra was a real character, wholeheartedly taking part in the drama transpiring above. Mariotti made the Met’s musicians snap and crackle at every opportunity, at times speeding along ahead of the plot, at other times slowing down the pace – literally to a standstill.
Another admirable innovation (in this work, at least) was allowing the singers enough room to create an individual personality. Thus the Duke’s swagger was readily apparent, Gilda’s desperation was more prominent, and Rigoletto’s love and concern for his daughter, as well as his fear for her safety, all became part of the framework. My hat’s off to Mariotti for his accomplishment.
This was obviously the director’s plan all along, and it worked like a charm with respect to the players in the pit. However, the stage was another story. Again, judging strictly by what I heard, the singing was a mixed bag – some good, some great, others woefully inadequate. This, too, may have been part of the larger scheme of things: that is, to employ vocalists who could perform their tasks in tune to the new plot.
Still, I was disappointed in Željko Lučič’s Rigoletto. To begin with, the Serbian baritone’s voice, reminiscent of Swedish singer Ingvar Wixell in his prime, lacked Italianate warmth. It tended more toward the monotonous. His constant scooping up to notes from underneath was troublesome, while his soft singing became a bit of a chore – he strayed off pitch as often as he was flat. His contemplative approach to the role, one of opera’s greatest singing-acting challenges, while fixed to the director’s vision, did not convince me that his was a true Verdian voice. Just so readers won’t think I’m partial only to Italians, one of my favorite recorded Rigolettos is German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so there! With that said, Željko did fit into the general sonic palette outlined by Mayer. I just wasn’t at all moved by his portrayal.
As for the self-absorbed Duke, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala was the very model of a swinging sixties hipster. Strangely, he ran aground in the opera’s most famous moment, the hit tune “La donna é mobile,” running out of breath at the aria’s climax. Despite that minor faux pas, Beczala sang marvelously well throughout, his voice ringing out with abandon, the character firmly in his grip. His Act II duet with German soprano Diana Damrau was a highlight of the show. He even attempted the high D at the end, not easily produced by the way. He also gave us the Duke’s rarely heard cabaletta, “Possente amor mi chiama,” although it was shorn of the repeat.
Damrau gave a superb rendition of Gilda, with fireworks to spare in her Act II aria, “Caro nome” – you know: the one the late comedian Victor Borge used to make fun of during one of his hilarious concert recitals. Beyond the coloratura, Damrau showed real spunk in a role that’s usually too low-key to be effective. No such difficulty here. Damrau was as determined a Gilda as I’ve ever heard. She paid the ultimate price by being stuffed in the trunk of a car, Mafia-hit style.
Incidentally, this version of Rigoletto was given almost note-complete, minus a few snippets here and there (in Gilda and the Duke’s duet mostly). How much beautifully the opera plays, I thought, when it’s presented uncut as this production was. Verdi’s carefully worked out reiterations are lost when these repeats are not adhered to. They make the drama flow in an orderly and logical progression. Cutting them only draws unneeded attention, a nasty practice in the Met’s heyday but mercifully abandoned today.
Slovakian bass Štefan Kocán was a booming, low-voiced Sparafucile, who earned considerable applause for his limitless low F during the conclusion of his duet with Lučič. Otherwise, his diction was mushy. The same could be said for the Maddalena, sung by mezzo Oksana Volkova, who was fine but no more. It’s not her fault the role is so short. Besides, most Maddalena’s make their greatest impact visually anyway. The other cast members, including the excellent Giovanna of Maria Zifchak (subbing for the indisposed Edyta Kulczak), the ineffectual Monterone of Robert Pomakov (he wasn’t nearly as thunderous as he needed to be; he was more mincing instead – perhaps that was the idea?), Alexander Lewis as a pleasant sounding Borsa, Emalie Savoy as a throwaway Countess Ceprano, and David Crawford as her husband, the Count Ceprano, were supportive in their way.
While this performance had its share of surprises – the most pleasant being the reinvigorated and totally involved orchestra reading – the singers needed more time to make a fuller impact. Perhaps a few cast changes later on in the run, or at its next revival, will make this Rigoletto truly soar. For now, not even Ole Blues Eyes could hit that jackpot – ring-a-ding-ding, indeed.
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes