Of Masters and Their Fate: ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Rigoletto’ are Back in Business at the Met

Don Giovanni (Luca Pisaroni) eyes a potential conquest in Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

The Mozart Connection

It goes without saying that Verdi worshipped Shakespeare. He also revered Schiller and Hugo, and various other playwrights in between, including several of Spanish origin. Donizetti was a godsend to the young Verdi, who modeled many of his early works on that composer’s output. Rossini, too, held a warm place in the Bear of Busseto’s heart. But little is known of Mozart’s influence on the burgeoning master of Italian opera.

By the time Verdi came to write Rigoletto (1851), based on Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse (“The King Amuses Himself”), the Shakespearean influence was at its height. He had long planned to set King Lear to music, but was thwarted in his attempts by, among other things, over-ambition. (Let’s say that Verdi bit off more than he could chew.) His previous adaptation of the Bard’s Macbeth (1847), revised for an 1865 Paris premiere — with additional musical numbers and a ballet for the Witches! — soured his already morose disposition. Consequently, he dropped Old Will from his plans for the next twenty years.

So where did Mozart fit in? With the self-same Rigoletto, of course! Whether Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, were cognizant of it or not (and knowing the Maestro as we do, you can rest assured he was fully aware of what he was striving for), they put the hedonistic exploits of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s classic Spanish libertine Don Giovanni and his faithful manservant Leporello to bold and innovative use.

Rigoletto (Roberto Frontali) ponders what to do about Monterone’s curse in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Need we remind readers that French composer Charles Gounod had also tapped into the Mozartian vein (albeit in strictly musical form) by recycling, as it were, some of the Salzburg native’s musical forms — for example, the Act I sword fight between the Commendatore and the Don — into his five-act 1859 opus Faust (cf. the Act IV duel between Faust and Valentin, watched over by the fiendish Mephistopheles).

Verdi went even further than Gounod: he took the basic premise of Da Ponte’s plotline, i.e., that of a scandalous nobleman who meets his fiery end at the hands of the implacable Stone Guest (the living statue of the Commendatore himself), and flipped the narrative to “side” with the libertine. In Verdi and Piave’s hands, the nobleman in question, the debauched Duke of Mantua, comes out a “winner” in the end, whereas his pitiable jester, Rigoletto (akin to the put-upon Leporello), loses out to his own cleverness.

The many parallels between Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don and Verdi and Piave’s Duke prove, once and for all, that Italian opera owed a huge debt to the ever-evolving norms of mid-nineteenth-century European theater. In Mozart’s time (that is, the late eighteenth century), the basic aim was to please the aristocrats who financed and commissioned said works. Thus (as we learned from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus), Mozart, Salieri, and others of their ilk, were at the beck and call of the royals. It was not so different in Verdi’s time, with the possible exception of the “royals” having been substituted by the censors.

As a general rule, opera theaters in Italy (and in other countries as well) were the province of impresarios and political appointees. They ran those theaters as if they were their own private fiefdoms. And, to a certain extent, they were. To curry favor with the powers that be — be they of royal blood or aristocratic figures, to include despots, tyrants, and just plain conquerors (i.e., those of the Austrian Empire) — the men who ran the opera houses had to bow to endless pressure from above. Verdi received the brunt of their displeasure, as did Mozart and every other composer who wrote for the theater. The difference here being the (ahem) “execution” of the final product.

Masters of Deception

The Stone Guest (Stefan Kocan) is the voice doom to Don Giovanni (Pisaroni) & his servant Leporello (Abdrazakov)

Mozart, by virtue of his intelligence and clear-eyed perspective into the ways of the world, had the wherewithal to force Don Giovanni to pay for his crimes — the most egregious of which is the cold-blooded murder of the Commendatore, an elderly nobleman who dies in defense of his daughter Donna Anna’s honor. Audiences will recall that after the Commendatore’s slaying, Giovanni is thwarted, at every turn, from corrupting the morals of every woman he encounters. His failure to lure a hapless female into his clutches makes the Don that much more human, a fallible individual we can possibly relate to, if not exactly identify with (vide the #MeToo movement).

In Rigoletto, Verdi turns the table on the argument that criminals must be punished for their wanton acts of cruelty. The Duke of Mantua, in this instance, starts the opera off by boasting of a possible conquest (the unbeknownst daughter of his jester, Rigoletto). He then makes a pass at the receptive Countess Ceprano, and right in front of her husband’s presence! The music of this brief episode is “copied,” almost verbatim, from that of the Ballroom Scene that concludes Act I of Don Giovanni. The Duke’s courtiers Borsa, Marullo, and the others goad him on (so much for friends in high places), as does the acid-tongued jester, to the Count Ceprano’s annoyance.

Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda (Nadine Sierra) is wooed by a “poor student,” in actuality the Duke (Vittorio Grigolo) in disguise

When a nobleman, the Count Monterone, enters and berates the Duke for ravaging his own young daughter (an uncanny replication of the Commendatore’s denunciation), Rigoletto takes it upon himself to make light of a serious situation, one he will regret in the coming acts. Taken aback, the Count hurls down an imprecation onto both the Duke and Rigoletto’s heads. The curse (“La maledizione”) is laughed off by the Duke and his court, but the superstitious jester shudders at the thought. As a father, Rigoletto knows full well what fate has in store for him and his shuttered daughter, the innocent young Gilda, should Monterone’s curse come to pass.

In the next scene, Rigoletto meets an assassin, Sparafucile, who offers his, um, “services.” Rigoletto dismisses the criminal, but keeps his profession (and name) in mind for future use. Overly protective of his child, Rigoletto stresses to Gilda, and to her guardian Giovanna, that she must never leave their home for fear of what might occur. (Speculating for a moment, perhaps Rigoletto’s own dearly-departed wife, who he mentions in their long duet, met a similar fate; we will never know for certain.) The Duke sneaks in for a peak at the girl. Disguised as a poor student, he worms his way into Gilda’s heart, but beats a hasty retreat when Rigoletto returns.

The courtiers now appear and, in a cruel game of blind man’s bluff, they trick Rigoletto into helping them kidnap his own daughter (in fact, they tell him they are planning to abduct the Countess Ceprano). When he discovers that the joke is on him, Rigoletto remembers Monterone’s curse and rushes off into the night. The next act shows the Duke, upon learning of Gilda’s disappearance, experiences a sense of (hah-hah) remorse. He lightens up at the news that the courtiers have (gasp!) brought the girl to his bedchamber. “Oh joy,” he shouts, as he rushes off to claim of his prize.

Rigoletto, crushed and beside himself with worry, tries to cover up his concerns by pretending to be joking. Unfortunately, the jester explodes in a tirade of recriminations when he hears that Gilda is with the Duke. He surprises everyone by announcing that the girl they kidnapped is his daughter. At first raging and blustering, then sorrowful and weeping, the jester begs the heartless courtiers to let him have his daughter back. Finally, father and daughter are reunited, but his once innocent child has lost her youthful glow. Gilda is now a woman, after having been raped by the Duke. Still, she insists that she loves the man.

Meanwhile, Rigoletto fumes as thoughts of revenge fill his head, especially when Monterone is marched off to his execution before him. Here, Verdi briefly parades the old man in front of audiences to show that, yes, the innocent get punished while the guilty remain scot-free. The tender-loving father is transformed into a revenge-filled instrument of self-destruction.

The ‘Comic’ Relief

In contrast to the above, in the Act II graveyard sequence where Don Giovanni and Leporello meet up with the statue of the deceased Commendatore (how that statue got there so soon after the nobleman’s death is a mystery best left to others), both master and servant manage to cover up their shock by inviting the statue to dinner that evening. The statue nods its assent, which results in decidedly mixed reactions from Leporello and the Don: the manservant cowers in sheer terror, while the master (calling to mind the Duke of Mantua’s mocking of Monterone’s curse) waves the incident away.

In Don Giovanni’s penultimate scene (that is, unless the Epilogue happens to be cut, which, in the Met Opera’s case, thankfully did not occur), a former victim Donna Elvira, who like Gilda still loves the Don to death(!), tries to dissuade him from continuing his self-indulgent behavior pattern. The Don mocks her too, but in a gentle, carefree manner that, much to his amusement, only makes Elvira that much more determined. After several failed attempts to make Giovanni mend his ways, Elvira takes her leave, only to exit through another door after confronting the ghostly visage of the ashen-faced statue come to life.

The Don (Pisaroni) wants to get a little bit closer to Donna Elvira (Federica Lombardi) in ‘Don Giovanni’

Leporello and the Don hear the portentous knocking of their palace door (imitated, to a degree, by Rigoletto in the final act as he pounds on Sparafucile’s inn). The Don orders his servant to let the knocker in, but Leporello fears for his life, and rightly so. Unperturbed by the disturbance, the Don opens the door to admit the dreaded Stone Guest. To make a long story short, Giovanni meets his doom (and just desserts) at the literal cold, dead hand of this stone figure, with powerful music and (sometimes) offstage chorus foretelling of future horrors to come for the Hell-bound, noble-born Don.

In the brief Epilogue that follows, the remaining characters, including the surviving Leporello, line up at the foot of the stage to sing of the Don’s fate: “Questo è il fin di chi fa mal” or “This is the fate of those who do wrong.” It’s an old-fashioned yet thrillingly effective summation of the foibles of a dissipated lifestyle. The moral is conveyed in a melodious ensemble that never fails to bring down the curtain on Mozart’s masterful dramma giocoso, “a serious drama tinged, like Shakespeare, with comedy” (Lionel Salter, “Don Giovanni,” from Opera On Record, Volume One, edited by Alan Blyth, Hutchinson & Co., Publishers, 1979). Connection made!

Alas, there is no summarization as such where the luckless Rigoletto is concerned. Unlike the gentlemanly Don, our friendly neighborhood Duke launches into one of opera’s most celebrated airs, the ever-popular “La donna è mobile” (“Woman is fickle,” for lack of a better translation), the carefree cavalier’s motto (and convenient excuse) for taking untold liberties with every pretty young thing that crosses his path. “Woman is fickle, like a feather in the breeze / she can’t make up her mind! / Always sweet, with pretty face / in tears or in laughter / always lying underneath,” etc., etc. Not a pretty picture of feminine pulchritude, now, is it?

Chorus girls line up around the playboy Duke of Mantua (Vittorio Grigolo) as he performs a number at his Las Vegas nightclub

Repugnant? Yes. Abhorrent? Yes. Shameful? Oh, yes. Male chauvinist pig? Yes, indeed, and more. That’s the character as Verdi, and Hugo before him, envisioned and conceived of. In Hugo’s case, it was intended to be a faithful depiction of French King François I, which the censors made Verdi demote to a lowly duke. No matter, king or duke, the character has to be the way he is, otherwise there will be no sense of tragedy to the tale, and no drama to speak of.

Approaching the climax, Rigoletto thinks the assassin has slain the abductor of his precious daughter. When he hears the Duke’s voice from a distance, intoning his lighthearted “Woman is fickle” philosophy of life, the vengeful father is horrified to find Gilda stuffed into Sparafucile’s sack like a pocket of Idaho potatoes (in the Met’s updated Las Vegas-style production, she is placed into the trunk of a 1960s Cadillac). As she expires, the jester cries one last time: “Ah, la maledizione!”

Production Values

Don Giovanni (Luca Pisaroni) bullies Leporello (Ildar Abdrazakov) into submission

In the Met Opera’s February 16th radio broadcast of Don Giovanni, the title role was taken on by bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. His servant Leporello was sung by basso Ildar Abdrazakov. In previous performances of the work, the roles were reversed, with Pisaroni playing Leporello and Abdrazakov singing the Don. This created an interesting contrast vocally and histrionically, with the plummier-toned Abdrazakov hamming it up as the stuttering, stupefied, and constantly bedraggled manservant. Pisaroni played it straight as the Don, injecting a hearty amount of joie de vivre and love of the profligate life into his part. I missed a measure of suavity in his performance (after all, Giovanni is a nobleman, as crude as he may get), but overall both singers were comfortable in the other’s shoes and uniformly matched. Their banter and bickering were a delight, especially in the final scene.

As Donna Anna, soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen overcame a slight opaqueness to her sound to convey a woman in dire distress (where needed) whose forthright pursuit of those who commit evil deeds merited our attention. In this she proved relentless, injecting passion and drama into her scenes. I quite enjoyed the Trio of the Masks, helped along by the contributions of Federica Lombardi as the wronged Donna Elvira (a bit shaky at times, but gaining strength as the opera progressed) and debuting tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Anna’s betrothed, Don Ottavio.

De Barbeyrac, while gentle and understanding in his first act aria, “Dalla sua pace,” had problems with the long lines of “Il mio tesoro,” where he ran out of breath in midstream. This is not an easy number to pull off, we’ll have you know, requiring tremendous breath control and an absolutely, straight-as-an-arrow musical line. Most tenors speed up the pace to get through unscathed, whereas Stanislas took it at a leisurely clip.

As the newly-minted peasant couple, soprano Aida Garifullina as Zerlina and bass-baritone Brandon Cedel as Masetto were respectably pleasant and comic, as befit the needs of the score. And the booming bass of Štefan Kocán made for a bone-chilling Commendatore. He had previously assumed the part of the assassin Sparafucile when Michael Mayer’s glitzy, showbiz production of Rigoletto was new. He did not disappoint, repeating his bottomless low F in that role but cutting it short by a few seconds (he, too, ran out of breathing room).

Maddalena (Ramona Zaharia) complains to her brother, the assassin Sparafucile (Stefan Kocan) about “killing” the Duke

For the broadcast Rigoletto of February 23rd, matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo made a veritable meal out of the Duke of Mantua, holding on to high notes ad libitum and generally having the time of his life. Grigolo dominated the proceedings from the start, moving smoothly through his steps as a smarmy Sinatra-like rat packer. This boy can act! He bounced in time to the music of Act I, Scene One; serenaded the young Gilda to crooning effect in Scene Two; expressed pathos and a good deal of legato leanness in Act II (but skipped the interpolated high D in his Act I duet with Gilda); and finally sang his heart out in Act III in the previously indicated “La donna é mobile” and subsequent quartet.

The father-daughter duo was performed by baritone Roberto Frontali, who relished the Italian language and gave as good as he got vocally (barring a few stray notes and off-pitch patches); while the stratospheric Nadine Sierra proved a model Gilda, thrilling audiences with her high-flying acrobatics in the famous aria, “Caro nome,” along with bell-like soft singing in her scenes with dear old dad.

Others in the treacherous swarm of henchmen and sycophants included tenor Scott Scully as Borsa, mezzo Samantha Hankey as Countess Ceprano, Jeongcheol Cha (an excellent Don Giovanni with North Carolina Opera, by the way) as Marullo, Paul Corona as Count Ceprano, Robert Pomakov (in flowing Arab robes, mind you!) as Count Monterone, Jennifer Roderer as Giovanna, Earle Patriarco as the Guard, and Ramona Zaharia as Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena. Catherine Mieun Choi-Steckmeyer sang the few lines of the Page.

Maestro Nicola Luisotti presided over Rigoletto, while Don Giovanni was led by Cornelius Meister. The Met Opera Chorus participated in both works. The chorus truly excelled as part of the Rat Pack in the Verdi work, while contributing a lively outpouring of sound in the party sequence of Don Giovanni. The male chorus members had a field day in the concluding “Don G Goes to Hell” episode, a fiery finale as any you’ll find in the theater.

In sum, both Verdi and Mozart won out in the end, with a little bit of Shakespeare thrown in. How could it be otherwise? That the anti-heroes, the Duke and the Don, complement each other nicely (but at opposite ends of the vocal spectrum) is something to ponder over.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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