BWW Reviews: Metropolitan Opera's Vegas-Set RIGOLETTO Finishes 'In the Money'
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by Richard Sasanow
Full disclosure: I'm not fond of updating operas. Most of them simply don't work, because the directors appear to have a disdain for the art form or, at least, for the particular opera they're staging. They assume that trashing "Un Ballo in Maschera," "Don Giovanni" or "La Sonnambula" is the only way to get anyone under 50 into an opera house. On the other hand, Michael Mayer, the Broadway director best known for his work on the musical "Spring Awakening," seems to actually like opera and is making his splendid Metropolitan Opera debut with the bold and brassy new production of Verdi's RIGOLETTO, which opened on January 28.
Mayer's work makes a strong impression and his case for placing RIGOLETTO in 1960's Las Vegas, home of Sinatra's Rat Pack, as a modern equivalent of the corrupt Mantua of the 16th century is at least plausible. The strong contributions of Christine Jones's amusingly over-the-top sets, lighting by Kevin Adams and Susan Hilferty's costumes ranging from simple (Gilda) to authentically tacky (the entourage) help bring Mayer's concept brilliantly to life.
In Act I, for example, the backdrop of the casino emulates the Vegas Strip of the period wonderfully through a collage of neon signs and the entourage of the Duke (here, a Vegas headliner) is shown drunk and passed out in his garish penthouse in Act II. Perhaps the most fun is Act III's sleazy roadhouse owned by hitman Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena, which comes complete with a topless pole-dancer. (The choreography was by Steven Hoggett.) The backdrop has a neon sculpture that mimics the lightning of Verdi's music and outside is a big-finned Cadillac whose trunk is used for the disposal of Gilda's body. (Note: I don't know who's responsible for the new translation that appears on the Met's surtitles for this production, but it supports the stage concept wittily and well.)
None of this would work without a game cast, and the Met was blessed with a terrific trio of singers who contributed one of the company's best nights in recent memory. Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic cut an expressive figure filled with pathos as Rigoletto, rich and full voiced in his duets with his daughter Gilda and blood curdling as he addressed the entourage in "Corteggiani." (Unfortunately, Mayer didn't give him quite enough work with to support his concept of the jester as a "Don Rickles"-type comedian.)
German soprano Diana Damrau was sensational as Gilda, in turns naïve and earnest, with an exquisite voice that glittered from top to bottom. Her "Caro nome" was a model of its kind. She earned extra points for allowing herself to be dumped in the trunk of the Cadillac in Act III, before making a remarkably healthy return for her final duet with Rigoletto. A heart-throb from beginning to end, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala had all the charisma (and cruelty) this concept demands and easily tossed off all the high notes in some of the opera's most famous music, "La donna e mobile" and "Bella figlia dell'amore."
Bass Stefan Kocan, as Sparafucile, was dutifully creepy and had all the low notes to strike terror in anyone's heart. The only disappointment was mezzo Oxana Volkova, whose voice was simply not big enough for the house. This was a serious problem in Act III's "Bella figlia" ensemble, which is usually one of the highlights of the opera, but when the mezzo's voice kept disappearing under the orchestration there was a three-sided quartet.
Michele Mariotti led a taut performance from the Met's orchestra, keeping the antics on stage in sharp focus and supporting the singers admirably in the complex ensembles.
All in all, it was a wonderful evening. Yes, there are things in the production that don't work quite logically--can it be possible that Gilda doesn't recognize the Duke, a famous Vegas headliner, even if he's not wearing his tuxedo?--but it is nonetheless fun to watch and a joy to hear. And, besides, doesn't Verdi frequently beg audiences to check their sense of logic at the door and just listen to the glorious music?