Marlies'Artbeat: Met's HD "Rigoletto" Gambles with Las Vegas Setting

Verdi's "Rigoletto" moved from its 16th Century Mantua setting to 1960's Rat-Pack Las Vegas.

I have always considered Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto a genuine operatic gem. This latest Met production is well-designed costume jewelry by comparison. That does not mean it is worthless, only worth less in persuasive emotion. But it certainly is entertaining because every one of the world-famous singers delivered splendidly, both vocally and dramatically.

Michael Mayer, the winner of many Broadway Tony Awards has given us a production that exchanges the original Duke of Mantua 16th Century setting, for a deliberately tacky version of the 1960’s  “Rat-Pack” casino world.

And for the most part it really worked. It is just when you play around with such a favorite, which even the most casual opera goer has seen/heard more than once, your audience will spend most of the time comparing this production to what it remembers of others. And that takes away from the emotional impact, the passion of the current effort.

What an effort it is! Obviously, and judging from the many interviews Mr. Mayer gave recently, he and set designer Christine Jones plus costume designer Susan Hilferty, (both with famed Broadway careers,) super-researched the “Rat Pack” era to the nth degree. Then they went forward unhampered by any censorship, so that we even get a most scantily adorned pole-dancer in the hit-man, Sparafucile’s seedy nightclub that takes the place of the conventional out-of-town inn.

Verdi (1813-1901,) and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, instead faced very powerful censors. As did Victor Hugo, on whose 1832 play Le Roy s’amuse, Rigoletto is based. Hugo’s play originally depicted the royal court of King Francis I of France but had to be reset into Austria. Verdi was forced to reduce his setting into the Dukedom of Mantua, the historically accurate House of Gonzaga, a noble line that had long ago died out.

But the story remained the same then: Rigoletto, the bitter, deformed Court Jester is cursed when siding with the lecherous Duke who employs him. Highly protective of his pious, virginal daughter, who falls in love with the fickle Duke, Rigoletto is tricked into causing her self-sacrificing demise. All because of  that powerful curse! As a matter of fact, Verdi originally named the opera La Maledizione – (The Curse.)

Composed in Verdi’s middle period, Rigoletto, after all the censorship problems had been overcome, premiered in Venice in March of 1851. The story goes, and it seems to be true, all members of the cast were forbidden to even hum the melody of the duke’s aria “La donna e mobile,” outside the opera house. Evidently this dictum was correct because, by the day after the opera premiered, the easy-to-remember aria was being whistled along Venice’s canals.  

Rigoletto caught on very quickly. It premiered in NY at the Academy of Music in 1855. It has been an absolute favorite ever since, ripe for different modern interpretations. Jonathan Miller made the duke a mafia don; another interpretation pictured it as modeled on “The Planet of the Apes.!”

One wonders whether in that case the super-titles grunted! In the Mayer version, they are completely changed into l960’s Las Vegas lingo.

As you might know, the titles at the Met, (offered in English, German, Spanish and Italian,) are displayed on the back of the seat in front of one. I was determined to find out how everything was handled in this particular case.

Persistent phone calls connected me with the actual person who pushes the button to post each title. Sam Cardea, a most articulate gentleman explained the complicated procedures needed. Seems, because the delicacy of the conductors’ or singers’ timing, a “cue caller,” and he watch monitors to determine exactly when to push that button.

I found out that in this instance the Rat-Pack lingo was indeed translated into the German and Spanish versions. The Italian titles, however, were traditional.

Part of the fairly large Title Department staff, Mr. Cardea has been at this job since 1995, the 18th season since the Met finally surrendered and gave us the wonderfully helpful titles that had become standard in other venues.

Luckily the Met cast was not forced into learning the Rat-Pack parlance. The singing was done in the original Italian so prompting obviously presented no problem. Besides, all of the famous singers were highly experienced Rigoletto veterans. And it showed.

The Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, sans the usual jester cap-and-bells-hat, and with much less obvious hunch-back deformity, made up for it via remarkable acting. Germany’s soprano Diana Damrau performed her naïve Gilda with great vocal and dramatic ease. And the tenor Piotr Beczala who comes from Poland, made the Sinatra-type Duke almost believable.

The Slovakian basso, Stefan Kocan, gave a marvelously oily reading to the hit-man, Sparafucile. To lock in the 60’s time securely, he was made to smoke on stage. (You have to wonder how an opera singer feels about having to do that.) To round out the most important characters, Oksana Volkova from Belarus, delivered the mezzo-soprano part, Maddalena, in a truly sexy way. Vocally they all were very much on target.

The immensely effective Met orchestra under the able hand of conductor Michele Mariotti gave its usually marvelous rendition of this musical classic. The singers in lesser roles were outstanding, as was the ever-to-be-relied-upon Met chorus.

Intermission interviews, always very enlightening, were in the hands of the beauteous diva Renee Fleming.

The audience did have to fill in some of the dramatic gaps.  Just what is this jester’s role? Is he the audience-warm-upper who goes on in a nightclub before the feature act?  Maybe so! When this Rigoletto thinks the duke has been murdered, he defiantly sings: “Now I am the headliner!”

Would Gilda, living in an apartment on top of the gambling casino, (most cleverly telegraphed via elevator stop lights,) be so innocently naïve?

Nevertheless, we buy it all. Verdi, with his magical music definitely succeeds, but the constant question as to whether this transposition works, truly diminishes the emotional impact of this usually extremely moving tragedy.

This Rigoletto is a wonderful experiment, which I, for one, enjoyed. But I dislike the idea that to attract a lasting audience for opera, we must “modernize” so many productions, come hell or high water. This one worked; often it does not. Maybe we should give Mr.Gelb’s fabulous creation of the HD movies a chance to accomplish that by itself. Highly popular, a huge new audience is being attracted the world over. Then again I may be wrong. Possibly modernization is the answer. Note the experience described by one of your neighbors quoted below!*


Here are some impressions from a few of your fellow Westchesterites:

*Claire Adelman of Ardsley said “as a rule, I don’t like the modernization of the operas, even if it is supposed to attract a younger audience. I hated the Traviata, but liked this Rigoletto because it made sense.  As to that younger audience attraction, I witnessed it working this afternoon! An elderly grandfather was leaving with his grandson who looked to be in his twenties. I overheard him exclaim: “Grandpa, why didn’t you tell me opera was so much fun. I loved it.”

Mattie Abler of Scarsdale said “I could not relate emotionally to this opera, because the storyline was lost in translation. The modern setting disconnects the emotional content of the original message.”

Ellen Kellermann of Tarrytown, has seen Rigoletto quite often. She said she “totally enjoyed this novel production” and thought “the voices were extraordinary no matter how they would be presented.” She expressed frustration about the difficulty of getting tickets to some of the movie HDs, hoping that in the future, when tickets sell out, additional theaters might be opened.”  

Mary Blum of Hartsdale, a well-informed opera devotee “still prefers conventional settings, but all in all, thought this production very good.” She praised the Gilda especially, but felt the Rigoletto lacked vocal strength, which may have contributed to his being slightly flat at times. She praised the tenor, but said with great enthusiasm “nothing compares to my recording of Pavarotti paired with Sutherland in their respective roles.”

Lorna Adler of Valhalla spoke very enthusiastically about this opera. It turned out that it was her first experience with it. She heartily approved of setting it in the 1960s. “I felt it belonged there.” She praised the neon sets and loved the informative intermission features.

Barbara Ames of Hartsdale obviously a person very familiar with Rigoletto, reported that she usually is very moved by this opera. “I have found myself quite teary at the end, but today, even though it is the same story, I did not feel moved at all.”

Martha Low of Tarrytown, another well-informed opera buff, said she “loved it against expectations.” She thought the voices were exceptional but questioned why the production underplayed Rigoletto’s deformity so. “It robbed him of the usually deeply felt frustrations with life at the court.” She thought this production was almost like a Broadway show and therefore may indeed be a way to capture younger audiences.

See the encore March 6th at 6:30 PM, at the WHITE PLAINS CITY CENTER 15: CINEMA DE LUX, or NEW ROCHELLE – REGAL NEW ROC CITY 18.

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