The Met has been turning out productions that look like they belong in Vegas for decades. I guess that it makes a certain amount of sense that they would eventually, in the their quest for theatrical creativity that will still satisfy the rather conservative audience, come up with something that is actually set in Vegas. But while the Met’s usual goal seems to be something like The Venetian, or, hell, Cirque de Soleil (hello, Robert Lepage), this here Rigoletto is an update set in historical 1960s Vegas, which means dangerous and sleazy stuff rather than Zeffirelli’s dancing cows in Traviata. Rigoletto, a story about an absolute ruler who abducts and rapes an innocent girl, whose father then takes out a hit on him, could be dangerous and sleazy? My stars, look at what they’re doing at the Met these days. So shocking.
To be fair, the audience seemed to realize that nothing very alarming is going on in this tame, relatively entertaining production. From my seat the boos were surprisingly few. The real problem is, fairly unusually for a Met new production, some seriously mediocre music-making.
Verdi, Rigoletto. Metropolitan Opera, 1/28/2013. New production premiere directed by Michael Mayer, sets by Christine Jones, costumes by Susan Hilferty, lights by Kevin Adams, choreography by Steven Hoggett. Conducted by Michele Mariotti with Zeljko Lucic (Rigoletto), Piotr Beczala (Duke), Diana Damrau (Gilda), Stefan Kocán (Sparafucile), and Oksana Volkova (Maddalena).
Conventional opera fan wisdom had written off this production by Michael Mayer as a total train wreck before anyone even saw it. He’s a Broadway director with no opera experience, and that often goes badly. But let me say before I start to criticize it: it’s not great and has basically no emotional payoff, but it’s still pretty much watchable, and I’d take it any day over several other recent productions–Elisir, the Ring and Faust, just to name a few.
The setting is 1960’s Las Vegas, den of sin. We don’t see terribly much sin–David McVicar’s Rigoletto is far more debauched–but there are enough shiny suits to know that none of these courtiers are up to anything good. There’s about ten seconds of pole dancing at the start of Act 3, which was enough to get the audience buzzing but come on, guys, this is the modern world, it’s not much. The Duke is a vaguely shady sort of Sinatra-type singer, who apparently has his pick of the ladies (or “good-looking dolls,” as the subtitles put it) and does “Questo o quella” as an elaborate production number involving some showgirls with feathers. This is, it turns out, the most complicated aria staging in the whole production by a long shot, and the Met has helpfully put a video up on their website and you can watch it here. (Considering that Piotr Beczala is singing the Duke, here we have another sort of Pole dancing.)
Christine Jones’s sets are big and colorful and deal ably with the excess space. She alternates large spaces with smaller ones defined only by light frames–effectively so in Act 3 but more confusingly in Act 1. It uses lots of neon to decent effect, including some palm trees in Act 1 and some flashy lighting bolts in Act 3. Monterone is an Arab, supposedly an outsider, but since his introduction is right after some casino Egyptian kitsch I was unsure whether he was supposed to be taken seriously, because he looks pretty silly in those surroundings, honestly, and it robs the moment of its power. There’s clever stuff too–I liked Sparafucile and Rigoletto meeting at a sad late night bar, and the set’s elevators doors get people on and off helpfully. But there’s certain carelessness with details that gives a few bits a somewhat amateur touch. The Duke’s elaborate break-in to Rigoletto’s house by way of the garden wall makes no sense here (I’m not saying you have to do it the way the libretto says but you have to come up with some reason they’re singing what they are), and the passed out drunk chorus all waking up together just in time to sing the chorus after “Parmi veder le lagrime” (with a nice light change) is unintentionally hilarious.
This is basically a traditional Rigoletto in updated dress. The story is told fairly clearly with no major logical gaps or problems. It goes, and Rigoletto is such an expertly paced work that it never feels too slack. But the design concept and the characters never connect with each other, and the characterization is catch as catch can. Rigoletto is some kind of outsider jester figure in an ugly cardigan, but his relationship with his surroundings is never clear, and the performance here becomes a major problem (more on that in a second).
More seriously, Mayer never demands us to take the material seriously. That’s OK, but nor does he seem to find enough fun in the over-the-top nature of his setting to make it intense in a different sense either. The smartass Damon Runyon titles, which elaborate and interpolate (most memorably a line about making sure Rigoletto has enough gas in his car to get to the river, once he has Gilda’s body in the trunk) constantly take us out of the drama. The whole thing is PG at most, with no real sense of danger. (OK, Monterone gets knocked off. There’s that. But I want to see Gilda’s kidnapping for once be really frightening, not bordering on unintentional comedy. She gets stuffed into an Egyptian sarcophagus here.) For all its garish color this production is kind of bland and lacking in oomph. It entertains well enough, but it never punches you in the gut, it’s too slick and superficial for its own good. It needed a little more dirty, scary melodrama to get under our skin.
One major issue was the lack of focus in the performances and conducting. The cast is basically up their doing their standard Rigoletto characterizations, with little that connects them to the setting or each other. Also putting a lid on everything is Michele Mariotti’s tired, endlessly unexciting conducting. Seriously, he makes Richard Bonynge sound like Giulini. I was sitting in rear orchestra, which is a bad place acoustically, but I was amazed at how quiet and unexciting the whole thing sounded, with no snap or energy whatsoever. The first diminished seventh chord had no sting, slow tempos were very slow and not flexible, and fast ones had no drive. I have to wonder how Mariotti got this job with such poor results. The orchestra sounded fine, though.
The biggest casualty otherwise was Zeljko Lucic in the title role, who also seemed to be having a poor night vocally. His Rigoletto was undersung and underacted, with little stature, soul, or edge. His lyric voice has fine warm tone and he was never inaudible, but nor did he have the force or heft that would make him the main character. Something big was missing here, particularly in the seriously underwhelming “Cortigiani.” The “Si, la vendetta” triplets got away from him, but the lack of bite was more serious.
Piotr Beczala wasn’t in quite his best voice either, sounding a little congested around the middle of his range. But that’s only according to his very high standards, and his Duke was still beautifully sung, with sweet tone and fine musicality and just enough freedom of rhythm to make the character. Acting-wise he is more animated than Lucic and did everything with enthusiasm and good spirit, but at least from rear orchestra he never quite vanished into the role. He’s a little bit too much of a nice, modest sort of guy, more naturally Gualtier Maldè than Duca. One needs, strangely enough, a more self-regarding tenor here. (The second cast has Vittorio Grigolo, just saying.)
Diana Damrau was the finest actor in the cast, her Gilda a compelling portrait of insecurity, curiosity, and helplessness. This is a totally unbelievable character, but she plays up the sheltered aspect enough to make it kind of make sense. After two babies her voice has newfound warm and luster, and she’s not a tweety bird Gilda. Sometimes she sings just under or over the pitch, which irritates me a bit, but this was still a complete portrayal. If only the various performances had seemed to have a little more to do with each other! Some parts kind of work but it seem like it’s mostly by chance, at times everything falls into static park and bark.
In the smaller roles, Stefan Kocan showed excellent feeling for the concept as a greasy Sparafucile, and sang loudly enough if not particularly cavernously. I remember my friend Scott saying of the Maddalena in an old Met Rigoletto video (I believe this one), “I wonder how it feels to be the breasts of the production.” In this case the relevant body parts are the legs and they belong to Oksana Volkova but she also does a perfectly OK job singing one of the most thankless roles in Verdi.
The best thing is that I can see this production working much better with a cast and conductor that can get it together a little more. There’s no grand concept here, but it makes a big visual impression and with more energy and magnetism from the performers it would be a lot more exciting. The second cast has, as well as ideally egotistical Grigolo, super Rigoletto George Gagnidze and wonderful Lisette Oropesa as Gilda, so it might be worth checking out.
Unfortunately it also has Mariotti. Mariotti is replaced by the always adequate Marco Armiliato, who in this case should be an improvement. The inevitable HD broadcast features the first cast and will be on February 16.
But it’s ironic, isn’t it? We’d all dismissed the production when it turns out that the music should have been our concern all along.
The only photos I can find so far are just of the sets with techies and no singers, but here are a few to give you an idea of the look. All copyright Ron Berard/Metropolitan Opera.