Met takes a bet on a new Rigoletto

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.

Dates and tickets here.

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.

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  1. Maddalena may be a thankless role, but she's Amneris compared to my nominee for worst ostensibly 'major' Verdi mezzo role: Federica in 'Luisa Miller.'
    PS Did Beczala sound somewhat pitch-challenged to you in the house? He did to me on the Met webstream, concerned me a bit actually.

  2. I see your point re: Federica, but at least she's in more than one act!

    Beczala's pitch sounded OK to me but the tone was on the cloudy and swallowed side at times, which could have come across as such on the airwaves.

  3. I thought Mariotti's conducting was the strongest part of the evening. Light parts had a nice delicacy, there was energy and tension, the Met strings were singing – as they don't do much anymore.

    Mariotti's background is bel canto – he's a child of Rossini's Pesaro. I believe you may have expressed previously that bel canto is not your thing. There was a ton of bel canto influence in his conducting last night. The overall effect, to me at least, was gorgeous.

    If you lean more towards Wagner (which I don't) than bel canto, I can see how Mariotti's conducting could drive you crazy.

    Marco Armiliato is conducting the second run.

  4. Yep, drive me crazy is a pretty good description. When the production was already suffering from a gravity deficit, conducting like Rossini didn't seem like the most welcome addition. I didn't think it was particularly gorgeous, it sounded like a rehearsal where everyone was tired. Rossini should be conducted like Rossini and Verdi like Verdi, if you ask me.

    You're right about Armiliato (a conductor who makes ALL of our pulses race, right?), I will have to correct above.

  5. I think the most thankless Verdi role is the page in this opera… It's barely even a role! Good review, though.

    I also hear this production is relatively choreographed. Does it work?

  6. My concern with the production is that so much build up was on the novelty value of the production itself. The music and the fantastic cast, bizarrely, got pushed to the side when promoting this production. Michael Mayer is certainly getting a lot of mileage out of this (I think 60 minutes is going to mention it).
    But the novelty value is going to wear off eventually and I don't see how this will continue to fill seats for next season without an equally strong cast.
    I actually liked Un Ballo more. Alden, I felt, at least a vision or a concept that he wanted to explore with the theme of Icarus and using it to highlight Gustavo's hubris.
    This production feels, however, like basically, they moved everything to the 60s Las Vegas and that's it. It doesn't really highlight anything within the opera or have a voice of its own besides changing some costumes and backgrounds around.

    But maybe, the Met audience is to blame for this as well. The Met administration is constantly being pulled backwards and forwards, with
    fans demanding new productions and others demanding traditional productions.
    In the end, the opera that the Met ends up producing is a watered-down compromise, which doesn't really satisfy either party.

  7. Took me a while to stop laughing about the "Pole dancing" crack. Perfect!
    Listening to the first act only on the Met stream, long enough to be happy for the return of Diana Damrau. But it seemed like the Count Monterone was all over the place pitch-wise. BTW, all this "rat pack" stuff…does anyone remember that the original rat pack was a group of actors in New York headed by Humphrey Bogart in the late 40's? Perhaps that's why the concept falls apart. BTW if you really want an "interesting" production check out the Traviata done in Brussels last fall and available on Yikes!!!

    Looking forward to seeing it on Monday.

  8. I saw it on the 31st. No boos that night. In fact, the audience reacted very positively. VERY POSITIVELY. I've seen every production this season so far and it was clearly among the audience favorites. They should redo all the dinosaurs in Vegas: Travatore, Turendot, Aida, La Boheme, all of them. And Carmen as well, which I saw last night. Pretty good. But it would be better in Vegas. Maybe she lives in a Vegas trailer park and works as a hooker at The Bellagio.

  9. What is the problem at the Met? After last season's sublime Anna Bolena, the string of disastrous productions from the embarrassingly ghastly Tempest to the wooden L'Elisir, Carmen, and Aida looks like a dismal new trend. The Met has even accomplished the impossible, a Don Giovanni so dull as to be deadlier than a marble statue. Spectacular individual performances are pitched against miserably amateurish disasters as in today's Giulio Cesare. What is the problem? Is it payscale? The budget? The HVAC?

  10. I loved this production. I saw the original cast in the HD version,and all cast members were superb. I also went to see the Lungu, Polenzani, Hvorostovosky version live at the Met. Polenzani was the only disappointment. He seemed old in character without any youth or charisma.

    The bottom line is, does the production enhance the story or detract from it? I think it totally enhances it and works!