Never have I been so confused after an opera as this Met performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto. My confusion stems not from the esoteric symbolism employed by the production, nor the complexity of the music. It is, rather, a reaction to the Met audience, who at the end seemed to be celebrating with tremendous gusto one of the most ill-conceived opera productions I have ever seen. Set in 1960s Las Vegas, visually it was an absolute travesty and a slap in the face to Verdi in this, his anniversary year. Director Michael Mayer was making his operatic debut, as was set designer Christine Jones. Both have worked extensively together with great success on Broadway musicals, and it showed. Why they chose 1960s Las Vegas I simply don’t know: Jones seemed to mumble some feeble explanation during one of the intermissions, mentioning the prominence of the ‘Rat Pack’ and the mafia, which they worked into the Duke’s entourage in the production, but the link with Verdi’s masterpiece seemed not only tenuous but artificial.
The first act took place in the Duke’s casino, with all the cast dressed in 1960s American attire: glitzy dresses for the ladies, awful half-coloured/half-gold dinner jackets for the men. Elevators on either side of the stage played a prominent role, with the camera following as the lights went up or down, indicating which level the lift was on. Unsurprisingly, Sparafucile and Maddalena’s tavern in Act III was a strip club and as soon as the curtain went up for this final act, revealing a twenty-second pole-dance from a topless woman, the Met audience burst into applause, with a couple of wolf-whistles thrown in for good measure. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with nudity in opera, but why are so many directors absolutely intent on including strip clubs in their productions at every possible opportunity? Another tired element, used so frequently in ‘modern’, ‘edgy’ productions is the inclusion of a car onstage – it’s almost become a cliché now - and sure enough, this appeared in Act III, providing Gilda’s resting place. The neon lighting that featured in all three acts was only put to good use in the storm of the final act, where it represented the lightning flashing across from left to right. The rest of the time it was distracting, as were the appalling Americanized subtitles which included “Back off, fella”, and references to women as “dolls”, as well as a host of other 1960s Americanisms. In short, this was Rigoletto, ‘Uncle-Sam-style’, and what a mess what it was.
Mayer had also decided, as far as I could see, that Rigoletto was not a deformed hunchback. Yes, I know that Verdi hadn’t originally intended the character to be a hunchback at all, and that Rigoletto’s deformity was actually the result of Marzari and the Italian government of the time, but nevertheless, this is an intrinsic part of the character in the opera, for while he jeers at others, he is in turn jeered at for his condition. It is this, among other traits, that elicits some sympathy from the audience. Zeljko Lucic took on the title role of Rigoletto, dressed in hideous cardigans, including a bright red one with orange and red diamonds on it, yet I don’t think I can recall having ever seen a more monochrome interpretation of this rich, multi-faceted character. Lucic played the entire role as a snarling, grumpy old man. Rigoletto the joker of the first act was nowhere to be seen; Rigoletto the distraught, desperate father pleading with the Duke’s men in Act II was absent; even Rigoletto the crest-fallen father, holding his dying daughter in his arms at the conclusion was non-existent. Literally his entire portrayal was that of a grumpy old man, and he demonstrated almost no understanding of or empathy with this complex figure. One might be more forgiving if his singing had been excellent, but it wasn’t. By the time we reached that exquisitely tender duet between Rigoletto and Gilda in the second scene of Act I, “Ah! Veglia, o donna”, he was already sounding tired and the voice continued to sound worn in the remaining two acts. More seriously, however, intonation was a problem, and there were just too many flat notes to ignore. It’s a demanding role, of course, but Lucic failed to meet the stamina required.
The singing of the other two main characters was the only saving grace of the whole evening. I’ve admired the German soprano Diana Damrau for some time, but have found she doesn’t always deliver the goods vocally and her acting is sometimes rather exaggerated. Here, however, she produced some of the best singing I have ever heard from her and she portrayed Gilda’s innocent, girlish behaviour down to a tee. Damrau’s coloratura has progressed beautifully over the years, and every phrase of “Gualtier Maldè!... Caro nome” was skilfully and naturally shaped, aided by absolutely perfect intonation, and no sign of strain, even when lying down and singing in the highest tessitura. She was dressed in what appeared to be a garish, brilliant-blue maternity dress for much of the opera, thanks to costume designer Susan Hilferty, another key part of the Mayer-Jones team.
Piotr Beczala made a magnificent Duke. I have yet to see this remarkable singer in a sub-par performance. He must be one the finest tenors in the business: the voice is just so well supported that one never doubts whether he will successfully hit the top notes. He managed to sustain the top Bs at the end of each occurrence of “La donna è mobile” with staggering ease, and the final top B of the last statement, sung offstage towards the very end of the opera, must have lasted almost ten seconds! What a shame it was that when onstage, he was compelled to ape the style of the ‘Rat Pack’, delivering “Questa o quella” while dressed in a white dinner jacket and clutching a 1960s-style white microphone – a feast for the ears, but not for the eyes.
The relatively minor roles of Sparafucile and Maddalena were also well sung by Stefan Kocán and a scantily-clad Oksana Volkova. Kocán in particular excelled in this role, revelling in its lower–tessitura passages, while Volkova’s ‘come hither’ looks and gestures suited her seductive character perfectly. Less perfect was Michele Mariotti’s conducting, which pulled the score about unnecessarily at times, and which threatened the stability of the ensemble in some places, such as the Act III stormy trio between Gilda, Maddalena and Sparafucile. The orchestra sounded its usual, brilliant self, and the chorus sounded well prepared, although there was some stomach-churning over-acting, too often resembling Sondheim rather than Verdi.
This was one for the Americans then, but certainly not for me.
Photographs © Ken Howard