New York Opera Review: RIGOLETTO (Metropolitan Opera)

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by Cindy Pierre on January 29, 2013

in Theater-New York


Flashing, fluorescent lights, glitzy blazers, showgirls galore, and an immodest display of drama and decadence are the background for… wait… is that Dean Martin?  No, the handsome and rakish would-be villain of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, played rapturously by tenor Piotr Beczala, is the Duke of a casino.  Set in 1960s Las Vegas, Rigoletto, a tragedy about an undeserved curse that gets fully realized, moves from Mantua, Italy to Sin City, but with mixed results.

Cindy Pierre’s Stage and Cinema review of the Met’s RIGOLETTO in NYCObviously, the Metropolitan Opera’s current production is not the only adaptation that this opera has seen. Based on Victor Hugo’s 1832 play Le Roi s’amuse, a drama set at the court of King Francois I of France,  librettist Francesco Maria Piave was already taking liberties with the original from its inception, moving Rigoletto’s story to Italy and changing the names of the characters.  Before this flamboyant interpretation by Michael Mayer at the Met, settings as diverse as Little Italy and Planet of the Apes have been utilized.  Yet, despite the slimy and disreputable behavior of the Duke towards women, which might make him and his court seem at home in Las Vegas, the relocation doesn’t always work.

Rigoletto opens with two enormous columns by set designer Christine Jones that cleverly serve as elevators which look like they belong in a Victoria’s Secret store.  Coupled with lighting designer Kevin Adam’s blood red hues and neon drinks on the backdrop, this scene lets you know right off the bat that the party has already started.

Cindy Pierre’s Stage and Cinema review of the Met’s RIGOLETTO in NYCAmid the sometimes overpowering brightness of it all, we meet the Duke, already boasting about his way with women.  Rigoletto (Željko Lucic), his hunch-backed court jester – or in this case, a Don Rickles-type Vegas comedian – makes his first appearance donning a smile and a Christmas sweater (colorful costumes by Susan Hilferty).  Lucic plays Rigoletto as an understated jokester, but establishes himself early on as a source of laughs.  All is well until Monterone (Robert Pomakov), an Arab tycoon from the desert, arrives (in the desert) to confront the Duke for a past indiscretion with his daughter.  Monterone then curses Rigoletto because the comic makes fun of him.  And here is where the setting begins to be a problem.

Cindy Pierre’s Stage and Cinema review of the Met’s RIGOLETTO in NYCThe location is Vegas, where smarmy characters who threaten you with words and cut you down with ominous glances is akin to drinking a glass of bubbly (at least, that’s what the movies suggest).  When Rigoletto is cursed, his demeanor grows heavy as he starts to lament his circumstances, but it’s difficult for the audience to take this curse – and Rigoletto’s crestfallen behavior – seriously; Las Vegas is not a small village where old wives’ tales with spooky hexes abound.  Characters that look like Marilyn Monroe and a preponderance of feathers already make it difficult for you to feel for the guy in this kitschy scene, but Rigoletto’s pain over this curse just doesn’t register.

Cindy Pierre’s Stage and Cinema review of the Met’s RIGOLETTO in NYCAlso, Rigoletto’s home life should feel like a separate entity from his work life.  His beautiful, virginal daughter, Gilda (the angelic Diana Damrau), is the apple of his eye, and spends her days praying at church.  Despite muted lighting and two, lone trees to signify warmth and a family life, her appearance and that of Rigoletto’s housekeeper, Giovanna (Maria Zifchak), still seem associated with the bright lights and big city.  In this sterile, cold setting, the gorgeous duets between Damrau and Lucic, though brilliantly executed, don’t have the same impact that they ordinarily would have.  It also doesn’t help that Rigoletto’s precious pearl seems to live right in the hotel, where all the sinning is happening. She takes the elevator up and down to what is presumably her home, but there isn’t enough of a distinction made between their modest abode and his glitzy workplace. Protect her?  I don’t think so.  Not when she seems to be right in the thick of things.

Cindy Pierre’s Stage and Cinema review of the Met’s RIGOLETTO in NYCIn desperation, Rigoletto enlists the help of Sparafucile (the slick, stylish and almost haunting Stefan Kocán), a local hitman, to rid himself of the Duke, the source of his problems.  Through some mishaps and misunderstandings, Gilda falls in love with the Duke, setting the curse in motion and making it difficult for Rigoletto to execute his plans.

In three acts and just over three hours, the creative production team, most of which make their debut in this production, put a lot of work and effort into making Las Vegas authentic, and they even make a genuine effort to illustrate the characters’ emotions.  For instance, Act Two opens with a green backdrop to signify the Duke’s envy of Rigoletto’s Gilda and the money exchange that foreshadows Act Three.  For the most part, this creative retelling is a fresh and inspired vision of the opera, but although the Las Vegas setting convinces, it becomes too much of a focal point for the production, making it more about the mixture of glamour, sleaze and stars than the story and its characters.  Sure, most of the elements of the libretto have been retained, but the repackaging doesn’t enhance or complement the material, it distracts from it.  It’s an odd thing to hear all the arias sung in Italian; you might as well adapt it to English to match the scene.

Despite some staging foibles and some emotionally empty moments, Rigoletto’s cast is comprised of highly-skilled performers and entertainers.  Some of the arias evoke a Greek chorus and serve deliciously as harbingers of doom and gloom.  The pacing is tight and the singing is phenomenal, so detractors of the setting need only close their eyes and sit back in delight. You gotta problem with that?

Cindy Pierre’s Stage and Cinema review of the Met’s RIGOLETTO in NYC

photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Metropolitan Opera in New York City
scheduled to end on May 1, 2013
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{ 1 comment }

Ellana May 3, 2013 at 7:09 pm

I had the “pleasure” to witness Michael Mayer’s new production of Rigoletto. What a failure. A joke really. Never would’ve thought that Met opera house will allow this sleazy, tasteless version on it’s stage. I understand the desire to attract younger audiences, but to turn this timeless masterpiece into a Broadway show is simply shameful. Such a disappointment. Ruined my night!

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