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Friday, October 30, 2015

Opera Review: Lost Vegas

<b>The Metropolitan Opera bets on Rigoletto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Tapped out: George Gagnidze is a hapless protagonist in the Met's "Vegas" Rigoletto.
Photo by Richard Termine © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.

"You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." --Kenny Rogers, The Gambler.

The Metropolitan Opera's current production of Verdi's Rigoletto transposes opera's action to Las Vegas in the 1960s. In director Michael Mayer's mind, the Duke is a cabaret crooner, surrounded by a "rat pack" of buddies in snazzy lamé jackets. Rigoletto is his opening act, warming up the crowd with insult comedy. The Duke's palace is a casino-hotel, where the outside world exists only behind heavy green curtains. When it bowed in 2013, Mr. Mayer's vision of the opera seemed fresh. However, as Wednesday night's performance showed, this show's luck is running out.



George Gagnidze was a stolid Rigoletto, suffering grimly through his boss' depradations. However, his portrayal was bland and vocally dull, downgrading the hunchbacked jester from tragic hero to ordinary nebbish. He managed a convincing growl during "Para siamo" and was especially fine in his Act II confrontation with the Duke's rat pack. His best moment came in the final scene. As he held his murdered daughter in his arms, the tragic weight of the character finally came through

The role of the Duke lies high in the voice. His melodies are easy and charming, masking the character's sleazy nature. On Wednesday night, tenor Stephen Costello had difficulties from the start. His voice sounded thin and pinched in "Quest'o quell'a", and he strained for the high notes at the end of this short aria. He injected some light humor into his Act I duet with Gilda, but still sounded as if he was pushing his instrument or possibly under the weather.

His problems continued in Act II. Jagged sounds replaced smooth notes and his voice sounded brittle every time he went into his upper register. This problem was most apparent in "La donna è mobile," where he grated through the exposed high notes at the end of the aria. He did manage a lovely reprise at the end in the chilling moment when Rigoletto realizes that the Duke is still alive. He tossed off high notes with ease here, even singing an impressive pianissimo high note from the wings.

As Gilda, soprano Olga Peretyatko displayed impressive vocal technique and a fresh-faced innocence in her opening duet with the Duke. "Caro nome" was the real highlight, her nimble fluttering above the stave making the listener forget the sleaze of her surroundings. In the Act III quartet and following storm trio, she sang with power and agility, slicing through the orchestra as she knelt downstage. Her death scene was deeply moving and sensitively accompanied from the pit.

The best voice in this revival: bass Stefan Kocán as Sparafucile, the knife-wielding assassin who manages to be the only guy in Vegas with a sense of business ethics. His deep and resonant tones were the first vocal performance of the evening to gain applause from the house, as he held the bass pedal down for the final "Sparafuciiiile" as he slowly walked offstage. He was also impressive in the third act, and made the listener wish that this character had more music to sing.

In the pit, Pablo Heras-Casado chose weighty dynamics, slamming out the curse motive in the Prelude. While his accompaniment was subtle and engaging in the second act (the moans and sighs from the string section chronicling Gilda's offstage rape by the Duke) the momentum did not sustain across the whole opera. Particularly lacking: the storm scene where the conductor must summon the forces of hell itself through the roll of drums and crash of cymbals. The Met chorus was its usual excellent self, although the mass of jacketed hangers-on looked at times like they weren't sure of the stage directions.


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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.