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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Opera Review: Trunk Music

The Met rolls out its "Vegas" Rigoletto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Diana Damrau and Željko Lučić in the final scene from Michael Mayer's new Rigoletto.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
When you think about it, certain operas allow a fluidity of time and place. Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto has always been one of these. In setting the banned Victor Hugo play Le Roi s'amuse, Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave moved the story from France to 16th century Mantua. (That Italian region's noble family, the House of Gonzaga, had long died out, and wouldn't sue.) The libertine King Francois I became a safely anonymous Duke, and the opera was allowed to go forward.

That's part of the rationale for Michael Mayer's new Metropolitan Opera production of Rigoletto, which updates the action to the 1960s and uproots the whole sleazy "Mantuan" court to Las Vegas. Here, the Duke (Piotr Beczala) is a beloved lounge lizard entertainer at the center of his own cult of personality. Rigoletto (Željko Lučić) is his comic opening act and fall guy, helping the Duke maintain his bad boy street cred. Gilda (Diana Damrau) is...well, Gilda  locked in the house by her overprotective father who knows just how dangerous the street of Sin City are.

Some of Mr. Mayer's ideas are true to Piave's text. Some are inspired: putting the dead Gilda in a car trunk; the vast claustrophobic casino-like spaces on the Met stage; Sparafucile's inn as a strip club. Others are disastrous: the conversion of Monterone (Robert Pomakov) into a vengeful Arabian sheikh, the onstage "whacking" of that same character, and the elevator-action kidnapping of Gilda.

The biggest problem with this show is not on the stage. It's the newly revised, heavily altered English MET Titles. On Monday night, the helpful meaning of the Italian text for some sort of cool-daddy doublespeak that owes more to Ocean's Eleven than to Piave. (The repeated alteration of "Quel vecchio maledivami" to "That Arab cursed me" is both unnecessary and racist.)

On to the singers. All three of the principal artists have long experience in their roles. Mr.  Lučić's Rigoletto improves every time he sings it. Whether in the expressive passages of Para siamo or his three tender duets with Gilda, he remains the heart and soul of this production.  At work, he plays the jester as a nasty Don Rickles-type comic, taking repeated verbal slap shots at the Duke's collection of hockey pucks. When the devastation comes, it wreaks havoc, thanks to Mr. Lučić's uncanny blend of spoken dialogue and pure acting with the voice.  It is a towering portrait.

Mr. Beczala excelled as the Duke, with a handsome voice to match his suave onstage presence. The Polish tenor exhibited a clarion delivery with a steady upper register. He remained sure and nimble above the stave and made this sleazy entertainer an almost likable fellow. "Questa o quella" was done as a Vegas show number with fan dancers to drive the unsubtle point home. "Ella fu mi rapita" touched off an (almost) heartfelt "Possente amor." "La donna è mobile" was in its proper place, used here as a plot device and not just a hummable tune with ringing high notes at the end.

Diana Damrau's agile soprano was complemented by a fully realized, in-depth characterization of Gilda. She captured the longing and need in "Caro nome" in addition to providing the requisite pretty ornamentation. Her Gilda matures visibly in the second act, at her most moving in the long duet with Rigoletto that brings down the curtain. In Act III, as the Duke's true nature is revealed and her humiliation is complete, one sees a kind of resignation in this performance, a willingness to martyr herself for the closest thing that she's ever known to love.

The supporting cast was rock-solid, led by the deep, pliant bass of Stefan Kocán. His Sparafucile (who apparently works out of a cocktail lounge) drew the first applause of the night, with a resonant low note that he held as he slowly walked off stage left. There is a hint of incest to his close relationship with Maddalena, (Oksana Volka in her Met debut) played here as a working girl who takes a sudden shine to the Duke. In another twist, both siblings commit Gilda's murder. The courtiers Ceprano (David Crawford), Borsa (Alexander Lewis) and Marullo (Jeff Matsey) form an effective Rat Pack. Emalie Savoy (Countess Ceprano) had the best costume, a white movie-star sheath that made her look remarkably like Lana Turner.

The cast was filled with veterans, but the show was in the hands of first-time Met artists. Mr. Mayer is best known for his work on Broadway shows like Spring Awakening and American Idiot. He brought most of his creative team (Christine Jones, sets; Susan Hilferty, costumes; Kevin Adams, lighting) for that show along. They received the usual mix of bravos and boos--not a bad reception from this conservative house. In the pit, Michele Mariotti had a strong Met debut of his own, leading a punchy, incisive account of the score. Crisp rhythms and clear textures were a cut above the Met's usual Verdi playing. Mr. Mariotti employed reserve power for the big climaxes, with the storm scene and shattering finale leaving the audience stunned and (generally) appreciative.

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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.