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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Opera Review: Back to the Tables

The Met revives its "Las Vegas" Rigoletto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Rigoletto (Dmitri Hvorostovsky, right) explains the facts of life to
Gilda (Irina Lungu) in the Met's revival of Rigoletto. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Despite a run of strong performances last season and a wave of critical acclaim, the Metropolitan Opera's still-new Michael Mayer production of Rigoletto remains controversial. Mr. Mayer's production updates Verdi's opera to 1960s Las Vegas, transforming the Duke into a Frank Sinatra-type casino entertainer and the titular hunchbacked jester as his opening act: a painfully unfunny insult comic.

On Monday night, the production received its first revival, with new principals. Dmitri Hvorostovsky donned a balding pate and a Marty Feldman-sized prosthetic hump to play Rigoletto. The Siberian baritone (whose good looks make him a popular favorite with Met audiences) mined previously unsuspected depths of acting ability in this role. However, with the the exception of a thrilling, muttered "Para, siamo," his singing lacked heft and weight in the big heroic passages.

Mr. Hvorostovsky has been making a pilgrimage through the major Verdi baritone parts at the Met in recent years. His Rigoletto was dramatically exciting in certain moments, and acidic in "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata." However, this may have proved too much of a strain as he bellowed through "Si, vendetta tremenda", pausing between stanzas to swig a handy onstage beverage. (Whatever it was, it helped.) He was clearly straining by the end of the second act. The third act was somewhat better, but this role is just a little too large for his instrument.

Matthew Polenzani is a natural fit for the Duke, with a fresh-faced, boyish persona that allows him to carry off the impersonation of "poor student" Gualtier Malde. His two-part duet with Gilda (newcomer Irina Lungu) was a thrill of Act I and "Ella mi fu rapita" launched the second act with stylish, intelligent singing. It was good to see Mr. Polenzani take some chances with the character, inhaling an amyl nitrate "popper" before his Act II assault on Gilda and twirling 'round the stripper pole in his Act III duet with Maddalena (Oksana Volkova.) The three appearances of "La donna è mobile" were bright in tone, though a little more sweetness would be ideal.

The best part of the night was soprano Irina Lungu, a strong (and more importantly, girlish) presence as Gilda. The Russian soprano was a breath of fresh air in the refrigerated atmosphere of Mr. Mayer's casino, singing "Caro nome" with bright tone and some brilliant ornamentation. Ms. Lungu was at her most moving in the Act II finale. She also showed considerable power in that agile voice, cutting cleanly over the orchestra in the Act III quartet and the big, blustering storm trio.

The hold-over from the first cast is Stefan Kocán, firm and chilling as Sparafucile, the hit man who remains the only honest man in Vegas. Oksana Volkova was a strong, resonant Maddalena, with more than a hint of incest in her interactions with her brother. (The two commit Gilda's murder together.) Among the supporting "Rat Pack" (the Duke's courtiers) Jeffery Myers was a compassionate Marullo. Robert Pomakov was a firm, black-toned Monterone, although the portrayal (and subsequent onstage "whacking") of this figure as an Arab sheikh is still this production's queasiest moment.

Other than the sheikh (and the change of the house titles to "That Arab cursed me"...why?) Mr. Mayer's production remains a successful spin on the Verdi classic, with its neon sets and imaginative use of car trunks and kitschy hotel furniture (including some suspiciously familiar Swarovski chandeliers.)  However, the excitement would be more pronounced with a more energetic pit performance from Pablo Heras-Casado, the Spanish conductor making his house debut. He delivered sturdy leadership, but lacked emotional depth in the final scene.

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