There is an intriguing serendipity between the sharp dramatic irony of Verdi’s Rigoletto and Michael Mayer’s new, operatic debut production at the Met. Mayer’s transposition to 1960s Las Vegas, whilst not wholly original (Jonathon Miller did something similar at ENO in 1982), begs one to like it. The onslaught of bright colors, the slew of neon lights that bombard with intensity from the minute the curtain opens immediately produce a nostalgia for an America long dead: the hedonistic, reactionary America of the 1960s. One recalls the anxieties of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, perhaps even the assassination of JFK and the inevitable reaction: thoughts and actions steeped in freedom. It seems like the perfect time and place to set Verdi’s watershed tale of a deformed hunchback’s revenge, his daughter’s innocent lust that ends with her ultimate sacrifice, and the Duke’s licentious and selfish existence. All three characters, their stories woven together by a shared but dissimilar musical discourse, aspire to a pure state of freedom. This explains the dark and at times terrifying sound world of Rigoletto: they are trapped by it.
The singular vivifying aspect of a modern Las Vegas is its artifice. Las Vegas--like that other great American monument to plastic consumerism and stolen theatrical spectacle, Los Angeles--is merely an expensive corporate avatar protecting its inhabitants from seeing the reality of depravity; the brightly lit strip blinds those already deluded by hedonism and draws them ever further away from the real world. It is a prison cell made of bright lights. The Duke pays the electric bill and those bright neon lights now illuminate Rigoletto’s “Pari Siamo…” in a stark shade of blood red, whilst wholly pushing the raw, unbridled emotion of “Caro nome” into a world of deeper irony without any hint of adduction.
Yet the irony in this production’s failure rests not in its concept--though admittedly there were aspects of it that could have been better defined--but in its too confident (over-)reliance on the spectacle of artifice, which had it been appropriated more frugally, might have really worked. Instead, audiences around the world were left with something either half-baked or burnt, a hodgepodge of distractions at worst sterilizing and at best diluting Rigoletto’s greatest strength: the love of a father for his daughter. This is not to suggest that the ironies in Rigoletto’s failed revenge or the Duke’s shenanigans with Gilda or even her sacrifice are unimportant; but these are secondary in an opera that structurally revolves around three great duets between a father and daughter.
Perhaps that’s why Diana Damrau did not seem quite up to the challenge on this particular day. Gilda is of course an incredibly difficult role to sing, and although best-in-bel-canto Damrau had no trouble with “Caro nome,” the more dramatic scenes such as the love duet (rare in Verdi) with the Duke that follows or her second duet with Rigoletto seemed strained. The strong Verdian baritone Zeljko Lucic sang a nuanced Rigoletto, but one sensed his unease in his bright sweater (just one of the many Vegas-kitsch inspired costumes by Susan Hilferty) as he fulfilled Mayer’s vision of the jester as modern acerbic comic in Act I. Most disappointing for Lucic was his final moment with Gilda; it seemed cold and unaffecting, and one can only surmise that, whilst his sharp-edged but warm voice was certainly colored the right way, the production is to blame. After all, it’s difficult to emote when you are sitting in the open trunk of a Cadillac. There were certainly clever ways in which Kevin Adams’s lighting (far more than you see in most productions) was used in this scene, however; the neon lights would flash each time the flute played it’s famous melisma.
Pitor Beczala sang a flamboyant but insidiously charming Duke; his “La donna é mobile” was a bit strained but no matter. He sang “Parmi veder le lagrime” with superb confidence, style, and commitment. Stefan Kocan deserves mention for his slickly sung Sparafucile and for his impressively held low F. One wished for slightly more subtlety from Michele Mariotti but his was nevertheless a poignant interpretation of Verdi’s score, redeeming the production more often than not.
Circling back round then, the production's underdeveloped aspects deserve mention and pull forward to an uncomfortable conclusion. What was the significance of including the Rat Pack? Was it a perfunctory addition to legitimize setting the opera in Las Vegas? Or, was it meant to give audience members something more to relate to? And, why, why was Monterone (sung very well by Robert Pamokov) offensively converted into an Arab sheik!? These questions pointedly expose the danger in updating operas for the sake of the audience’s comfort or ability to relate: a consistent underestimation of the music’s power to move or communicate, which often leads to unevenness in presentation at the expense of lucidity. Rigoletto is an opera full of thrilling subtleties, here underestimated by a production with none.
This unevenness was not helped in the least by the issues in transmission the Met experienced during their live broadcast, and they couldn’t have come at the worst time, right as Gilda dies in her father’s arms. Alas, where does this leave us? Back at the start, with an ironic truth: that the Met has set a new standard for uneven opera.
Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera