Giuseppe Verdi – Rigoletto - New York Metropolitan Opera Live in HD at FACT Liverpool.
This new production of Rigoletto, which opened on 28th January 2013, has been made for the Met by Michel Mayer, a broadway director making his first venture onto the opera stage. The Met told him that they were happy with the opera being reset in a new location and era as long as it followed the original plot line scene by scene.
Mayer took the decision of moving the action from 16th Century Mantua to 1960s Las Vegas, on the basis that he felt many of the characters and plot drivers translated well from one to the other, the Vegas of the Rat Pack mirroring many of the same decadent and immoral aspects of society.
The scene is set in and around a casino, owned by the Duke, and many of the characters are modelled on specific individuals from the Rat Pack era.
In the opening act, surrounded by gaming tables and wall to wall neon, Piotr Beczala’s Duke delivers “Questa o quella” singing into a prop microphone, to the delight of the casino customers. In the scene where Gilda is abducted she is carted off stage in an Egyptian style sarcophagus which had earlier carried a cabaret artist into the casino and when, in the final act, she is delivered to her father on the verge of death she has been bundled into the boot of a car.
There are some stunning vocal performances from this excellent cast, most notable among which are Željko Lučić as Rigoletto and Diana Damrau as Gilda. Lučić is very familiar with this role and sings it with tremendous authority and great stage presence. Damrau’s Gilda has a sensitivity and frailty and we really sense her feeling of isolation, hidden away in her father’s apartment, although she looks rather more likely to be his sister than his daughter. Also noteworthy is Štephan Kocán’s outstanding Sparafucile, whose deliciously dark portrayal of a contract killer is quite chilling.
Michele Mariotti directs the Met Orchestra in a stylish and detailed account of Verdi’s score, while some of the tempi are broad to the point of being relaxed (especially in Gilda’s arias) and occasionally lose much of the expected tension.
The settings are visually striking, with gaudy colours and flashing neon in abundance, and the equally flamboyant costumes certainly have a look of the intended period.
On the whole I was undecided whether the production entirely worked. The juxtaposition of the text, sung in its original Italian by transformed characters in ’60s Vegas, was something that never quite felt believable. Michael Panayos and Paul Cremo have written an adapted set of subtitles for this version which attempt to bend the text to fit Mayer’s new interpretation of the story, but this didn’t really help a great deal. The fact that we could hear the cast singing lines that clearly didn’t fit the scenario did unfortunately sound very incongruous.
It was in the last act that the production came into its own. The very much more impressionist set design, with a backdrop comprised of a massive abstract neon curtain, allowed us to concentrate more on the drama on stage. Clever use of flashes of white among the sea of blue light created the thunderstorm that accompanies the increasingly dark developments of the plot. It was in these closing scenes that we finally began to care about the characters, and with Rigoletto’s final cries of anguish at the fulfilment of the curse Verdi’s intended sense of tragedy was restored.
My feeling was that this production would have been more successful had it been performed with a new English version of the text to match the concept. Leaving the original Italian intact while changing the character roles so much was a little too much of a stretch of credulity. That said, I much prefer to hear these pieces sung in their original language.
With eyes closed this was an aurally satisfying performance, albeit lacking a little drive in some dramatic passages. It was very satisfying visually too, but the two experiences did not quite belong together.
For the HD cinema relay the cast interviews showed that even some of the key players were a little unclear as to exactly who or what they were basing their characters upon. Željko Lučić, on being asked how he found singing such a familiar role in a new setting, told Renée Fleming that he had “nothing against” this new production and that he had approached playing the part exactly as he would in any other version.
Direction for the screen was good, with a sufficient number of long shots to give us a sense of the full scale of the staging and not too many of the extreme close-ups that are occasionally overused. The sound was well balanced and gave a good sense of atmosphere, although the extended passages for offstage band at the opening lacked some presence.