Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Verdi: Rigoletto (Metropolitan Opera, February 16, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Met’s recent “Live in HD” telecast of Verdi’s Rigoletto showcased a new production by director Michael Mayer that moved the action of the opera from 16th century Mantua to Las Vegas c. 1960 — and after the horrible atrocities of the Met’s modern-dress Traviata and Parsifal this one was actually a relief: a modern-dress opera production that was internally consistent, made sense and actually found modern (or recent-past) equivalents to the character and class relationships of the original. In Mayer’s reading, the Duke of Mantua became Frank Sinatra — a highly charismatic character, a sex addict and sufficiently Mob-connected that even though he wasn’t a head of state he could still order, or even personally commit, a murder (he shoots Monterone right on stage with a small handgun!) without having to worry about legal consequences. Rigoletto became Don Rickles, a comedian whose stage act was vicious meanness (his tag line was “Hello, dummy!”) but was nice, kind and generous as could be off-stage. The various courtiers became the Rat Pack, with Borsa (Alexander Lewis) played as a combination of Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis, Jr.; Marullo (Jeff Mattsey) as Dean Martin; Countess Ceprano (Emalie Savoy), the only woman the Duke goes after in the story who eludes his grasp, as Marilyn Monroe; and her husband Count Ceprano (David Crawford) as Mafioso Sam Giancana, who reportedly shared his mistress Judith Campbell with both Sinatra and President John F. Kennedy. The between-acts interviews with the singers in these roles said they’d actually found it helpful when Mayer gave them real-life people on whom to model their characterizations, and as forced as some of the parallels got they did add depth and made the courtiers seem more like individual people and less like a generic opera chorus. Rigoletto (Zelijko Lucic) is still referred to as a hunchback but his only concession to “hunchicity” was to lean slightly forward as he walked, and the only reference in his costume to the usual image of a court jester was a vest that looked somewhat like a red-suit playing card. The opera purists would probably be outraged, but the spare costuming at least helped Lucic retain his dignity on stage; all too many baritones who play Rigoletto come scritto slouch around like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. In addition to the visual updating of the opera, the subtitles on the broadcast were deliberately written in c. 1960 American English slang (and some of it actually seemed more recent than that; one of the lines in the Duke’s “Questa o quella” came out “Monogamy is monotony,” which predictably elicited a groan from Charles!), and in the last act Sparafucile dumps the bag containing Gilda’s body into the trunk of a blue Cadillac whose license plate reads “SPARFUC” — obviously a personalized license plate (an anachronism given that such things didn’t exist in the U.S. in 1960) for Sparafucile but also making the wicked pun, “Spare fuck,” a reference to the role played by Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena in the story.

For those who aren’t familiar with the basic plot of Rigoletto as Verdi and his librettist, Francisco Maria Piave, adapted it from Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’Amuse (“The King Amuses Himself”), here goes: 16th century Mantua is ruled by a licentious Duke (Piotr Beczala, a Polish tenor whose name I had always presumed was pronounced as it was spelled until Renée Fleming, introducing him, said something that sounded like “Bech-WAH-nuh”) whose principal avocation is getting himself into the pants (or whatever they wore back then) of any woman who’ll hold still long enough for him to get his rocks off. He introduces this side of himself in his opening aria, “Questa o quella” — meaning “This one or that one,” expressing the sentiment that women are completely interchangeable and he doesn’t care who he has sex with as long as it’s alive, human and female. He’s recruited equally morally despicable people as courtiers to help him recruit his victims, and he’s also hired a court jester named Rigoletto whose basic function seems to be to ridicule the husbands, boyfriends, parents, relatives or significant others of the Duke’s seducees. Rigoletto is a single father who is neurotically overprotective of his daughter Gilda (Diana Damrau), who since her mother died (giving birth to her? The libretto isn’t clear on that point but it’s entirely possible; in the 19th century women’s deaths in childbirth were all too common) has become Rigoletto’s only interest outside his job. He keeps her shut up in his little house, letting her out only to go to church and only in the company of her governess/nurse/chaperone Giovanna (Maria Zifchak), with the idea that by locking her in he can keep her from attracting the attention of the Duke or someone equally corrupt in his court. Alas, she’s already fallen for the Duke — she met him at church and has no idea who he is — and he’s taken enough with her to find out where she lives. (In this production there’s a neat little scene of the Duke slipping Giovanna some cash as a bribe to betray Gilda; I don’t remember Piave’s libretto being that obvious about it but it’s a neat gesture and ties in with the greed and lust that motivate the Duke and his entourage.) 

Once the Duke finds out where Gilda lives he pays court to her, pretending to be a poor student named “Gualtier Maldé,” and after they sing their duet he leaves and she moons over him in her big aria, “Caro nome” (“Dearest Name”), now that she finally has a name (albeit a false one) to go with the face and bod she’s been fantasizing about. Meanwhile Rigoletto has been approached by Sparafucile (Stefan Kocán), a hit man who runs an inn on the outskirts of town and uses his sexually open sister Maddalena (Oksana Volkova) to lure his victims to the inn, where he kills them. Rigoletto tells Sparafucile he has no need for his services … yet, and after Sparafucile leaves Rigoletto sings a marvelously broken aria, “Pari siamo” (which basically means “We are the same” — Rigoletto reflects that Sparafucile kills people with a knife and Rigoletto himself destroys them with his wit). Monterone (Robert Pomakov) — who in this production is made an Arab sheik, a visiting high-roller pissed off at the Duke for seducing his daughter — pronounces a curse on the Duke and all the people in his court, but they laugh it off — all but Rigoletto, who’s sensitive and decent enough to be upset that he was cursed out by the grieving father of one of the Duke’s victims. (Indeed, Verdi was so taken with this plot element that his working title for Rigoletto was La Maledizione — “The Curse.”) The first act ends with the courtiers telling Rigoletto they’re going to kidnap Countess Ceprano (Emalie Savoy) and take her to the court so the Duke can amuse himself with her, only they’re really going to Rigoletto’s own house and want to trick Rigoletto himself into helping them kidnap Gilda, whom they think is Rigoletto’s mistress instead of his daughter. They blindfold Rigoletto and put plugs in his ears so he can neither see the woman he’s helping them abduct nor hear her voice (though a lot of modern productions, including this one, omit the earplugs and therefore leave us wondering how Rigoletto can be fooled when he would recognize Gilda’s voice the moment she cried for help).

At the start of act two, the Duke returns to Rigoletto’s house, expecting to meet Gilda for a hot afternoon, only he finds she’s gone and in the one decent thing he does in the whole opera, he sings “Parmi veder le lagrime,” noticing that she cried when they met and wondering if he could forsake all other women for her. Not that that lasts very long; he finds Gilda in his own court, where the kidnappers have brought her (concealed in a giant Egyptian sarcophagus, one of those transparently fake props Las Vegas hotels of the period constructed to establish some attempt at an atmosphere from antiquity), only Rigoletto finds her too, sends the courtiers away and in one of the high points of the score they sing the duet “Tutte le feste” in which Gilda explains how she met the Duke (and how he tricked her) and Rigoletto alternately comforts her and vows revenge. His idea of revenge is to hire Sparafucile to kill the Duke, and accordingly Sparafucile lures the Duke to the inn with Maddalena as his bait — while Rigoletto brings Gilda to the inn to eavesdrop on the Duke with Maddalena so he can convince her the Duke is a faithless, wanton seducer unworthy of her affections — and the scene culminates in the famous quartet, “Bella figlia dell’ amore,” in which the Duke woos Maddalena with his usual seduction lines while Rigoletto tries to tell Gilda what sort of man he really is and Gilda basically pouts in stunned disbelief. Only Maddalena decides the Duke is so hot she doesn’t want her brother to kill him; she suggests he kill Rigoletto instead but it’s not in Sparafucile’s moral code to kill a customer. Accordingly Sparafucile agrees to murder the first person who comes out of the inn, whether it’s the Duke or someone else — and Gilda, who’s in male drag as part of Rigoletto’s plan for them to flee after the murder goes down, overhears this and decides to sacrifice her own life to save the Duke’s. Rigoletto accepts delivery of the bag containing Gilda’s body, and he’s convinced his plan has succeeded — until he hears the chilling reprise of “La donna è mobile,” the score’s most famous aria, a marvelous bit of projection in which the Duke projects his own moral failings on the other gender (the opening line is usually translated as “Women are fickle, false altogether”). Hearing the Duke’s song makes him realize that the Duke has somehow survived the plot, and naturally curious as to just who’s in the body bag, Rigoletto opens it, sees his own daughter, and is horrified and overcome. She sings a marvelous final scene, “Lassù in cielo,” in which she looks forward to meeting her mother in heaven and praying for her father’s soul so that when he croaks he’ll be allowed to meet them there, and after Gilda finally expires Rigoletto looks skyward, recalls Monterone’s curse, and screams, “Ah, la maledizione!” Curtain.

Rigoletto is generally considered the beginning of Verdi’s middle or mature period, and it’s a far-reaching opera nothing like anything an Italian composer had ever written before. The Duke’s big arias are the score’s pop tunes, but the music for the other principals — especially Rigoletto himself — is nothing like the simple slow-fast cavatina-cabaletta formula previous Italian composers (including Verdi himself in his earlier works) had used. “Pari siamo” is a bit of jagged pieces of music, fitted together not to a musical formula but to express the torment gripping Rigoletto’s soul, his sense that by being the house comic at the Duke’s morally corrupt court he’s no better than a hired assassin. When Rigoletto discovers his daughter has been kidnapped, Verdi sets his rage not to a bouncy uptempo tune but to “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” a menacing, raging piece of music that expresses Rigoletto’s revulsion at the people he’s served and what he’s done for them, and also his anger that despite his incredible efforts to protect his daughter, she’s been swept up in his employer’s corrupt world anyway. (One thing this production blessedly didn’t do is give Rigoletto an incestuous itch for Gilda; it’s probably only a matter of time, though, before a modern director decides that the only thing that could possibly explain Rigoletto’s neurotic overprotectiveness of Gilda is if he had the hots for her himself.) What’s amazing about Michael Mayer’s production is that it works; the amoral atmosphere of Las Vegas c. 1960 is a close enough parallel to the setting Verdi and Piave had in mind (especially once they had to downgrade the tenor villain from a king to a duke at the insistence of the Italian censors, who behaved towards Verdi and the other composers of his time pretty much the way the staff of the Hays Office in Hollywood did in enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s) and the glittering neon of Act I is a powerful visual symbol for the real “city that never slept,” a place in which celebrities like Sinatra and his fellow Rat Packers could party to their heart’s content, indulge themselves in booze, women and drugs (though Sinatra was always anti-drug, to the point of staging an intervention with Sammy Davis, Jr. after Davis had got hooked on cocaine — a point blissfully ignored by Mayer, who has the Sinatra-esque Duke sniff coke in one scene; later he has the Duke swig from a bottle of amber fluid, a reference to Sinatra’s real drug of choice, Jack Daniels’ whiskey — the real Sinatra left instructions that he be buried with a bottle of it!) and be protected from any collateral damage they did, safe in the assurance from their Mafia buddies that whatever happened in Vegas, up to and including murder, really would stay in Vegas.

By chance I’d heard this performance of Rigoletto before I watched it, and in its audio-only incarnation, without Mayer’s exciting visuals, it was basically just another recording of Rigoletto — and I had not been particularly impressed by the principals except for Diana Damrau as Gilda (not surprisingly, the only cast member I’d heard of before). With the visuals, Damrau slipped a bit in my estimation — she still sang divinely but she’s well past her teenage years (Gilda is supposed to be a love-struck teenager) and she tried to bridge the gap between the character’s age and her own by acting like an annoying flibbertigibbet instead of, as John Ardoin described Maria Callas’s Gilda, “an innocent of whom circumstance makes a woman.” On the other hand, the rest of the principals seemed to gain when we could see as well as hear them; Zelijko Lucic portrayed a desperate dignity in the scenes with his daughter and a fearsome rage in the later stages, and though Piotr Beczala hardly had the charisma of the real Frank Sinatra (but then, who would?), he looks convincing as a lounge-lizard entertainer (there’s a neat touch in which a mike is thrust in his hand just before he starts “Questa o quella,” essentially portraying it as the sort of number the Duke sings in his Vegas act) and he’s got a strong voice well suited to the Duke’s music. He’s also hot-looking, though not so hot that we can readily believe he owes his life at the end to the actions of two women (ironic for such a misogynist character!) who both find him so irresistible that they won’t let him be killed, and one of them even gives her own life to save his — and I must say I found the Sparafucile, Stefan Kocán, to be the hottest guy in the cast (though maybe that was just how he was costumed: a purple suit and green tie in act one, a green leather jacket in act three). Damrau doesn’t quite achieve the remarkable feat Callas pulled off in “Lassù in cielo,” convincing us that she was half in this world and half in the next one, but she nonetheless phrases her part in the final duet quite sensitively and ravishingly (probably not a good word in this context!). She goes out with a quiet dignity and strength that ably caps a performance that triumphs vocally and overcomes her rather silly gestures and deportment on stage. And the production, it seemed to me, quite nicely reflected the growing darkness of the story, from the neon-lit party scenes in Act I to the aftermath of Act II (with the courtiers passed out in drunken stupors on a series of couches) and Act III, set in a strip club (Maddalena begins it by doing a pole dance) in which the tube lights are mostly blue except for flashes of white that animate across the stage to represent the storm that’s going on and mirrors the boiling human emotions of the story.

Michael Mayer’s “Vegas Rigoletto” seems to me to be an almost complete success, a shining example of how a standard-repertory opera can be updated without losing its essence — and one weird aspect of the opera scene today is how many productions there are that change the setting and major aspects of the story in pathetic attempts to make the piece more “relevant,” and how few of them pull it off. When Peter Sellars did his three stagings of the Mozart-da Ponte operas in the 1980’s, I loved The Marriage of Figaro because Sellars, like Mayer, found modern-day equivalents for the original characters and their class relationships, but hated the Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte because there Sellars didn’t seem to be bothering — he was doing them in modern drag just to be different. I also quite enjoyed the 1983 Frank Corsaro production of Bizet’s Carmen, which not only moved the opera’s setting to the 1930’s — the time of the Spanish Civil War — but incorporated the war into the plot: Carmen and her smuggler friends were running guns to the Loyalists, while José was in Franco’s army. (The more recent Met Carmen also updated the story to the era of the Civil War but did absolutely nothing creative with the revised setting — and the reviewers who praised it seemed oblivious to the existence of Corsaro’s production almost three decades earlier.) But most modern-dress productions have just seemed boring or silly, and the self-consciously “avant-garde” productions at the Met like the Willy Decker Traviata or the François Girard Parsifal have been downright offensive in their sheer perversity and disinclination to serve the original intent of the composer and librettist. I’m reserving judgment on the current Robert Lepage Ring at the Met until I see more of it — so far I’ve only seen the Walküre, which I thought worked even though some parts seemed risible (notably the appearance of the Valkyries on see-saws during the famous Ride at the start of Act III); at least Lepage was attempting with his up-and-down steel planks to reproduce the seismic activity that roils Iceland, part of the world that generated the Norse sagas Wagner adapted into his scenario for the Ring. 

I’ve read enough on both sides of the debate over so-called Regietheater — productions in which, depending on your point of view, the stage director/designer either alters or updates the setting and story of an opera or a classic play to allow its message to come through more strongly to a modern audience, or arrogantly substitutes his (or, much more rarely, her) own vision for that of the creators of the original work — and generally I’d much rather watch either a tastefully done traditional production or a coherently stylized one like Wieland Wagner’s famous 1950’s restagings of his grandfather’s works at Bayreuth; but if all modern-dress opera productions were at the level of this Michael Mayer Rigoletto — coherent, sensible, aimed at translating the characters and their class and social relationships into modern equivalent instead of just moving them willy-nilly through the centuries to be “different” or to be outrageous — I’d like them a lot better!