The Metropolitan Opera’s 847th performance of Verdi’s masterpiece was telecast in HD yesterday. It’s 6th on the company’s list of most frequently staged operas. Though Verdi was only 37 when he wrote Rigoletto it was his 17th opera. Over the remaining half century of his life he would write only 11 more. Rigoletto was based on Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse which was banned after one performance and not produced again for 50 years. Piave’s libretto had similar problems with the censors. He was forced into two complete rewrites before he produced a version that satisfied both the censors and the composer. The result was worth the effort. Verdi’s dark opera is so powerful that not even its author could surpass it.

Rigoletto is an anti-tragedy. Unlike the Greek tragic hero undone by a tragic flaw, Rigoletto is destroyed by his only virtue – his love for his daughter. There is not a single character in Rigoletto who is even slightly admirable, yet Verdi’s genius forces us to identify with them and enter their inner selves. Of course, what we find there is not pleasant. Rigoletto is cruel and superstitious. The Duke is a monster who nonetheless charms us. His allure is that of a psychopath. A tyrant, a rapist, and a murderer he sails through every vicissitude unscathed and ready for his next outrage. Gilda is a shallow teenager who destroys both herself and her father solely because her hormones have boiled over.

Director Michael Mayer had the conceit to move the opera’s action from 16th century Mantua to 1960 Las Vegas the year of his birth. His concept of the Las Vegas of more than 50 years ago is lots of bright color and neon lights. It’s a caricature of a caricature. Verdi’s story and music are so powerful that they can withstand almost anything a director can throw at them and they do so in this production. The English translation was changed to reflect the change in the story’s locale. Anyone familiar with the actual libretto will be amused by the cuteness of this rendering. Some things can’t be evaded. For example, the Duke (here a mobster who owns a casino) tells his underlings that he met Gilda in church! Even those not familiar with the libretto laughed at some of the gaucheries of the English titles.

Rigoletto 2

The costumes were a mixed bag. The Duke wore a white dinner jacket through much of the action. Tenor Piotr Beczala is slim and looks good in this garb; he also appears 10 years younger than he is which greatly enhances his realization of the role. He also moves well and a very pleasant stage presence which add to the audience’s misplaced attraction to this knave. His underlings wore jackets not seen outside of the Met’s stage. The patterns on them seem copied from a Victorian overstuffed sofa. Gilda was clad in a boring blue dress.

The title role defines the Verdi baritone. Its vocal and histrionic challenges tax any baritone not named Leonard Warren. Serbian baritone Željko Lučić is clearly one of the best Verdi baritones now active. Since his Met debut in 2006 he has sung many of the core Verdi roles with considerable success. His voice is powerful and well produced even if it does not have the bright dark tone (oxymoron intended) ideal for Verdi. He also has the stamina needed to get through the second act which often defeats many otherwise very good baritones. His overall portrayal was very good. What was lacking was the volcanic energy that Rigoletto has to emit. This is a role that finds an ideal interpreter less than once a generation.

As I mentioned above. Piotr Beczala is very good onstage. His voice is a pure lyric tenor. The Duke is about as far as he should take it. “Questa o quella” in the first scene was a little dry; after that he was in fine voice except for a slight strain at the high note of “La donna è mobile.” All and all, a fine reading of one of the staples of the tenor repertory.

Rigoletto 3The best singing of the afternoon was clearly provided by German soprano Diana Damrau as Gilda. She has a a beautiful high soprano that is under perfect control and capable of exquisite expression. Though she hardly looked a teenager her vocal splendor overwhelmed disbelief. This is a great artist. “Caro nome” was not a display piece as it often is but rather a depiction of the infatuation that has crushed Gilda’s reason.

Stefan Kocán was very impressive as the cold hearted hit man Sparafucile. He brought the menace needed for the opera’s second scene one of the art’s most imaginative and chilling inventions. Here Rigoletto compares himself to the assassin. He kills with a sword while Rigoletto used words. Without a real tune Verdi creates a dramatic intensity unsurpassed in opera. Oksana Volkova was Sparafucile’s prostitute sister; even a hardened pro like her was unable to resist the Duke’s black charm. The Russian mezzo was appropriately sluttish.

The supporting singers were persuasive and effective. Emalie Savoy gave a great Marilyn Monroe impersonation. The all male chorus was very good as is now typical of this ensemble. Michele Mariotti is a 33 year old conductor in his first season at the Met. His conducting was solid though a little more fire would have helped.

In summary, this was a good performance of one of opera’s imperishable masterpieces. It’s glitzy staging likely appealed to some, but didn’t interfere with the impact of the work. If you’re new to Rigoletto you should easily have grasped it tragic thrust. If you’ve been listening to the opera for decades this was a good performance most notable for the great singing of Ms Damrau.

Giuseppe Verdi–Francesco Maria Piave

Rigoletto……………Željko Lučić
Gilda……………….Diana Damrau
Duke of Mantua……….Piotr Beczala
Maddalena……………Oksana Volkova
Sparafucile………….Stefan Kocán
Monterone……………Robert Pomakov
Borsa……………….Alexander Lewis
Marullo……………..Jeff Mattsey
Count Ceprano………..David Crawford
Countess Ceprano……..Emalie Savoy
Giovanna…………….Maria Zifchak
Page………………..Catherine Choi
Guard……………….Earle Patriarco

Conductor……………Michele Mariotti

Production…………..Michael Mayer
Set Designer…………Christine Jones
Costume Designer……..Susan Hilferty
Lighting Designer…….Kevin Adams
Choreographer………..Steven Hoggett
TV Director………….Matthew Diamond