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What Happens in Mantua Stays in … Vegas

Theater Review: ‘Rigoletto’ at the Met

By Barry Bassis Created: February 19, 2013 Last Updated: March 29, 2013
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Željko Lucic as the title character of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Željko Lucic as the title character of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

NEW YORK—Giuseppe Verdi frequently ran into problems with the censors—not for racy material—but for political reasons. His opera, “A Masked Ball” was based on the actual assassination of the Swedish king, but the composer was forced to change the locale to colonial America. 

His 1851 opera, “Rigoletto” was based on Victor Hugo’s 1832 play “Le roi s’amuse” (“The King Amuses Himself”), based loosely on the licentious morals in the French court of François I. Verdi had to change the setting to Mantua, Italy during the 16th century. That was considered acceptable because there was no longer a ruling family in that area. 

The current Metropolitan Opera production moves the action to Las Vegas in 1960 and, according to the director Michael Mayer, is meant to evoke the “rat pack”: Frank Sinatra and his circle. The question is: does the new interpretation fit the opera?

The opera starts with the Duke expressing his credo, “Questa o quella per me pari sono.” (“This girl or that girl are just the same to me.”) He seduces young women with the assistance of his courtiers. Monterone, the outraged father of one of his victims, is ridiculed by the hunchbacked Rigoletto, the court jester. In turn, Monterone curses Rigoletto.

Gossip spreads among the Duke’s entourage that Rigoletto is keeping a young mistress. It turns out that the girl is the jester’s daughter Gilda, whom he keeps secluded. Meanwhile, the Duke has been pursuing the girl, pretending he is a poor student. The courtiers kidnap the girl and deliver her to the Duke’s bedroom. When Rigoletto discovers what has happened, he recalls the curse.

When Gilda leaves the Duke’s room, she tells her father of the kidnapping and her seduction. Rigoletto hires a killer to assassinate the Duke. However, Gilda takes the place of her amoral lover and it is her body that is delivered to the jester. When he hears the Duke singing in the distance, he unveils the body and is shocked to discover it is his dying daughter. Rigoletto realizes that Monterone’s curse has come to pass.

The opera is a work of genius, with some of the most familiar arias in the operatic canon. Each helps delineate the characters, including the Duke/tenor’s “La donna è mobile,” the soprano’s (Gilda) “Cara nome,” and the baritone’s (Rigoletto) “Pari siamo” and the raging “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” as well as moving father-daughter duets and a virtuoso quartet in the last act.

In Mayer’s version, the Duke is a Sinatra figure. He sings “Questa o quella” with a microphone in hand (unplugged of course) as if he were crooning to an adoring audience. Rigoletto is no longer a hunchback but simply a malicious nightclub comic. One of the dramatic high points of the opera occurs when Monterone curses Rigoletto. Now, Monterone appears as an Arab sheik, evoking laughter in the audience.

The translation of the libretto has been changed to conform to the argot of the era. Yet the translation is inconsistent since it still refers to the leader and saloon singer as the Duke. 

The subtitles (updated from Sonya Friedman’s version by Michael Panayos and Paul Cremo) are filled with expressions like “hop on baby” and “movie star looks” and words like “yikes,” “jackpot,” “home run,” “dreamboat,” and “knockout.” 

The assassin Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena now run a club with pole dancers. Gilda dies in the trunk of a Cadillac.

The set by Christine Jones, the costumes by Susan Hilferty, and the lighting by Kevin Adams are all eye-catching. If the Met were mounting an operatic version of “Ocean’s 11,” their work would be more appropriate. 

While Mayer has said that he wanted to convey the decadence of Las Vegas, what he achieves instead is the jokey world of the rat pack, not the sinister one that Martin Scorsese portrayed in “Casino.” That violent and foul-mouthed group was more in line with the tragedy Verdi created in “Rigoletto.” 

Besides, Sinatra was too well known to travel incognito. Even the most sheltered schoolgirl would have recognized him. As Joey Bishop once said of Sinatra and his circle, “Do you believe these guys had to chase broads? They had to chase ‘em away.”

The cast is first-rate: Piotr Beczala as the Duke, Diana Damrau as Gilda, Željko Lucic as Rigoletto, Štefan Kocán as Sparafucile, and Oksana Volkova (making a striking debut at the Met) as Maddalena. All of them sing and act up a storm. The orchestra is conducted with flair by Michele Mariotti. 

The bottom line is that “Rigoletto” remains one of the greatest operas with a cast that is as fine as anyone could put together at the present time. (The later casts, starting in the April performances, are also excellent.) Yet the production strikes me as ill-conceived. 

Nevertheless, you won’t be bored. 

“Rigoletto” (metoperafamily.org; 212-362-6000) is running intermittently through May 1. It will be broadcast as part of the Met’s Live in HD series on March 6 (U.S.) and April 6, 8, and 24 (Canada). Lisette Oropesa, Vittorio Grigolo, and George Gagnidze portray Gilda, the Duke, and Rigoletto in the April and May performances, and Marco Armiliato conducts.

Barry Bassis is a New York based writer who covers music, theater, dining, and travel for various publications. He is a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.

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