26 Feb 2013
Rigoletto at the Met
Michael Mayer’s glitzy neon lights production, set in Rat Pack-era Sin City, proves a fitting backdrop for an opera about a curse
On Thursday evening October 13, Los Angeles Opera transmitted Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in the center of the city, to a pier in Santa Monica and to South Gate Park in Southeastern Los Angeles County. My companion and I saw the opera in High Definition on a twenty-five foot high screen at the park.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Michael Mayer’s glitzy neon lights production, set in Rat Pack-era Sin City, proves a fitting backdrop for an opera about a curse
Director Michael Mayer has successfully filled an inside straight in moving the Metropolitan Opera’s new Rigoletto from 16th century Mantua to early ’60s Las Vegas.
Instead of a hunchback court jester, the Vegas Rigoletto is a waspish casino comic with only a bit of padding under the left shoulder of his sweater to suggest a very slight disability. That sweater is a red, orange, green and white horror in an argyle or Harlequin pattern, providing a single link to Verdi’s jester. This Rigoletto does not limp around, even when the rhythm of his music in Act Two (“La ra, la ra, la ra”) demands it.
The womanizing Duke of Mantua, now just “Duke,” is supposedly Frank Sinatra, the leader of the Rat Pack of entertainers who are more or less portrayed in this production (Dean Martin and Peter Lawford among them). He spends most of the opera in a white dinner jacket, surrounded by “courtiers” decked out in glittering dinner jackets of every hue, each in worse taste than the last.
The setting for the first two acts is a casino. Neon, whiskey bottles, dice tables and lounge chairs occupy the set. The third act moves to a house of prostitution with a private room and a pole for dancing. In a decision quite unlike Auntie Met, that pole had a lady slithering around it, naked from the waste up except for pasties hiding her nipples. (This is a non-singing part, in case you are new to this opera.)
The Met also permitted a slangy updating of the text translations used in the titling system. For the most part these titles conveyed the vernacular of the swinging sixties, although there was too much reliance on “baby” and such howlers as “you send me to the moon.”
Mayer deserves great praise for making sense of a scene that misfires in every other production of this opera I have seen: the kidnapping of Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda from her house. This is usually done with a ladder and men in masks on a dark stage. When Rigoletto blunders unwittingly into the scene, the kidnappers blindfold him, spin him around a few times and then set him to work helping in the abduction of his own daughter. This always misfires.
In Mayer’s conception, Rigoletto lives with Gilda in a high-rise apartment building at stage left that is adjacent to the casino. At stage right is a second high rise, identical in appearance. This time when Rigoletto comes upon the scene, the kidnappers send him up the elevator of the other high rise to kidnap a different woman. By the time he realizes the others are not joining him in this caper and descends, they have snatched Gilda, leaving her guardian drugged, bound, and lying on the elevator floor.
Two miscalculations by Mayer keep this production from being a royal flush. The first puzzler is that the curse against Rigoletto is delivered by an Arab sheikh (still named, inexplicably, “Monterone”). This introduces religious and political issues into the opera that are a distraction, and wholly unnecessary. Monterone could just as well have been a gangster whose daughter the Duke has seduced. An angry father is an angry father — Arab or Italian.
The second is the curse itself. While being cursed in 16th century Mantua may have had a devastating psychological effect, it is hard to imagine that this lounge comic in Vegas is going to be unhinged by one. The Duke and his pals were probably cursing everyone all the time, and much worse. Given that the curse (la maledizione) is at the center of the story and is the last word Rigoletto sings when his beloved Gilda dies, it doesn’t carry the ominous meaning suggested in the music. Perhaps if Mayer had set the opera in a religious community where curse words are a sin, it might have meant something. But he didn’t.
Still, it was fun — not that the Vegas setting shed any new light on this warhorse. Indeed, despite interviewer Renée Fleming’s leading questions during the intermissions, neither Diana Damrau (Gilda) nor Željko Lučić (Rigoletto) would be baited into admitting that the Vegas setting had made them look any differently at these roles. They should be praised for their honesty — although Mayer and Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, were no doubt hoping for different responses.
Vocally there was much to admire. As Gilda, Diana Damrau offered power and impeccable intonation. Her voice is weightier, but no less agile, than those of Roberta Peters or Reri Grist, two quite different Gildas. The part seems easy for Damrau. Caro Nome was carefully phrased and made a strong impression, and she was rewarded with the largest ovation of the afternoon. She has become too matronly for the virgin Gilda, so this was not the best casting choice for HD, but as a singer she cannot be faulted.
Piotr Beczala as the Duke and Emalie Savoy as Countess Ceprano
Tenor Piotr Beczala was having fun as Duke, or the Duke. ‘La donna e mobile’ was tossed off with swagger, and he concluded it by swinging around that pole in Sparafucile’s brothel. His voice reminds me of Nicolai Gedda’s, another non-Italian who was a successful Duke. Beczala is a handsome man with an open face and great stage presence. He is made for the close-ups of these HD telecasts.
The best singing came from the Sparafucile of bass Štefan Kocán. His voice is deeply black with a sinister character that matches his snake-like characterization. (He will be singing Konchak in the Met’s new Prince Igor in the 2013-14 season.) The scene in Act One when he introduces himself to Rigoletto and offers his services as an assassin was chilling, helped along by the believable after-hours setting at the casino bar.
Oksana Volkova as Maddalena, Sparafucile’s prostitute sister, has legs that never quit and a smoldering middle-European pout, but her voice was a size too small for the part.
That is also one problem for Lučić’s Rigoletto. His baritone is on the dry side, and he sometimes sang flat. However, he is very experienced and had the measure of this part. But ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,’ when he damns the rat packers who kidnapped Gilda, lacked frenzy, and the farewell to his dying daughter lacked pathos. He does not act with his face, and the HD close-ups did him no favors. His facial expressions often did not match his words, and his singing could be too smooth. Rigoletto has to snarl and howl, even in Las Vegas.
The young conductor Michele Mariotti kept things moving quickly, and coordination between the stage and the pit seemed exemplary.
Christine Jones designed the casino set, and Susan Hilferty provided costumes that extended its Vegas glitz. The neon was courtesy of lighting director Kevin Adams, who used it to good effect in the storm scene in Act Three.
In sum, Mayer has dealt the Met a winning hand with this Rigoletto, one that should appeal to audiences for at least the next decade.
This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus on 17 February 2013. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.