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 Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
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.