Rigoletto is the kind of opera that, even if you staged it in a darkened storage locker, would still feel incandescent. The Metropolitan Opera has taken the opposite approach, tricking out its new production with epileptic neon, spangled dinner jackets, and stripper poles, but the music emerges as brilliant as ever, thanks to its bright-burning stars: Željko Lucic in the title role, Piotr Beczala as the Duke, and Diana Damrau as Gilda. This is one score that won’t be outdazzled.
Broadway director Michael Mayer, making his operatic debut, has relocated Rigoletto from sixteenth-century Mantua to 1960 Las Vegas. The Duke becomes “Duke,” a careless crooner with a restless retinue and a blithe indifference to who gets hurt in the pursuit of his pleasure. Rigoletto becomes a schlemiely hanger-on with an angry wit reminiscent of Don Rickles—whose name contains the same stylized chuckle. The language of the translated subtitles strains for Rat Pack verisimilitude: “My sights are set on a swingin’ girl, so hop on, baby, let’s take that whirl!”
Verdi rarely obsessed about location. Today’s opera houses have to seduce audiences; in his day they had to soothe the authorities. To satisfy censors, he shuttled the setting of Un Ballo in Maschera from Sweden to Boston. Rigoletto was resettled from France to a defunct duchy with no potentates left to offend. Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave invented a place of luxury and thuggishness, where women are playthings and men engage in rituals of mutual humiliation. It was not a stretch for Mayer to find its equivalent in a place where Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana, and Marilyn Monroe mingled under a neon sky. The conceit leaves a few rag-ends of logic (where in the Nevada desert is the killer hoping to find a river in which to dump a body?) and draws attention to some inherently rickety plot devices (what do the Duke’s supplicants have against Rigoletto, anyway?). And yes, if the Met’s gambit is a play for relevance, it’s a pretty clueless one: Invoking Sinatra may rope in the senior-center crowd, but that’s not exactly a growing market. If, on the other hand, Mayer is saying that the human ugliness Verdi puts so beautifully to music keeps acquiring new avatars, then that’s a point worth making. The result isn’t a radical rethinking that will jolt fans of American Idiot (which Mayer directed) into a love of Verdi, but it’s not a betrayal, either. It’s a briskly entertaining, richly sung, and sometimes moving show.
Whatever contortions Mayer demands of the plot, he lets the score alone, and Christine Jones’s hyperactive sets keep firmly nudging the singers toward the footlights so the voices won’t get lost in the décor. Conductor Michele Mariotti manages all this glittering Americana with a deeply Italian flexibility. He strips the varnish off the orchestra’s sound, baring Verdi’s almost gaudy palette: the metallic oom-pahs beneath the Duke’s sun-filled tunes, the purple strings that amplify Rigoletto’s rage, the Stygian brass that accompany the murderous Sparafucile (sung by Stefan Kocán in a basso that’s practically a tectonic rumble).
Give the Met credit for letting its singers reach a slow-cooked stardom instead of rushing them early onto an unforgiving stage. Lucic and Beczala have both been singing major roles at the Met since 2006, but now they finally own the place. Lucic has a heavy tread and a voice like a pint of stout: thick, smooth, slightly bitter. Despite the tamped-down fury of his body language, he sings like a man capable of tenderness, even if it is of the asphyxiating kind. Beczala is irresistible as the Duke, a likable and gifted cad who hits his high notes with a proud grin and the total sincerity we know his character doesn’t possess. It’s harder to breathe life into Rigoletto’s doomed daughter, Gilda: Despite her killer aria “Caro Nome,” she mostly simpers, sighs, sacrifices, and dies. Still, the marvelous Damrau plumps up the role with singing that hints at the character’s shrouded peaks of maturity.