Vulgar, Vegas-style"Rigoletto" still in fine voice

Piotr Beczala as the Duke in the Met's production of the Verdi opera, set in 1960s Las Vegas. Simulcast Saturday.
Piotr Beczala as the Duke in the Met's production of the Verdi opera, set in 1960s Las Vegas. Simulcast Saturday. (KEN HOWARD / Metropolitan Opera)
Posted: February 15, 2013

So often, multitudes of theatrical sins in Metropolitan Opera productions are disguised by deft camera work in the live simulcasts that are beamed out to movie theaters around the world. But in the new Rigoletto, on local screens at 12:55 p.m. Saturday (with a March 6 encore), the sins are what we want.

Now set in 1960s Las Vegas by Broadway stage director Michael Mayer, Rigoletto receives what has to be one of the most vulgar productions of its 160-year history, and it could well have caused an opening-night scandal.

Yet the stunned-into-silence audience on Jan. 28 - with the opening tenor aria "Questa o quella" sung by the Duke of Mantua surrounded by fan-dancing chorus girls - caught on fast. This Rat Pack Rigoletto makes much sense, and a brilliant cast didn't hurt. How often is anything that's so intentionally tasteless so much fun?

This middle-period Verdi opera, with its boldly drawn characters and dramatically apt arias, rarely works consistently in traditional productions. Pivotal moments have to be taken on faith. With the variety of amusements provided by modern gambling casinos, the re-set Rigoletto has expanded scenic options that allow a better flow of operatic events.

Verdi's contemporaries were attuned to the fine points of Rigoletto's court-jester status, but the character now plays better as an all-around facilitator and body guard, doing explicitly what was previously only implied.

Some of the touches prompted audience titters: The outraged Monterone, who curses the mocking Rigoletto after the Duke seduces his daughter, is an Arab sheik - a novelty that wears off quickly as the scene is played with life-and-death intensity that sets in motion the tragedy ahead.

Like many updates, this one doesn't fully trust the opera and lapses into overkill, with five times as many quasi-neon signs as necessary. The surtitles are translated into Las Vegas-ese with questionable taste. But when innocent Gilda dies in the trunk of a Cadillac, it's just the right kind of gilded, sordid image for Verdi's dark heart.

Vocally, this Rigoletto was among the best I've heard. Tenor Piotr Beczala has the kind of sunny, Italianate lyricism that gives the right creepy counterpoint to the Duke's incredibly corrupt character. Soprano Diana Damrau brings her lovely tone quality to Gilda, as well as her way of intelligently organizing phrases that reveal deeper meaning in a one-dimensional character.

The Slavic timbre of Zeljko Lucic's bass baritone is completely right for the title role, particularly given the way he softens and hardens his coloring as he shifts from terrified private self to thorny public persona. All that, plus a pole dancer (Oksana Volkova as Maddalena) and a fine conductor in Michele Mariotti, who isn't as demonic as Philadelphia's Christofer Macatsoris - but who is?


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.
To find local theaters and other information on the Met simulcast: 212-362-6000 or www.fathomevents.com.

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