Daring Flair for Vegas-Style 'Rigoletto' ; the Hits and the Misses in a Contemporary Version of a Verdi Opera

By Tommasini, Anthony | International Herald Tribune, January 31, 2013 | Go to article overview

Daring Flair for Vegas-Style 'Rigoletto' ; the Hits and the Misses in a Contemporary Version of a Verdi Opera


Tommasini, Anthony, International Herald Tribune


The director Michael Mayer's version of the Verdi play has its high moments, but its setting, in Las Vegas in the 1960s, feels ill- conceived.

Shortly into Act I of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's "Rigoletto," which opened this week, the boyishly exuberant tenor Piotr Beczala, playing the Duke as a Frank Sinatra-like playboy in a stylish white tuxedo, grabs a microphone -- fake, of course. He then sings the aria "Questa o quella" to a rowdy, decadent crowd at the Duke's gaudy casino.

For a moment there seems to be real potential in the director Michael Mayer's concept, "the Rat Pack 'Rigoletto,"' as it has come to be known from the publicity and reporting. Mr. Mayer and his production team zap the story from 16th-century Mantua to Las Vegas in the early 1960s. As originally conceived, Verdi's Duke is a licentious ruler attended to by crude courtiers who procure him women and envy his power. To Mr. Mayer, this works just as well in Las Vegas in the heyday of the Rat Pack.

His concept is hardly audacious. It is not even that original, since the director Jonathan Miller set his landmark "Rigoletto," first seen at the English National Opera in 1982 and much revived, in Little Italy in New York in the 1950s, with the Duke transformed into a mob boss.

But Mr. Mayer, who won a Tony Award for his hypercharged directing of the musical "Spring Awakening," has brought theatrical flair to his operatic debut, and there are dynamic elements in this colorful, if muddled and ill-defined, "Rigoletto." Especially at the start, when Mr. Beczala sings the boastful aria "Questa o quella." To the Duke, all women -- this one, that one -- are the same, and jealous husbands can just back off.

Christine Jones's wonderfully ornate set depicts the casino against a back wall of beckoning neon signs. Susan Hilferty's costumes for the Duke's hangers-on include tuxedo jackets in varying colors and patterns that compete for tackiness. When the Duke sings, sequined showgirls bearing huge feathered fans surround him.

And Mr. Beczala, looking jaunty and loose, sings with ringing tone and ardor, accompanied deftly by the 33-year-old Italian conductor Michele Mariotti, who has a sure feel for the give-and- take singers need to shape a Verdi line. This was an excellent outing for this rising conductor, who made his Met debut last fall in Bizet's "Carmen."

Of course, for Mr. Mayer, shifting the story to Las Vegas in the 1960s was no doubt the easy part. There are big holes in his concept, starting with the rather important character of Rigoletto, Verdi's hunchbacked, pitiable and tormented court jester, sung here by the admirable Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic.

Just who is this Las Vegas Rigoletto? Mr. Lucic first appears milling through the crowd at the casino, wearing a loud sweater. But what is his job or his role in the world of the Duke and the casino? We are never sure.

Mr. Miller made Rigoletto a bartender, a poignant idea. A lowly bartender in Little Italy, the butt of constant jokes, who must also keep the Duke and his mobsters amused, is an apt modern-day equivalent to a 16th-century jester. In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Mayer said that he had modeled Rigoletto on aggressive comics, like Don Rickles, who could crack up Sinatra.

But the vagueness of the concept undermines Mr. Lucic's affecting performance. He is an unconventional but compelling Verdian who does not have the classic mellow, Italianate baritone sound. Still, his voice is focused and true. There is a smoky quality to his tone, with a slightly nasal texture that lends humanity to his singing. And his phrasing is supple and elegant.

At the end of the first scene in the opera as written, Monterone arrives at the court to denounce the Duke for having seduced his daughter. …

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