Wieland Wagner ushered in the era of the director in opera with the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. His historic production of Parsifal was a personal statement assuring the world that the Green Hill would never go back to the German mythological productions that had been connected with his country’s Nazi past. The second part of the 20th century proved to be a breeding ground for directors trying their hand at Richard Wagner’s works. With their mythic settings and abstract ideas these operas and music dramas lent themselves easily to experimentation in a way that other composers did not. Case and point, the majority of works by Giuseppe Verdi, whose operas seem to be rooted in a specific time and place, remained more or less in their original setting for the longest time. No more! Verdian Regietheater has arrived with full force this year at the MET with the new production of the 1851 classic Rigoletto, the tragedy of a jester in Renaissance Mantua now transformed by director Michael Mayer as the story of a shtick funny man in 1960s Rat Pack Las Vegas.
The concept is not entirely new. In 1982, at the English National Opera, Dr. Jonathan Miller set this work in New York’s mob-controlled Little Italy in the 1950s. Director Mayer took this idea and ran away with it, all the way to the boozy era of Frankie, Dean, Sammy, and Joey, and he has brought back to life their loud tuxedos, the all-night drinking bouts, and the neon-lit Sands and Flamingo atmosphere of the rough joints that the Mafia set up in the Vegas Strip in the post World War II years.
What makes this production work, and work very well is the commitment of the entire cast to this new concept. Everyone is perfectly cast in the ensemble, and all look comfortable in the updated setting. The Duke, who is now a cross between Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, is played with flair and abandon by Piotr Beczala who makes one of the most dashing cads we have seen on the MET stage in a long time. His "La Donna è Mobile" ends with him swinging around a pole where a topless dancer gyrated only minutes before in front of the assassin Sparafucile, memorably played by Slovakian bass Stefan Kocán, a dangerous figure with a deep dark bass voice, and massive deep notes. His initial encounter with Rigoletto (Željko Lučić), in an after hours bar, drew bravos from the crowd, especially the last note of the duet: Kocán's beautifully placed low F.
At the heart of this opera there is the relationship between father and daughter, and this production has a winning pair of singers in these roles. Mr. Lučić was perfectly cast as the jester with the acid tongue and a highly personal family secret. In this production, while all the men are wearing loud period tuxes, he wears sweaters, giving the impression of being a hunchback Joey Bishop. His voice is perfectly suited for this role: a round baritone that's not afraid of resorting to a growl or two. In the 1940s and 1950s Leonard Warren was famous for a similar approach to this character, and Lučić's reading of the score reminded me of Warren's sound. Diana Damrau made a beautiful, virginal Gilda. She was able to convey the character's sweetness, and naivete, while she sailed through Verdi's difficult music. Her "Caro Nome" was brilliant, with clear trills that made the receptive audience burst out in applause and well-deserved bravos. Kudos also to Michele Mariotti who conducted this well-known score with assured aplomb making the ensemble reach both massive controlled tuttis as well as very tender moments.
Updating this work is a directorial decision that is still considered a big risk in this city. Experimentation is the norm across international opera houses, but it has also become the trademark of the Peter Gelb tenure at the MET, something that a faction of the New York opera public is deeply lamenting. Year after year innovative productions of the bread and butter works are replacing the conservative Joseph Volpe productions that stood the test of time and pleased the tastes of the majority of New York's opera audience. This production manages to hit the right notes, offering a risky, potentially silly, but successful re-imagining of a much-beloved work in the canon. When the elements fit, as they do here, then the result is a memorable and satisfying piece of theater.