Thursday, February 21, 2013

Las Vegas Rigoletto at the MET

 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.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

New Parsifal at the MET

 When I heard Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival this summer, I wrote on this blog that the experience was like listening to the work for the first time.  The new Metropolitan Opera production of this work premiered on Friday, and the event also felt like a first of sorts.  The new staging by François Girard removes the work from the confines of MET traditional staging where it has always been since the opera company produced the work in 1903 against the wishes of the composer that this "stage consecrating festival play" be performed only at the Green Hill.  It is the MET's first non-traditional production of this work, and the opening night crowd received it with the customary applause and cheers for the performers, and some very loud boos aimed at the production team.

In Girard's vision of Richard Wagner's last work the gathering MET audience itself becomes part of the drama as a reflecting black curtain welcomes us, and puts us right on the stage even before the initial downbeat.  This idea of a mirror is hardly new, having been used, coincidentally, at Bayreuth this summer during the concluding moments of the current production.  Here at the MET, the Grail Knights are a group of men in white shirt sleeves and black pants looking more like an American Quaker or Shaker congregation.  In Michael Levine's minimalist set the chorus of men sit in a circle on one side, right from the start of the opera, while their wives, veiled women in black, are segregated on the other side of the stage, separated by a crack through which water flows, and sometimes blood.  At the end of the first act the chasm opens to reveal what appears to be burning lava beneath: perhaps a foreshadowing of nastier things to come.  In the second act the playing area of Klingsor's realm is a forest of spears in a pool of blood where everyone gets their feet wet.  In the final act, the Grail Knights are in a complete disarray.  The stage is now a makeshift graveyard, and a sense of doom hangs in the air.  Luckily, Parsifal comes to the rescue, bringing back the stolen spear.  He inserts the lance into the mouth of the Grail cup -- an obvious sexual metaphor that makes Kundry swoon.  And now that male (spear) and female (grail) are back together again the men and women dare to walk across the crack, and gather together, crossing the barrier that originally had kept them apart.

Girard's production steers away from controversy and presents us with a middle of the road "regietheatre lite" that's very European, but ultimately benign, and ultimately quite traditional.  No Apocalyptic, cannibalistic Parsifal here as in Calixto Bieito's Staatsoper Stuttgart production, and certainly no Stefan Herheim's Bayreuth production where Wagner's opera intertwines with the history of Germany and Bayreuth itself.  Girard follows the path set down by the composer, but the production also steers away from the traditional trappings of previous MET stagings, and this is enough cause for conservative New York opera lovers to raise a clamor, and long for the days when Cecil B. De Mille-sized sets rolled on during the Grail transformation scene.  The grandeur is still there: listen to it!  It's all in the music!

Daniele Gatti led the orchestra in a slow, majestic reading filled with magnificent details and soft nuances.  Italianate to the core, this was a Parsifal that sang, and he conducted without a score -- an impressive Herculean feat.  Onstage the chorus was simply marvelous once again.  This ensemble should not envy the famed Bayreuth chorus.  Both groups are first rate musicians, and last night proved that the MET chorus is one of the most important assets of this company.  In the leading roles René Pape presented a younger than usual Gurnemanz, vocally strong, with perfect diction and great stage presence.  Katarina Dalayman started vocally weak in the role of Kundry but warmed up by the time her big moments came in Act II.  Jonas Kaufmann was his usual excellent self throughout the evening.  His dark tenor filling the house, and at times resorting to his famous pianissimo in order to portray the youthfulness of the character.  The most impressive singer of the evening was Peter Mattei who was heartbreaking as the king who cannot bear to raise the grail once more.  His Amfortas was a wounded soul, bleeding profusely out of his right side, unable to walk without assistance, and totally damaged psychologically by his very human past failings.  His baritone rang true, with strength and pathos throughout his performance.  Finally, it was great to see Evgeny Nikitin sing.  He was banned from the Bayreuth Festival last summer when it was discovered that at one point in his youth he had a swastika tattooed on his chest.  His reading of Klingsor was vocally solid, although at times he resorted to an unnecessary Bayreuth bark in order to portray the evil intentions of the character.

This is an interesting production of Parsifal with a valid and familiar take on the story.  Certainly I do not think that it is a production that audiences will want to see for twenty years (as in the Joseph Volpe years), and I hope that in due time we get to experience another reincarnation of this timeless work.