Published in Oxford Magazine
Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto, The Met encore I HD, Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford, 19 February 2013.
According to my records I appear to have seen Rigoletto more times than any other opera except possibly Cosí fan Tutte. It has to be said that, of all these, The Met’s new production, set in 1960’s Las Vegas, is one of the worst. Not the worst - I can remember two even more appalling. I must make it clear that this has nothing at all to do with the translation in time and space from sixteenth century Mantua to 1960’s Las Vegas. I have pointed out before, as have many others that the opera can moved equally to any place and time where there exists in society groups of men intent on their own pleasure in exploiting women. Jonathan Miller seems to have been the first director to realise this in 1975, moving the action to the 19th century and in 1982 to Little Italy in New York City in the 1950’s. . It is disingenuous of The Met not to acknowledge in introduction to the cinema and radio audiences that this is not a new idea, since it attracted worldwide attention. In 2002 Welsh National Opera had a version based in JFK’s Oval Office. The best production I have seen was, surprisingly, that of Ellen Kent’s Opera International (combining the forces of the Chisinau and the Ukrainian National Operas) in 2006. Notable not only for its realistic representation of debauchery, but for the best Rigoletto in Vladimir Dragos and the best Gilda (his teenage daughter) played by Marina Tonina. In my review of that, I suggested a version based on the then current television series Footballers’ Wives but since then we have had Berlusconi’s bunga parties. Today we would have Gilda, passing her lonely, secluded days being groomed on the internet by the supposed ‘student’ leader of a paedophile gang, being abducted and abused.
The tragic story of Rigoletto is of the hump-backed court jester of the Duke of Mantua who assists in the procuring of girls for his master, attracting the curse of the father of one of them, Monterone. His daughter is hidden away but attracts the attentions of the Duke, posing as a student, on her way to church and of his followers who abduct her, thinking her to be Rigoletto’s mistress. Deflowered by the Duke, Gilda remains in love with him and sacrifices herself by exchanging places with him when Rigoletto hires an assassin to kill him. Gilda dies in Rigoletto’s arms.
In The Met’s new production the Duke and his followers are supposed to be based on Frank Sinatra and the ‘rat pack’ of the sixties Las Vegas. Don’t worry! The singers resembled the rat-pack in no way at all, lacking all personality and dangerous charm. The Duke, sung by Piotr Beczala, started off promisingly enough with a background of chorus girls until one realised that he sang everything in an unvarying forte from beginning to end, as did most of the other singers. Rigoletto (Elko Lucid) appeared with hunched shoulders rather than a hump back, wearing what appeared to be a Marks & Spencer cardigan, completely out of place in the nightclub. Diana Damrau was totally miscast as Gilda. Matronly in appearance, she completely failed to represent herself as a lovelorn teenager. The illusion was not helped for the cinema audience by her introducing her young son into an intermission interview. The only character to make a positive impression was Stefan Kocán as the unscrupulous assassin Sparafucile.
This was definitely a production in which any enjoyment was in spite of the direction. Throughout one felt the spirit of Verdi’s genius trying to get out. The subtitles were translated into American slang leaving one wondering that the Management’s condition for allowing the moving of the action not to tamper with the Piave’s libretto (we were told) had been completely ignored.