New Rigoletto Production Makes One Nostalgic For Vegas

Ah, remember when the Met audiences was mildly scandalized over Michael Mayer's Rat-Pack/Vegas Rigoletto? I do. Bartlett Sher's Weimar Republic Rigoletto was supposed to right those wrongs. Instead, the new production makes absolute nonsense of the libretto. 

Nice double doors? Photo @ Ken Howard
Victor Hugo's play is set in Francis I's court. Francesco Maria Piave's libretto had to move the action to Mantua.  The Vegas Rigoletto did one thing right -- it made the Duke of Mantua's and Rigoletto's relationship very vivid. The Duke was the Dean Martin-esque playboy, Rigoletto was the Sammy Davis Jr.-esque sidekick. It made sense, in a way. 

Sher's Rigoletto transplants the opera to the Weimar Republic. From the moment the curtain rose, one was overwhelmed by Michael Yeargan's huge rotating set that gave us the opera's main locales -- the Duke's court, Rigoletto's house, and Sparafucile's inn. But you had no clue who the Duke of Mantua was in the Weimar Republic, and I thought, "Did rich and powerful Germans in the 1920's have court jesters?"

Possente amor and the rotating stage, photo @ Ken Howard

The production looks good. Catherine Zuber's costumes in particular are extremely flattering to opera bodies. But the direction is sloppy and doesn't have much of a pulse -- the set randomly rotates in the background for many of the opera's emotional high points. During
"Possente amor," the Duke comes to the lip of the stage to sing, while in the background Gilda is being forcibly disrobed on the turntable set. It's distracting, and also takes away from the usual moment when Rigoletto sees his disheveled, sexually violated daughter later in the act. Characters sing intimate duets on opposite ends of the stage. 

There are times that one suspects no one in charge actually read the libretto. Did anyone get that Rigoletto is tricked into holding the ladder for his own daughter's abduction? Here, Rigoletto is holding a ladder for another house, and Gilda is carried away with a DIFFERENT ladder.

The third act inn, photo @ Ken Howard
The lack of close reading of the libretto is the most egregious in the last act. In the libretto, Rigoletto is ushering his daughter Gilda away from Sparafucile's seedy inn as he finalizes the deal to kill the Duke. But in Sher's production, Rigoletto and Gilda walk in and out of the inn for most of the act. First of all, would the overprotective Rigoletto let Gilda wander in and out of a seedy inn? Second of all, Sher ruined one of the greatest moments in opera -- when Gilda overhears Sparafucile's offer to kill the first stranger who comes to the inn, she makes a kamikaze knock on the door of the inn to walk to her certain death. Here, Gilda has is already inside the inn when there's a knock on the door (self-generated???). On top of that, the Duke is no longer in the tavern by the time Gilda is killed -- he's been taken to some other house offstage. If the Duke isn't in the tavern anymore, why would Rigoletto think the Duke was in the bag? Just, WHY? Didn't anyone read the libretto? 

Feola and Beczala, photo @ Ken Howard
The production has some strong performances. Rosa Feola is a lovely, ingratiating Gilda. She has large eyes and a petite build that makes her look like a Gilda. Her acting hit all the right notes -- she was sweet and demure in front of her father, but sexually precocious around the Duke.

Feola's voice can turn a bit wiry on top, but the warmth of her middle voice and her sensitive dynamics made her portrayal a triumph. One demerit: she has no trill to speak of, so if you expect "Caro nome" to have the gentle, cascading trills, you'll be disappointed. "Tutte le feste" was maybe Feola's finest moment -- the music lies in her voice's sweet spot. 

Piotr Beczala (Duke of Mantua) is a veteran who has sung this role in three separate Met productions. His voice is still elegant and musical, and he can still cap "La donna รจ mobile" with a nice high B. This production opens some typical cuts so he sings both verses of "Possente amor." When under pressure his voice does go a little sharp, but overall he remains a very strong, stylish Duke.

This production doesn't suit him as much as the Rat Pack Rigoletto. There, he looked a lot like Frank Sinatra and seemed to be having fun. Here, he's dressed in drab clothes in a drab production and just doesn't seem as lively. 

Kelsey and Beczala, photo @ Ken Howard
Quinn Kelsey's well-traveled Rigoletto was warmly applauded by the audience. The plusses: he has an amazing instrument -- it's large, well-produced, with plenty of power and a dark timbre. Kelsey also has a decent upper extension -- he ended final "Maledzione" of the opera with a high A-flat.

The minuses: he has very little sense of Italian opera style and no legato. His "Cortigiani" is great -- thundering and full of rage. The quieter moments like the final duet with Gilda go for less. His portrayal is stolid and gruff, and I didn't sense that this Rigoletto really loves his daughter. Rigoletto's music writes itself -- when he sings "Piangi, piangi, fanciulla" and the orchestra violins weep along with him, it takes a heart of stone not to be moved. But with Kelsey, the phonetic Italian and foursquare delivery dulled the impact.

The comprimario roles were well-cast. I enjoyed Andrea Mastroni's cold, slick Sparafucile and Craig Colclough's Monterone. Daniele Rustioni's conducting was unobtrusive -- he seemed content to be in the background as support for the singers.

I've seen many of Bartlett Sher's Broadway productions. I'm always impressed with his attention to detail in those productions. When it comes to opera productions, however, he seems more fixated on achieving a certain look rather than realizing the libretto. This production looks great, and that's about it.


  1. Replies
    1. I actually loved the Vegas production. I saw some great casts do it too.

  2. I think that you are being generous. Act 1, scene 2, has three intimate duets. Sparafucile and Rigoletto are on opposite sides of the stage. No assassin would negotiate with a new client that way. Similarly, Gilda and Rigoletto are far apart during most of Veglia o donna. Finally, Gilda and the Duke are on different floors of the house while he is seducing her. Monterone escapes from his guards in both the first and third acts. Kelsey avoided the top notes in Pari siamo and Si, vendetta on the night I was there and couldn't hold the final maledizione! Beczala's lower register had a baritonal timbre with noticeable breaks in the first act but got things together after intermission. At this point, he's more Radames than Duke and should retire the Duke soon. Oh, Gilda was on stage for the final lines of the Cortegiani, depriving us of the emotional power of of her rushing in after it. On the positive side, Fiction it's conducting of the quartet was genius.

    I absolutely loved the Vegas production too. It clarified the relationships among the characters better than any other production of Rigoletto I've ever seen.

  3. I hated the Vegas production. This one sounds worse. At Met prices, one shouldn't have to close one's eyes in order to attend the opera. I have great respect and admiration for Bart Sher. I have nothing but contempt for Regietheater.


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