Sixteenth century Mantua. It’s Act 1 and Rigoletto sits in his jester hat fuming next to the Duke. He has just been cursed by the imposing Count Monterone.
Fast-forward four centuries to the 1960’s. It’s Act I and Rigoletto, played by Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, is still fuming, but he now wears a diamond print sweater and sits next to a Sinatra-esque Duke. Both Rigoletto and the Duke have just been cursed by an Arabe inspired Monterone, a man who comes across more comic than commanding.
While his character hasn’t changed all that much, his costume has surely adapted to suit the vision of Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”). Mayer gives his operatic debut as the director of Verdi’s Rigoletto, slapping a modern twist to this tale, casting Rigoletto as a comic in a 1960’s Las Vegas rat pack led by the Duke.
Much of the discussion surrounding this “Rat-Pack” Rigoletto has stemmed from the ways it differs from a classical interpretation. In explanation of his decision Mayer says that he wanted to "create resonance for a contemporary audience." This is a noble aim and, if nothing, else fuels an interesting discussion about the future of Opera. As audience demographics steadily rise, the Met must reach out to a younger audience in order to sustain itself.
Mayer’s version of Rigoletto, however, might not be the answer. Many of his changes hinder rather than support the story. While the whole effect sparkled like a Vegas casino, resonate it did not. The Vegas setting, rather than buoying the story distracted from it.
To carry out his vision, Mayer employed Broadway set creator Christine Jones and costume designer Susan Hilferty. They add a glitzy veneer to Rigoletto with neon signs, jewel tones, and ornate tuxedos for the rat pack and the Duke. The stage itself is beautiful, especially in Acts 2 and 3 where the neon becomes, as Christine Jones describes, “further and further deconstructed.”
Adding to the visual splendor is the fine singing. German Soprano Diana Damrau sings a beautiful Gilda, the innocent daughter of Rigoletto. When she and Rigoletto sing together in the second scene of Act 1, they are a touching father and daughter, especially when buoyed by the orchestration of conductor Michele Mariotti. The Duke, played by Polish tenor Piotr Beczala is charismatic and relaxed. Playing a womanizing lounge singer, his easy smile lights up the stage (and a few hearts) throughout the opera.
Yet, in Act I, as the Duke begins to sing amidst a background of flashing neon signs, the audience is left with some basic questions. Where are these people exactly? A nightclub? Bar? Who are they? Why are they there? In his Rigoletto review, New York Times music critic Anthony Tomassini questions whether, “Peter Gelb, who brought Mr. Mayer to the Met, thinks that new young audiences will relate to this modern production. Does the college-age set even know what the rat pack was?” As a college student, I must confess that I did have to google “rat-pack” and watch a few interviews by Mayer, before I understood that Rigoletto was a comic in the rat pack, a funny guy who never quite fit in with the rest of his famous, theatrical friends.
In another effort to modernize, the subtitles for Rigoletto are very concise, and take great liberties to make the dialogue as jazzy as a Sinatra tune. In Act 1 for example, the Duke sings his declaration of love for all women, “Questa o quella,” set to subtitles such as: “My sights are set on a swingin’ girl, So hop on, baby, let’s take that whirl!”
Call me old-fashioned but I found it rather jarring to see the word “baby” as the Duke sang 15th century Italian. Other words like “yikes,” “jackpot,” and “dreamboat,” had the same discordant effect.
The brevity and wording of the subtitles also detracted from the characters. Oftentimes I was so focused on the wording of the subtitles that I could never really sink into the story. This left me a lot of questions come the end of the show.
This is the first version of Rigoletto I have ever seen; I do not know what a standard production looks like. Perhaps in a more classical production I would understand the motives of Rigoletto better, perhaps not. Regardless I was left with questions. Why Rigoletto believes so strongly in a curse? Why did he keep Gilda away in a tower for her whole life? (This is the 60’s baby! Gilda and Betty Friedan would have been drinking mimosas with breakfast). Why, after the Duke’s graphic display of infidelity, does Gilda (spoiler alert) sacrifice her life for him? Perhaps it is my unfamiliarity with the story, perhaps it is the subtitles, perhaps it is the incongruence of the rat pack setting and the story of Rigoletto. Regardless of the reason, I felt rather apathetic to Rigoletto’s plight throughout the Opera.
All this being said, In Act III, the opera’s concept did show promise. The Duke visits a seedy nightclub where he meets the assassin Sparafucile, and his seductress sister Maddalena, played by mezzo-soprano Oksana Michele Mariotti (wearing an orange leopard print robe). When the Duke sings his famous aria “La donna è mobile,” and ends by spinning around a stripper pole lying in the middle of the room, it come across as natural and playful. Storing Gilda’s body into the trunk of a bedazzled car also seems logical. The aurora of menace and dinginess that surrounds the nightclub suits the action of the play, Gilda’s death and Rigoletto’s sorrow, and the story, the music, and the scenery finally come together, and it is beautiful when they do.
I commend Mayer for attempting to reach a younger generation. I do hope, however, that his next operatic production will have equal parts pomp and heart.
An encore of the February 16 performance will be shown in select theaters in the U.S. on Wednesday, March 6 at 6:30 p.m. local time.
Ticket prices vary. More information on tickets and theaters in all participating locations is available at: