This Met production of Rigoletto has stirred some controversy for its updated take on this Verdi masterwork: director Michael Mayer moves the action from 16th century Mantua, Italy to 1960s Las Vegas. The production became known as the Rat-Pack Rigoletto, the Rat Pack referring of course to Frank Sinatra and his coterie of companion entertainers: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. There is plenty of neon in this production and the costuming is ostentatious but very appropriate and tasteful for that era. The colorful sets include slot machines, roulette wheels and other gaming equipment. Everything you see is quite lavish here and arguably authentic to the look of 1960s Las Vegas. Even the subtitles on this Blu-ray disc contain updated language: an attractive woman, for instance, can be referred to as a "doll" or "baby", or can be described as a "knockout". You may see such words as "jackpot" or "yikes" in the subtitles as well. In short, you can offer little criticism of this production in its realistic depiction of the very glitzy and highly addictive world of 1960s Las Vegas.
Having said all this, I think most operaphiles are at least a little leery of updated versions of their favorite operas. But this one more than passes muster on just about every count. Visually, it's stunning: the sets, costumes, lighting and the Las Vegas atmosphere of glitter and sleaze are, as suggested above, brilliantly imaginative. In addition, the sassy nature of the characters and their hip dialogue combine to yield a sort of grand gangland version of the opera. So Mayer's take on the opera is refreshing, if somewhat bold and daring. But the most important factors here are the singing and performance by the orchestra – and they are simply excellent.
Diana Damrau is utterly arresting as Gilda: try her marvelous Act I aria Caro nome che il mio cor, or hear her dark and mesmerizing take on Tutte le feste al tempio from the Second Act. To tell you the truth, I don't know if I've ever heard this role sung more impressively. She's that good! Listen to her duet with Rigoletto that closes out Act II (Si, vendetta) and hear her spectacular final notes! What vocal beauty and power and range! But the talent hardly stops with her. Piotr Beczala is splendid as the Duke. His Act I Questa o quella is bright and exuberant, and his effervescent La donna e mobile (Act III) rightly draws enthusiastic applause from the audience. Zeljko Lucic is totally convincing as the title character. Try his impassioned Act II Cortigiani, vil razza dannata to sample his fine work. The rest of the cast is splendid as well. I especially liked Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile and Oksana Volkova as his sister Maddalena.
If there's a weakness in this production, it may be in the depiction of the character of Rigoletto: in Mayer's story it's not clear just what his role is. He of course isn't a court jester but is in the employ of the Duke, presumably as a comedian, a sort of insult comedian. The hump on his back is gone here, but I think that makes him a more credible character in this modern-day version. Also, some may question choosing to portray Monterone as an Arab sheik, and his character does seem a slightly awkward fit. But in the end almost everything else here is quite suitable in this quite imaginative production.
Young Michele Mariotti conducts the orchestra with fairly brisk tempos – a good thing, as far as I'm concerned – and draws excellent playing from the orchestra. The sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity are first rate. Renée Fleming introduces the opera and in the bonus tracks interviews Michael Mayer, the principals in the cast, and other production members. Thus, there are some very attractive and worthwhile extras on this Blu-ray disc. I've reviewed several other Rigolettos, including the very excellent TDK DVD with Marcelo Alvarez as the Duke, Carlos Alvarez as Rigoletto, and Inva Mula as Gilda (TDK DVD DVWW-OPRIGL). This new performance on Deutsche Grammophon is musically and visually at least the equal of the best I've ever encountered. Highest recommendations!
Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings