Broadway director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “American Idiot”) takes on his first opera with the Met’s new “Rigoletto,” which he relocates from 16th-century Mantua to Rat Pack-era Las Vegas. It’s not the freshest idea, since “Rigoletto” has frequently gotten twentieth-century updates, but his concept is consistently engaging even when it defies logic (which is often), and Mayer has a fine cast of singing actors with world-class voices. This rejiggered “Rigoletto” offers no great revelations or insights, nor is it likely to stand the test of time, but it makes for an enjoyable alternate spin on a familiar work.
The sordid plot, based on Victor Hugo’s play “Le Roi S’amuse,” makes it a natural for the “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” treatment. A licentious, womanizing Duke (here a Sinatra-esque singing star and casino owner) keeps his titular hunchbacked court jester close at hand, but soon adds the jester’s sheltered, virginal daughter to his long list of conquests. Rigoletto swears revenge, and hires a professional assassin to dispose of the Duke. But Rigoletto’s daughter intervenes and chooses to be murdered in order to save the Duke’s life.
Mayer has beefed up his concept by tweaking the English translation used in the Met’s surtitles (an unusual program credit reads, “Met Titles by Sonya Friedman, revised for this production by Michael Panayos and Paul Cremo.”) Thus we get 60s slang on our seatback title screens, such as “You light up the room with your movie-star looks, Baby!” and “Jackpot!”
Frequent Mayer collaborators Christine Jones (sets), Susan Hilferty (costumes), and Kevin Adams (lighting) have created a neon-drenched abstract Vegas in which anachronistic DayGlo-colored costumes and decor (more appropriate to the 70s than the 60s) tend to predominate. Elevator banks flanking the stage create an interesting effect at first, but contradict common sense when they are used for entrances, exits, and scene changes. Why would Rigoletto try to keep his daughter sequestered from the Duke while right under the Duke’s nose in the Duke’s own casino? What is expeditious onstage often makes hash of the libretto, a common problem in updated productions.
That neon, however, is striking and effective, particularly in the climactic storm sequence in which abstract lightning bolts zigzag across the stage. How well all of this will register on the February 16 international HD telecast is anybody’s guess.
Zeljko Lucic unfurls his elegant, soft-grained baritone as Rigoletto, singing with particular poignancy during the scenes in which he grieves his daughter’s loss of innocence and, ultimately, her death. His occasional pitch problems and awkward acting were easily overlooked in this moving performance. As his daughter Gilda, Diana Damrau sings with exquisite tone and phrasing, aside from some rough patches in her highest range.
Polish tenor Piotr Beczala is slyly charming as the Duke, a role that is a perfect vocal fit for him, while Stefan Kocan, in his brief time onstage as the hired assassin Sparafucile, turns in a star-making performance. Sleazy and snake-like, he unfurls an oily bass that sends chills down the spine, and during his exit at the end of his first scene, he effortlessly holds a threatening low note for what seems like forever.
The only disappointment in the cast is Belarus mezzo Oksana Volkova as Sparafucile’s slutty sister Maddalena, here a pole dancer in Sparafucile’s nasty dive. She certainly looks her part, but fails to deliver the vocal goods.