Friday, December 6, 2013

A grim, sordid little tale

Solange on Theater (which I now realize acronizes - if that is a word - to SOT) resumes, after a restful hiatus, with a trip to the Metropolitan Opera for Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto.

When it comes to the two Italian opera composer heavyweights, SOT (I'm starting to like this) is more of a Puccinella than Verdista, opting for lyric beauty over chest-heaving dramatics.

However, the prospect of an imaginative re-thinking of one of the repertoire war horses drew me to Lincoln Center and it's one of the few times that I bought a ticket mostly due to a photograph of the set:

Act I of Rigoletto.
Not to slight the cast, it was attractive too: tenor Matthew Polenzani (whom I'd seen in the HD broadcast of L'Elisir d'Amore) as the slimy Duke and Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto.

Director Michael Mayer has set the story in 1960 Las Vegas - apparently not a good idea, according to each of the ladies of a certain age who flanked me in my grand tier seat. "I guess I'm traditional," said the lady to my left. I begged to differ! Translating the atmosphere of court corruption to the anything-goes glitter and neon of Rat Pack Vegas seemed brilliant to me.

The Duke, casing the casino action in his white dinner jacket, opens with "Questa o quella" as a lounge act, flipping the mic cord like Dean Martin. The theater choreographer Steven Hoggett (who seems to be everywhere these days) created moves for the gamblers and showgirls, timed to the pulses of the music. I was enthralled.

Christine Jones' set, a neon riot of pleasure, was mesmerizing as the background to the immoral goings-on.

I was delighted by some of the free lyric translations on the little seatback screen in front of me, i.e. "Say, your movie star looks really light up the joint." I'm not sure librettist Francesco Maria Piave really wrote that in 1850.

Rigoletto is the nightclub comedian and not so hunchbacked, just sort of bulky around the shoulders and clad in an argyle sweater and slacks, which I thought a little odd among costume designer Susan Hilferty's dinner jackets and cocktail gowns. I thought it looked almost too casual, but I'd be hard put to suggest an alternative, and obviously the designer wanted to distinguish the character from the sea of more-formal wear.

Count Monterone, who wants to avenge the dishonoring of his daughter by the Duke, has become a wealthy Arab in this production - and the overtones of Muslim "honor killings" are ripe.

Polenzani and Hvorostovsky were expertly negotiating their roles when bass Štefan Kocán as the assassin, I mean hit man, Sparafucile, garnered a round of applause by holding a final note for what seemed like 30 seconds.

The voices of Hvorostovsky and soprano Sonya Yoncheva beautifully melded like coffee and cream on the duets between Rigoletto and his ill-fated daughter, Gilda.

The grand tier ladies and I agreed that Gilda wasn't the brightest bulb in the box since she fell for the Duke's masquerade as a "poor young student." (See, this is where Verdi's operas fall apart for me. He had no sense of plot. Have you ever tried to make sense of Il Trovatore?)

However, the music is ravishing. I still have "Caro nome" in my head and Yoncheva added lovely vocal embellishments to that song of longing.

Act II opened in a lounge outside the Duke's penthouse apartment, with a striking statue/neon centerpiece - another set winner by Jones - and his henchmen all drunk and passed out.

Act II of Rigoletto.
Apparently the Duke is actually smitten with Gilda - or cynically thrilled with the chase -- and Polenzani memorably spun out the last note of his aria. The henchmen have kidnapped Gilda as a prank, believing her to be Rigoletto's mistress, but the jester/comedian arrives and reveals she's his daughter. Hvorostovsky was heartbreaking as he pleaded on his knees that his daughter be returned to him.

The act ended with another stunning duet as Rigoletto vows revenge on the Duke and Gilda pleads for him (see what I mean - a little dim). In addition to the well-known arias, with the most famous coming in Act III, the glory of this opera is in the duets -- two people expressing sometimes-conflicting emotions, raising the dramatic stakes to fascinating heights.

In Act III, we're really entering the world of sleaze outside Sparafucile's seedy club and director Mayer thoughtfully provides a topless pole dancer to wake up the husbands in the audience. The grand tier ladies clucked with disapproval.

Act III of Rigoletto - from left, the Duke, Maddalena, Rigoletto, Gilda.
The "hit single" of this opera – “La donna è mobile” - comes toward the beginning of the act and it seemed to me that Polenzani sort of tossed it off without much oomph. The duke is singing about how women are fickle - oh the irony - and maybe he was trying to give it a suave, casual reading but for me, it came across as a little too laid-back.

The duets give way to the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” sung by the Duke, Gilda, Rigoletto and the Duke’s mistress Maddalena over music that is also laden with foreboding.

Tragedy inexorably marches toward a grimy climax.  The music is at its darkest here, rumbling as a storm descends, and the set lit up with neon flashes of lightning. Gilda makes her final mistake and Rigoletto realizes his thirst for vengeance has turned to strike at the very heart of his life.

Mindful of train times, I couldn’t stay for the curtain calls and bade a quick farewell to the grand tier ladies, who like their opera served up with traditional cutlery. As for me, spin the roulette wheel, fire up the neon, bring on the showgirls and bourbon and let Verdi soar over the Nevada desert.

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