By Carole Reedy
This is my favorite opera, no doubt about it. Opening night in 1851 was a triumph and the opera a box-office success for La Fenice. Since then, it has become a staple of the standard repertoire and appears as number 10 on the Operabase list of the most frequently performed operas worldwide between 2006 and 2010. Mark your calendar now because this new production by Michael Mayer has everyone talking.
Mayer is among the ranks of present-day producers who have been radically changing the setting of the opera. In an interview, he said Rigoletto has long been one of his favorite operas. “I had to find a way to make the story resonant and engaging for contemporary audiences, and at the same time to find a period to render it timeless,” he said. “I’ve tried to imagine a recent world that captures the decadence of the Duke’s palace, where the participants are in pursuit of power, money, and beauty. Las Vegas in the ’60s is such a world, where a kind of prankster energy could go bad. It’s the epitome of an American destiny for the kinds of events that happen in Rigoletto.”
The opera opens in the center of a Las Vegas casino, instead of a 16th century palace in Mantua, Italy. It is a “typically over-the-top extravaganza, a night of pleasure,” according to Mayer.
Verdi’s Duke of Mantua is transformed into a Las Vegas star, “a Sinatra-like rat-pack” character. The title role, Rigoletto, a court jester in the original version, is now portrayed as one of the “hangers on.” One can’t help but be intrigued by this new take on a beloved opera. Jonathan Miller did a similar production in 1982, moving the opera to Little Italy in New York’s 1950s, with an underlying mafia theme.
Verdi, along with Puccini, is one of the most popular of Italian composers. Over the past four years we’ve been fortunate to see and hear many of Verdi’s operas as part of the MET HD transmission series, including Othello, Aida, The Masked Ball, La Traviata, Don Carlo, and Il Travatore, among others.
What is it, then, about Rigoletto that mesmerizes audiences? It contains the elements prominent in many Verdi operas: a chorus, the father/daughter relationship, and emotionally wrenching and memorable quartets, quintets, arias, and duets. Somehow in Rigoletto each is more poignant. This opera doesn’t have the great scenario of Aida, the history of Don Carlo, or the grand ball scene as in La Traviata. But all the elements in Rigoletto work together to make an opera that is as fresh after the tenth viewing or listening as the first. The music is haunting.
The male chorus has one of the best roles in the opera. They sneak around and plot against Rigoletto, the staccato music tapping out their intent and actions. The quartets and quintets in the final act, physical storm brewing in the orchestra pit and emotional storm erupting on stage, make for some of the most dramatic moments in music. The duets between Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda can evoke tears from even the most stolid viewer. In this drama of passion, deception, filial love, and revenge, the plot’s buildup to its tragic ending is one of the most intriguing in opera.