What is it with Rigoletto? Verdi’s hum-along opera used to take place in the ducal court of 16th-century Mantua. In 1982 at the English National Opera Jonathan Miller moved the action to the Mafioso domain of Little Italy, Manhattan, c.1950. In 1991 Elijah Moshinsky retained the corruption theme for Opera Australia, adding images of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. In 2002 James Macdonald invoked JFK’s hedonistic Washington on behalf of Welsh National Opera. In 2005 Doris Dorrie created a Munich scandal by making everyone impersonate refugees from Planet of the Apes and Star Wars.
On Monday, thanks to the Broadway whizz Michael Mayer and his designer Christine Jones, the Met introduced a super-glitzy, hyper-kitschy Rigoletto that exults in the rat-packy decadence of Las Vegas c.1960.
Unlike the directors of some recent stagings here, Mayer is no dilettante. He understands Verdi’s dynamics, knows how to tell a tale, appreciates theatrical imagery. Still, it is hard to claim that his innovations represent improvements.
There is little room in his stylised universe for romance, much less poetry. Everything looks garish, sleazy and hectic. Innocent Gilda lives atop a casino; when abducted, she is locked in a mummy-case. Sparafucile runs a whorehouse staffed by half-nude pole dancers. Rigoletto, joker rather than jester, laments his deformity yet seems to have lost his hump. Turned into an Arab sheik, Monterone is shot dead onstage.
Although a strong cast sings the original Italian, the title “translations” take slangy liberties. One person, we read, is “a doll”, another is “nuts”, another has “movie-star looks”. The courtiers are “lousy and rotten”. The assassin’s sword (“spada”) becomes “a knife”, and “vittoria!” becomes “jackpot!” “It’s a long drive to the river,” Sparafucile advises Rigoletto. “Make sure you have enough gas.”
The musicians work hard to minimise the damage. Despite some erratic tempi and co-ordination inequities, Michele Mariotti enforces useful sweep in the pit. Despite occasional pitch problems, Željko Lucic balances power and sympathy in the title role. Fresh from maternity leave, Diana Damrau looks a bit matronly yet sounds generally ethereal as the teenage Gilda. Piotr Beczala rings the rafters as a Sinatra-esque Duke, and sustains surprising finesse in the process. Stefan Kocán growls darkly as the resident “hitman”, and Oksana Volkova vamps earnestly as his hooker-sister.
Incidental intelligence: according to official press materials, the sets utilise “more than 6,000 feet of flexible imitation neon, 2,100 feet of three-colour LED tape and approximately 1,600 individual light bulbs”. Also, Gilda manages to die in the trunk of “a 1960 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, purchased on eBay”. Now we know.