Rigoletto sings his last duet sitting on the bumper of a finned Cadillac. His dying daughter Gilda is in the boot, one arm dangling near the parking lights.
It’s impossible not to like the new production by Michael Mayer that opened Monday at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s wildly entertaining, inventive, strangely funny and yet also deeply sad.
As you may recall, Verdi’s hunchbacked jester usually drags his hump through Renaissance Mantua, where he serves a decadent duke and his repulsive courtiers.
Mayer -- who made his name with “Spring Awakening,” a loud musical about creepy teens in Germany -- relocates the galoot into the salons of Las Vegas, anno 1960.
Here he’s got just a vestigial little bump any chiropractor could fix and a costume distantly suggesting more formal periods when jesters wore tights and caps with bells.
When Rigoletto first shuffles into view at the duke's casino, his outfit includes green pants, a mournful sweater with an ace of diamonds motif and red socks. Later, he adds a worn trench coat.
Surprisingly, nothing at all is lost of the torment, rage and wrenching love that propels Verdi’s 1851 opera from its festive beginnings to its horrifying, bitter end.
Mayer, in his debut at the Met, captures both the emotional depth and surface glitter in an audacious staging that heightens Verdi’s grand ensemble scenes and the private moments when the jester sits down to reminisce about the improbable love he once experienced with Gilda’s mother.
I was hooked on the show from the moment the curtain rose on a shiny set framed by two elevators and illuminated by neon signs. Backed up by feathery chorus girls, the duke grabs a microphone and sings one of his famous arias, “Questa o Quella” (“This one or that one, I don’t care”).
Bad people, sad people, sycophants and sex addicts travel easily from one era to the next: That’s why opera survives. But it helps when a director has such inventive collaborators, all new to the Met: Susan Hilferty (costumes), Christine Jones (sets), Kevin Adams (lights) and Steven Hoggett (choreography).
Add to them the clever duo of Michael Panayos and Paul Cremo, who updated the surtitles to reference penthouses, casinos and seedy nightclubs. “Your movie star looks really light up the place,” is not a line Verdi would recognize.
Amusing touches abound.
I laughed out loud as Monterone, the old guy who curses Rigoletto for making fun of him, stalked off in the robes of an Arab sheik. Then there’s the gaudy Egyptian sarcophagus in which Gilda is secreted from her hideaway apartment to the duke’s aerie.
Gilda! Mia Gilda! Clutching a pink diary, soaring into the vocal stratosphere, Diana Damrau created a touchingly vulnerable portrait of a clueless, sweetly slow girl with plump arms that stick out like sausages from her unbecoming dress. You know the doting Humpie bought it for her.
Zeljko Lucic captured Rigoletto’s many sides with his expressive baritone and plain, anguished face. Piotr Beczala was a perfect duke, singing with style and the smiling assurance of a guy who knows he looks good in a dinner jacket.
His brief experiment with pole dancing was another highlight.
Even smaller roles were vividly etched. Stefan Kocan was a malevolently appealing Sparafucile.
“I’m gonna stuff your dreamboat into a sack and sink him in the river,” he sings to his curvy sister Maddalena (Oksana Volkova).
And it’s not often that you remember Gilda’s guardian. Maria Zifchak turned Giovanna into a study in boredom, rolling her eyes and smoking. She ends up dead in the elevator, in a nice bit of invention.
All along, conductor Michele Mariotti combined a bustling pace with a feel for Verdi’s arching melodies.
The audience whooped approval at the end.
“Rigoletto” plays in repertory through May 1 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center. Information: +1-212- 362-6000; http://www.metoperafamily.org.
Production sponsors are the Hermione Foundation, Laura Sloate and Mr. and Mrs. Paul M. Montrone.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and entertainment section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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