Thursday, May 16, 2013

Rigoletto Redux

In a previous post, I brought up the issue of the artistic updating of classic works.

Art, like language, is ever-evolving. And I agree that one reason why the young are often averse to the classical performing arts such as ballet and opera is because these forms are perceived as stuffy and outdated - which, to be honest, they often are.

But while moldy, ossified art is not something desirable - a dead, empty thing - I'm still very much a purist at heart. Updating the classics to be more accessible to a modern audience is a good thing. Updating it for the sake of updating it, well, that's a whole other kettle of fish.

Which leads us to the Metropolitan Theater's Rigoletto in HD, the second offering in CCP's ongoing Operas in HD at the Little Theater.

Verdi's Rigoletto gives us two of the world's most famous and enduring arias. The first of which has become known as the signature song of the late, great Luciano Pavarotti (looking here like a young Jack Black) :

The other, of course, being the lovely Caro Nome, sung here in an excerpt from the 2013 Metropolitan production by the German soprano Diana Damrau (reminding me somewhat of a blonde version of Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray ) :

The 2013 Met production transposes Rigoletto from the original 16th century Mantuan duchy to 1960s Las Vegas. The lecherous Duke of Mantua becomes a Vegas big shot crooner - shades of Frank Sinatra - and his court of nobles and hangers-on form the Rat Pack.

Rigoletto himself, the Duke's reprehensible hunchbacked court jester, gets a promotion of sorts as a handler-cum-toadie. 

Gilda, Rigoletto's precious daughter, remains, somewhat anachronistically, the virginal, convent-bred, never-been-kissed-never-been-touched provincial lass whose innocence is rewarded with tragedy in the end.

There has been plenty of criticism online from fellow purists like me regarding the Met's artistic decision to situate Rigoletto in the swinging sixties. But as I stated in a previous post, Art is a living, breathing thing, and the moment it ceases to evolve is when it ossifies and becomes a dead thing. An object of curiosity, not the affirmation of the human spirit and creativity that it is as its best.

To be fair, the amorality and gleeful licentiousness of the Duke of Mantua fit Vegas - especially 60s Vegas - like a glove. The Duke of Mantua was a suave charmer, and giving him a Frank Sinatra persona in the 2013 staging may grudgingly be called a clever move. Ditto the transformation of his court into The Chairman of the Board's posse.

The other changes, alas, do not work quite as well.

The 2013 Met production practically ignores Rigoletto's hunchback - a physical symbol of his twisted inner struggles between his genuine love and protectiveness for his daughter Gilda, his repressed loathing for the Duke and his court, and his own Machiavellian machinations which come back to bite him in the end.

Serbian operatic baritone Zeljko Lucic - outfitted in a tan overcoat that signals wino more than jester - brings tragic anger and gravitas to the title role, but seems lost amid his surroundings. 

Gilda, as essayed by Diana Damrau in her demure 50s bobbysoxer dress, reminds me of Tracy Turnblad, and all throughout the program I couldn't help imagining the rest of the cast of Hairspray showing up, with Edna Turnblad giving Il Duce whatfer.

And while the Vegas settings - complete with the Folies Bergeré - are visually arresting, the chintz and glitz lend the entire production an unintended tackiness that undermines its artistic aspirations. An argument can be made that the very seediness that lurks underneath Vegas' superficial allure reflect the ugliness beneath the dashing demeanor of the Duke, but the overall impression it left me was of the cheap imitation of class, the hollowness of the massive simulacra that make Vegas what it is, that unfortunately seep into the whole production like a stain.

I guess the purist in me wanted to see lush, romantic 16th century Mantua and its trappings as the contrappunto backdrop for this tale of depravity, false love and the blind lottery of fate - not the harsh, neon-lit, on-the-nose sleaziness of Vegas in any era.

Vegas will always be vulgar, and it just makes everything in Rigoletto look painfully familiar, mundane, and...common.

Happily, none of these "updates" distract severely from the sheer wealth of talent onstage. The Met doesn't pussyfoot around when it comes to talent, and the three headliners -  Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto, Diana Damrau as Gilda, and Piotr Beczala as The Duke - are perfectly-cast, voice wise, and deliver reliably bravura performances.

Damrau is my new goddess (check out her fierce, vindictive Queen of the Night in Die Zaberflote and compare it to the victimized naif she plays here to see her range, both as a singer and an actress ) but I'm beginning to love Piotr Beczala, in particular. I thought the Polish tenor's rendition of La Donna E Mobile was actually - heresy! - better than Pavarotti's. That pole dance was unexpected but so, so in character. And he was wonderful in Mozart's The Magic Flute as Prince Tamano as well.

Because beggars can't be choosers, I'm still happy CCP has embarked on this program, even though one can fairly easily hunt for the clips online. There's still something about the cinematic experience - the feeling of being in a darkened venue with other spectators, waiting for the curtain to rise, waiting to be captivated, enchanted, and transported into another world by sounds and visions literally larger than life.

Barring attending a live performance at The Met, watching Operas in HD at the CCP Little Theater is as close as we can get to the magic of opera.

See you on the 28th for L'Elisir d' Amore.


  1. I really love your culture vulture posts :)

    I also saw this one at the CCP.

    I agree with you, 1960s Vegas is a little bit off with Rigoletto's plot but I guess it's the Met's way of attracting young theatre goers.

    Though Damrau's Gilda didn't really do well for me. Her Coloratura is too powerful and harsh for a naive 16 year old or maybe I just grew up listening to Sutherland's, Callas' or Gruberova's Caro Nome.

    I just hope I can also catch L'elisir d'amore. I hate that CCP decided to show their Met Opera broadcasts on Tuesdays.

  2. Like many people, I grew up with Callas' renditions of many popular arias - Caro Nome among them. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised with Damrau's version here. Art appreciation is truly a subjective thing, because while Damrau's coloratura strikes you as too powerful and harsh (at least for Gilda), I thought Damrau's dulcet tones added a sweetness and naiveté which was lacking in Callas' stylings.

    I stated in the Carmen post that casting is key, especially when it comes to lead roles. Ballet has a more uniform set of performers, body and looks-wise, to select from when casting classic roles like Carmen, Odette, Titania, and the rest. But opera has slimmer pickings in that regard.

    Figuratively. :D

    Truthfully, one has to suspend disbelief like the Golden Gate bridge to imagine Damrau - or any other Met-worthy soprano - as a 16-year old innocent. Still, I find her an actress as well as a soprano, and she telegraphs Gilda's sweet innocence sufficiently enough for me ;)

    In life as in art, YMMV.

    Oh, and:

    "I really love your culture vulture posts :)"

    That's sweet. I love that you love them because I think many people find them...boring.

  3. Never was a fan of opera. Come to think of it, I don't know anyone who loves opera. Perhaps I'm just not hanging out with the right kind of people lol

    I agree with art being more fluid than people think. And though I don't get the original reference, the 60's setting seems pretty interesting.

    1. "Never was a fan of opera."

      No one's born an opera fan, Nyl. It's an acquired taste.

      Like civilisation.

      "Come to think of it, I don't know anyone who loves opera."

      You do now.

      "And though I don't get the original reference, the 60's setting seems pretty interesting."

      The 60s were a lovely time in terms of fashion, design, and the mores of the day. I'm just unsure if it was the right time period to situate in, or if Rigoletto was the wrong work for the times. But considering how the themes of opera are timeless, I'm probably really just nitpicking.

      Or maybe it's really Vegas that grates.