High-Concept Verdi

All too often, ambitious opera directors move operas from one time and place to another in an attempt to “improve” them via this or that bold new concept. In 1976 Patrice Chéreau’s notorious Bayreuth production placed Wagner’s Ring on a Rhine River (or possibly Hudson) blighted by tenements and a mammoth hydropower plant. Jonathan Miller’s controversial 1982 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto situated the opera in mob-dominated Little Italy in New York. The Metropolitan Opera’s current productions have moved Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor from its original seventh-century setting to the late nineteenth, and Beethoven’s Fidelio from late-eighteenth-century Seville to a placeless twentieth-century prison.

And now the Met’s new Rigoletto recasts the opera’s promiscuous Duke as a Sinatra-like playboy operating a casino in 1960s Vegas. As for Rigoletto himself, he’s no longer a hunchbacked court jester in sixteenth-century Mantua, but a vicious sycophant whose costume—tacky sweaters, while the rat pack don tuxedos—reveals him as a despised sidekick to the in crowd. His daughter, Gilda, is a naïve teenager whom the Duke (aided by the rat pack) rapes. The cuckhold Monterone, whose curse moves the opera’s action, is an Arab sheik, not a noble fellow.

Traditionalists tend to hate this kind of thing, and often for good reason. Concept operas can sacrifice plot or...

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About the Author

Terrence W. Tilley is chair of the Theology Department at Fordham University.