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 characters for the sake of being “avant garde.” They can disfigure a piece almost beyond recognition, in the process often obscuring the heart of the opera: the music. In an era like ours, blessed with elegant, world-class singing actors, overshadowing the performers is disgraceful.
Yet some concepts succeed in illuminating the plot or characters by transplanting them. Puccini’s La Bohème and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore travel well. And while critics excoriated Mary Zimmerman for not halting the action during the sextet in the Met’s Lucia, her gimmick of getting a large cast all lined up for a wedding picture while the principals expressed their inmost thoughts and feelings in lovely, intricate music improved vastly on the typical “park and bark” approach to bel canto high points.
While the audience at the Met’s January 28 premiere of Rigoletto did not get violent, as happened in 1976 in Bayreuth, some boos were heard. In my view they were misguided, because the new Met production is a success. It is graced with a brilliant young conductor, Michele Mariotti. The singing and acting are uniformly excellent: Diana Damrau sings exquisitely and brings forth a nuanced realization of Gilda’s character, while Željko Lucic sings Rigoletto with graceful phrasing and burnished power. Piotr Beczala’s wonderfully sung Duke performs a stripper’s pole dance while singing “La Donna è Mobile,” revealing himself as a fickle, promiscuous predator.
Such a performance typifies the way director Michael Meyer and his team have used a concept to reveal just how corrupt and horrid the opera’s characters are. Bringing this production to a mythic time and place all too much like our own does not conceal the power of Rigoletto, but rather reveals and focuses it. And far from making great singers play second fiddle, the Met’s new Rigoletto empowers the musicians to perform a gleaming score brilliantly. The concept works equally well as music and as theater.
In its original setting, Rigoletto remains distant enough to hide the obscenity of its characters beneath the beauty of its music. Meyer’s glitzy, neon-lit casino staging possesses an over-the-top audacity that helps reveal the characters’ shallow hedonism. No audience can avoid seeing how accursed such a beastly and self-defeating way of life is. For all the beauty of the music, the true tragedy is revealed, and we comprehend that the emotion most foreign to the characters is love. Rigoletto’s paternal love for Gilda is a private emotion, not a way of life. Gilda’s “love” for the Duke moves from infatuation to sexual slavery.
The difference between good and bad concept operas resembles the difference between good and bad preaching. Like bad preaching, many concept-opera productions amount to a kind of eisegesis; they impose a meaning on the work, one that does not grow out of the work. But good preaching employs exegesis, drawing out from the text a meaning that is there but not always noticed. The Met’s rat-pack Rigoletto does this and does it wonderfully, interpreting a familiar work exegetically, so that we can see the human reality amid the lovely music. It shows us what perhaps we might have overlooked: that the court and its jester are cursed not merely by Monterone, but also by the life they lead. And that is a concept that works.