Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Guest Post: Rigoletto in HD



(Dr. Stanley Crowe, aka my father, reviews the recent HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera production of Rigoletto. Read Dad's previous guest post here.)

The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's "Rigoletto" was broadcast in HD in cinemas on Saturday, 16 February. Newspaper reviews of the production had been generally positive, for the performances were strong, even if some aspects of the production were controversial. The action has been updated from 16th Century Mantua to 1960's Las Vegas. The Duke is an entertainer who owns a casino, and the courtiers and Rigoletto are his entourage. Thus a social distinction is blurred between the courtiers and Rigoletto, who in the 16th Century version is a jester and very much the social inferior of the courtiers. The costuming of this updated version suggests that a social distinction still is present, but if that's the case, it's not clear exactly what Rigoletto's role is in the casino owner's world.

But never mind. There were other things to think about. Let's agree that opera is not just about the music -- there is a histrionic dimension and a dimension of what we might call spectacle. The updated sets looked great. Lots of neon, period-appropriate costumes, and lots of little domestic details. The acting too was good, given the constraints of having to sing. In such updated productions, a viewer familiar with the opera is always going to be thinking, "I wonder how they will stage this or that particular scene or piece of business?" And I wondered that a lot -- and was always struck by the cleverness of the solutions to the potential staging problems. Was having my mind on these matters a distraction, or was it part of the pleasure? A little of both, maybe, depending on the particular scene.

The singing ranged from very good to excellent. Piotr Beczala's Duke looked good, acted well, and sang very solidly. He was better, I thought, in the duets and ensembles than in his solos, but these weren't bad, especially "La donna e mobile." The cabaletta in Act Two, "Possente amor mi chiama," used to be often omitted in performance, and it might well have been omitted here -- it was Beczala's weakest moment of solo singing (and besides, it's not all that arresting as music). The Serbian baritone Zelko Lucic was Rigoletto. He has a good-sized and reliable voice that isn't typically rounded and smooth, but he can deploy it effectively throughout its range and he sang his passages with his vulnerable daughter, Gilda, movingly. I was reminded of another Rigoletto, the Swedish baritone Ingvar Wixell -- also non-Italianate in sound and also effective. As an actor, Lucic was adequate, but the sincerity of his singing carried the day. The most impressive performance was Diana Damrau's Gilda. She has the hardest music to sing and was able to covey the inner conflicts of her character while singing it. Her singing was also the most polished, expressive, and varied of the main characters. It was a very impressive performance. A special shout-out should go to the bass who played Sparafucile, the assassin -- pretty reliably solid of voice and enjoying the nastiness of his role.

In the intervals, the soprano Renee Fleming interviewed the cast members. She asked all of them (who all had experience in more traditional productions), "How did you have to adjust your interpretation for this production?" The answer in all cases was, "We really didn't. After all, power, sex, money, father-daughter relationships are as powerful motivators now as they were in Verdi's time." Which raised the question in my mind, "So . . . did we really NEED an updated production? Maybe not -- but it was a good show.

Footnote: We can complain about problems caused by updating, but even in Verdi's original 1851 scenario there were problems. In that version, we learn early on that Rigoletto lives "in un' remoto calle" -- in a hidden-away street, where he is, of course, trying to keep his daughter away from the attention of the court. And yet, when the courtiers come to abduct her, they succeed in tricking Rigoletto into believing that it's the Countess Ceprano they want to abduct. So Rigoletto lives next door to (or across the street) from a nobleman? That's no more credible than Las Vegas!

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