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The Metropolitan Opera
Act I of Rigoletto at the Met, with Lewis, Mattsey, Crawford, Beczala and Lučić
© Beth Bergman 2013
The Act III quartet with Volkova, Beczala, Lučić and Damrau
© Beatriz Schiller 2013
Beczala in the Met's new Rigoletto
© Beatriz Schiller 2013
Michael Mayer, one of the American theater's most respected directors, made his Metropolitan Opera debut on January 28 with a new staging of Rigoletto set in Las Vegas in 1960. Mayer's best-known theater credit is probably his Tony-Award-winning direction of the rock musical Spring Awakening in 2007, but his work has embraced a variety of disciplines and styles: on Broadway alone, Mayer has mounted thoughtful, intelligent productions of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, as well as Warren Leight's harrowing memory play, Side Man, and the candy-colored musical pastiche, Thoroughly Modern Millie. Mayer's best work for the theater has been marked by clarity, wit and an impressive degree of intelligence; his direction of actors is sure-handed and stylish, as witness the number of artists who have given career-defining performances under his guidance. All of Mayer's familiar virtues were evident in his production of Rigoletto: the staging and pacing of the intimate scenes involving the three principal characters were very well-handled, and most of the various comprimario roles were brought to life within the context of the opera's new "show biz" setting with point and flair, due in no small measure to the superb work of costume designer Susan Hilferty. Emalie Savoy's Countess Ceprano was gowned in the style of Marilyn Monroe; Maria Zifchak's Giovanna was a beehived matron with a pack of cigarettes in the pocket of her cardigan; Alexander Lewis's Borsa was an antic dinner-jacketed comic.
But as sometimes happens, the sheer exuberance of Mayer's invention — at least as far as the physical production was concerned — dominated the piece at hand without offering any particular illumination or fresh insight. The Vegas sets, by Christine Jones — a Spring Awakening colleague of Mayer's, as are Hilferty and lighting designer Kevin Adams — were wonderfully gaudy and crass, especially in the Act I, scene 1 setting of "The Duke's Casino," a neatly done capture of the hermetically sealed world of excess that was Las Vegas in 1960. In this Rigoletto, the Duke was a Sinatra-esque headliner, whose "Questa o quella" was choreographed by Steven Hoggett to look like a Sands Hotel revue number, complete with showgirls and oversized feather fans. The byplay between the Duke and his "Rat Pack" cronies Marullo (Jeff Mattsey), Borsa and Ceprano (David Crawford), had a nice edge, although the reinvention of Monterone (Robert Pomakov) as an Arab sheik seemed to misfire, inspiring some discomfiting chuckles in the audience on opening night. (It is unpleasant to believe that a character in Arab costume would automatically be regarded by a modern audience as a comic figure, but that seems to be the case in 2013.) But the crux of the drama — the Act II post-abduction scene in which we should realize the scope of the Duke's depravity, as well as the force of Rigoletto's hunger for vengeance — was served up rather mildly; the chorus was awkwardly deployed, Monterone's execution was dispatched as a mob-style hit and, most damagingly, Rigoletto's entrance was weakly staged. This scene is the one in which Rigoletto should grab the drama by becoming a killer; that did not register here, as the action refused to get darker, dominated as it was by the glittering figures of the Duke and his entourage. The final act was slickly staged, with Adams's lighting design especially effective.
The Met cast the show brilliantly: the three principals, deftly led by Michele Mariotti, could not have been bettered. Piotr Beczala stole the show, offering outrageous cool-cat charisma as the Duke, singing and moving with immaculate grace. Diana Damrau offered full-throated, nonpareil command of Gilda's music in Acts I and II and a surpassingly sensitive account of the girl's death scene in Act III. Željko Lučić, probably the best Rigoletto in the world today, acted with vigor and sounded thrilling as the jester, some minor slips in intonation on climactic notes aside. Štefan Kocán was a superbly oily Spafucile, Oksana Volkova a disappointingly conventional Maddalena.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL