Monday, February 18, 2013

Pari siamo: Rigoletto and the Rat Pack

Saturday's matinee of Rigoletto confirmed that a pretty solid performance of this Verdi masterpiece makes for an above average night (or afternoon) at the opera. Michael Mayer's gaudy production, saturated with the neon artificiality of 1960s Las Vegas, is essentially traditional, adhering closely to the narrative of the libretto. The literalism with which the choreography stuck to the score in the pacing of gestures, embraces, exits and entrances might not be terribly imaginative, but it's functional. There are a number of clever touches--Gilda telling her diary about Gualtier Malde, Sparafucile haunting a dive bar--and the novelty of the visuals drew a pair of my friends up from D.C., and drew audible "ohhs" from the young girl in the row behind us. I'm inclined to give it a pass as a functional if not terribly exciting new production. The brutality of the court was suitably emphasized, and the grittiness of the final act I especially liked. A "God forgive me" from a self-sacrificing soprano can seem merely conventional in sixteenth-century Mantua, but there's no mistaking the genuine terror in a trenchcoat-clad girl hitting her knees on wet asphalt. This brings me to the performance of Diana Damrau, which was technically breathtaking and of impressive dramatic nuance and depth; her Gilda came across as the most fully realized of the principal characters.
Michele Mariotti's conducting of Verdi's score was in many respects disappointing. Coordination was mostly good, and the Met orchestra embraced the drama of ominous percussion, palpitating woodwinds, etc. with relish. However, tempi had a tendency to lag (nothing can really slow the impulsion of the drama, but it was strange to hear so many desperate utterances made so deliberately) and Mariotti's habit of playing all climaxes fortississimo actually undermined their power by drowning the singers. This is Rigoletto; deafening sound is not a prerequisite for dramatic impact. In the vital supporting roles of the opera, Magdalena (Oksana Volkova) and Monterone (Robert Pomakov) both seemed underpowered. Stefan Kocán's Sparafucile, on the other hand, was vocally assured and charismatic, with a stunning low F and an unmistakably sleazy aura. Piotr Beczala was, as ever, stylish in his delivery and secure in his phrasing. Unusually, he sounded strained at the top of his range, but still turned in a convincingly caddish performance, if one slightly lacking in animal magnetism. (I wondered if the possible fault lines between public and private identity suggested by the staging of "Questa o quella" as a show tune would be explored; they weren't.) One directorial choice I quite liked was the staging of the Duke and Gilda's duet to make very clear that he is pushing for more intimacy than she is comfortable with.

Diana Damrau's Gilda, perforce innocent, was neither brainless nor spineless. Not sharing her father's distrust of the world, she is confident in her ability to persuade him to let her see it... and how she varies her appeal between rational argument and little-girl pleading was a delight to see and hear. It was also made clear that this was determination on Gilda's part, not guile; she is perfectly ready to tell her father about the handsome stranger she's seen at church, but Giovanna forestalls such frankness. Damrau's phrasing and control of dynamics and tonal color were masterful, and this, coupled with her tender chemistry with Lucic's Rigoletto, had me decidedly teary during their Act I duet. As the scene with her father makes clear, Gilda's journey towards self-mastery and self-assertion has already begun, and this continues in her interactions with the Duke. She is both disconcerted and delighted by his professions of love, but she is decidedly not putty in his hands. Attracted to him, she fights off his advances. Only as he leaves does she take the initiative in kissing him swiftly on the mouth; and her reactions to her own boldness--surprise, alarm, excitement--were visible and palpable from the back of the Family Circle. Damrau's "Caro Nome" was, I thought, nothing less than a tour de force. Emotional specificity and nuance were conveyed through superb vocal artistry; one could hear Gilda thinking through her feelings, engaging them, interrogating them, taking delighted ownership of them. And when I thought that nothing could be added to this overflowing bounty, there came the triumphant joy of her messa di voce on the final "Gualtier Malde!" In Act II, Gilda's trust has been tragically broken, but not her strength. "Tutte le feste al tempio" brought me to tears, and watching Gilda slowly realize her emotional isolation during the duet with her father (he is too devastated by the blow to her innocence and his honor to see the state of her heart) was indeed heartbreaking. The events of the third act unroll as if written by fate, but while everyone else makes compromises, Gilda remains grimly determined. Damrau's vocal energy never flagged, and her reactions stem not from frantic denial of facts, but of a resolve, hardened to steel over the course of the opera, to insist on taking her life into her own hands.

Zeljko Lucic's Rigoletto, if it lacked this burning intensity, was nonetheless vocally solid and dramatically thoughtful. His phrasing was sensitive throughout, making clear that Rigoletto is a man almost crushed by the weight of his own moral compromises. Lucic worked sensitively with the other principals, always responsive, always wary, always negotiating. That he was occasionally overpowered by the orchestra I am inclined to attribute to Mariotti's heavy-handed crescendos. Fiercely tender towards his daughter, he is still unable to understand her independent judgments, or even the full implications of his own actions: in the unthinkable tragedy of her death he sees only cruel fatality.


  1. Unfortunately the updating and the neon sets were no more than window dressing, and despite some fine singing no one seemed really involved dramatically. Possibly the director Michael Mayer, was more at home in musical theatre than opera, where he seemed surprised that everyone turned up knowing their roles inside out, and he had nothing to add to their performances

  2. I agree that it's a shame so little was done with the historical setting. I was relieved that it wasn't lazy, at least, if not really insightful. Where were you watching from, that you found the singers dramatically uninvolved? Beczala may have been aloof, but I thought Lucic conscientious, and Damrau brilliant.


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