Amid the current COVID wave, which is shutting down Broadway shows at a moment’s notice, no major cast changes marred the opening of this new Rigoletto production by Bartlett Sher. Certainly, there were no announcements that so-and-so is ailing but will sing anyway. No one with ailments of any kind is allowed in the stage door, said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager.
Whew! The Rigoletto cast looked good on paper but was even better upon arrival. Tenor Piotr Beczala as the Duke and especially baritone Quinn Kelsey in the title role are both excellent examples of artists emerging from lockdown with singing that’s self-surpassing, both vocally and interpretively. Even better, one could truly hear what they were doing: The singers were sympathetically showcased by conductor Daniele Rustioni, and, whether or not you loved the production, by Sher’s direction.
Amid the towering pillars of Michael Yeargan’s revolving sets, singers often stood outside the core of the setting, with the panorama of their lives in the Duke of Mantua’s court going by behind them but with the many relevant details of their performances becoming unmissable, thanks to their front-and-center stage placement. One later scene was actually played against a fairly blank, rustic-looking wall. That could prompt accusations that the production looked unfinished. Instead, the stage picture encouraged undivided attention. Some of my earliest and best Verdi experiences (including Il Trovatore at Cincinnati Opera in 1974) were on a virtually bare stage. So much theatrical information is heard in the vocal lines and the subtle, constantly changing orchestral writing around them that, one could argue, anything else is frosting on a cake that doesn’t need it.
Speaking of frosting, did Sher’s conceptual decision to place Rigoletto in the Weimar Republic — revised from its original run at the Berlin Staatsoper — enhance the opera? This fine director, who has had greater critical successes on Broadway than in the opera house, has no apparent templates, no trademark style, no bag of tricks. Content dictates form. Sher has no autopilot, unlike, say, Robert Wilson.
Middle-period Verdi poses particular challenges in our world of high-concept stagings, if only because these operas are firmly rooted in their original time and place and leave little room for abstraction. Rigoletto, in particular, has a strong Grand Guignol streak, with the assassin Sparafucile expertly killing the person you least want to die — Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda. Also, tragic fathers were a Verdi specialty. He longed to adapt King Lear for the lyric stage, and the title role of Rigoletto — the acid-tongued court jester who keeps his innocent daughter under lock and key — strongly suggests what that might’ve been like.
Nonetheless, these are characters who don’t reward psychological probing. The opera’s power comes partly from the collision of personalities, and subtlety can only be a distraction. Wisely, the production underscored the intensity, rather than the dimensions, of the character’s anguish.
Sher’s production was a sort of all-purpose European Art Deco-ish setting with a welcome sense of class distinction: Generals had their medals pinned all over them, the courtiers were dark, shadowy figures (which made for unfortunately murky, indistinct crowd scenes), and the sets suggested cold, glistening marble in the inhumane Duke of Mantua’s court. Well, why not? Sher is said to have made an executive decision against having a Nazi contingent, which would’ve placed a political burden onto the opera and taken away attention from this person-to-person story of sexual exploitation.
Visual representation of the characters was sensible and well balanced, one of the better touches being the bright red gloves that Rigoletto wears in the opening scene as he is being his verbally ruthless self — gloves that he throws off in the second scene which are to be retrieved by Sparafucile. The kidnapping of Gilda while Rigoletto is blindfolded has never felt plausible in my experience but here came off as well as it could. Later, when Rigoletto is searching for his kidnapped daughter in the Duke’s court, his ploy for sympathy is played as his cunning technique to smoke out the perpetrators. I loved that. The revolving set revealed some of Gilda’s more private, non-singing moments. After Gilda’s rape, she doesn’t quietly return to her father’s fold; she loves the Duke and will not have that emotion discredited. This interpretive twist wasn’t an exploration of character depth; it set what later comes into play when her love of the Duke takes a self-sacrificial turn.
The biggest point is that the singers were released to do what they do best. Of course, Beczala was just fine in the opera’s “hit arias,” but his music at the beginning of Act II showed what a great singer he has become, with every beautifully vocalized phrase conveying its own distinctive shade of emotion. I approached Kelsey’s first Rigoletto at the Met with the highest expectations based on his past work, and he was even better than I’d hoped. He not only projected the full range of Rigoletto’s emotional life but also had the vocal means to deliver it all, from the near-whisper ending his fateful meeting with Sparafucile to the lion’s roar that didn’t just convey a father’s rage but the lifelong pain of living with deformity and being robbed of what so many others take for granted.
This was my first encounter with soprano Rosa Feola, whose Gilda wasn’t the lighter-voiced, ultra-innocent portrayal exemplified by Maria Callas but, from the beginning, a fully fledged woman whose entry into the real world was long overdue. At times, her tone was almost mezzo-ish, but it was always beautiful. And she may just have the best trill in the business. Among the secondary roles, Craig Colclough (Monterone) delivered a perfectly weighty curse despite being physically harassed at court. As the mercenary assassin Sparafucile, Andrea Mastroni had an almost courtly veneer as he introduced himself as being from Burgundy. Portraying his sister, Maddalena, Varduhi Abrahamyan made a solid debut, claiming her place amid some outsized theatrical company.
Conductor Rustioni established himself as among the foremost Verdians in our midst, thanks to his way of revealing every subtlety in Verdi’s instrumentation — one element that makes Rigoletto much more than Grand Guignol — while maintaining the momentum in a story where fate has never been more cruel.
The Met program tells us that this was “the 899th Metropolitan Opera performance” of Rigoletto. And that doesn’t count the HD simulcast scheduled for Jan. 29. Engaging modern audiences with this antique dramaturgy — without going to the extremes of the Met’s previous update to modern-day Las Vegas — is not to be taken for granted. If nothing else, the overall package represented by this new production confirms the opera’s innate durability.