Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Season Review: Rigoletto

Nadine Sierra & Vittorio Grigolo Rise Above Sloppy Production

By Logan Martell

On February 12, 2019, the Metropolitan Opera opened this season’s run of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Michael Mayer’s production transports this tragedy to 1960s Las Vegas, a setting which merges together the glamor of high society with its seedy underbelly, just as many of the characters exhibit traits of both nobility as well as depravity.

Despite the connections one can rightfully make between this new setting and that of Piave’s libretto, many of the opera’s details do not translate well as the performance unfolds. Fortunately, this evening saw a splendid cast of artists, under the baton of Nicola Luisotti, whose passions did not fail in providing many moments of musical enjoyment.

Weight of the World

In the title role, Roberto Frontali bore a dramatic and vocal weight that was well-suited to the tragic Verdi father. When begging for the return of his daughter from the courtiers, he was capable of making himself pitiable, but when deciding the duke’s fate with Sparafucile, Frontali’s voice and bearing swelled up to proud heights. While his costume did nothing to suggest the character’s hunchbacked nature, Frontali expertly conveyed the perceived burden felt by the cursed jester. This was heard all too powerfully when Rigoletto realizes Gilda has been abducted; Frontali’s cry of horror was visceral and seemed to expend all the breath he had within him. This sense of gravitas made him as compelling to watch as Sierra and Grigolo, and proved that a character doesn’t need to be young and in love to steal an audience’s heart.

As the Duke of Mantua, tenor Vittorio Grigolo was a highly-entertaining wildcard. His physically dynamic performances can vary in effectiveness depending on the role, but here Grigolo’s energy found resonance not just with the Duke’s character, but what Mayer’s production added by making him a casino owner and club singer. His opening number “Questa o quella,” worked well to set a high bar early into the performance. Despite this, I thought it strange that while he was swinging around a long corded prop microphone, his directions saw him only singing into it for high notes; this made it unclear as to whether he was actually giving a performance as a club singer or just fooling around with his friends.

Grigolo’s love for Gilda was as fervent as it was ephemeral, with a passion that few performers could rival. This was made clear by his duet “Signor, ne principe io lo vorrei.” As the number neared its conclusion, the orchestra tapered into silence, leaving Grigolo and Sierra alone to use their cadenza as an emotionally charged conversation of vocal colors. When it came time for the famous “La donna e mobile,” the faster tempo of the orchestra gave an almost frantic nuance to the aria, emphasizing the Duke being swept away by his passions.

A Priceless Voice

In the hand of cards played by the Metropolitan Opera, Nadine Sierra as Gilda was undoubtedly the evening’s ace.

Starting off with plenty of youthful energy, she gracefully transitioned to a more mature bearing for her duet “Deh non parlare al misero.” While their farewell felt a little drawn out, Sierra and Frontali were deeply touching nonetheless. Sierra earned nearly show-stopping applause for her inspired rendition of Gilda’s aria, “Caro nome che il mio cor,” which displayed her ability to vocally float on cloud nine and deliver stunning ornaments from her highest register.

For Gilda’s abduction at the hands of the courtiers, the use of a sarcophagus was an interesting choice given its earlier use to reveal a dancer in the casino. Here it came back as a means by which the courtiers deliver new women to their duke, and the fact that it’s a coffin suggested Gilda’s dishonoring as a kind of death.

After Gilda was left for dead by Sparafucile in the trunk of a car, I could not help but wonder what new, interesting space Nadine Sierra would be stuffed into next. It was from this trunk that Sierra delivered Gilda’s final lines, accompanied by the dirge-like rhythm from the orchestra, getting fainter and fainter until her last breath tapered into deathly silence.

A Cool, but Clumsy Knife

As the assassin Sparafucile, Stefan Kocan carried a dangerous presence both vocally and dramatically. This character also received significant changes due to the modern setting. His entrance was well-done, having been a shadow at the bar during the energetic first scene; he does not enter so much as he is revealed by the exit of all but him and Rigoletto. While this transition between scenes was otherwise smooth, it seemed incongruous that Sparafucile, wearing a rather sharp suit, is mistaken for a beggar by Rigoletto. Kocan’s duet with Frontali, “Quel vecchio maledivami,” oozed with a grim confidence bolstered by the almost-croaking rhythm of the basses. For his departure, Kocan’s low F was safely handled, though he did not sustain it as long as he could have.

For all the certainty he possessed in earlier scenes, his murder of Gilda was sloppy, if not outlandish. Given that his direction was to sneak up behind her, it seemed unnecessary to cover up her head with a sack before stabbing her repeatedly. While the sack prevented him from recognizing her as Rigoletto’s daughter, due to their tense moment of eye contact before she left to change clothes, this choice only makes sense from the director’s perspective rather than Sparafucile’s. The change from a single stab to multiple also made Gilda’s sacrifice seem more like a slaughter, and suggested a killer that did not know how to swiftly close the deal.

A Shot in the Dark

One of the most notable tweaks to the story came during the powerful entrance of Robert Pomakov as Monterone. While many productions choose some way to distinguish him from the court, often by making his costume a bold, opposing color, this one turns the aged count into an Arabic sheikh; this change raises more questions than it answers, in terms of Monterone’s relationship with the rest of the court, and the enmity between them that exists before the start of the opera. Even more curious was why the Duke forgave Monterone for their undisclosed prior conflict, yet when the latter returned in Act two he was given a bullet in the back of the head for disrupting the games in the casino. One can only surmise that their prior conflict did not involve casino games.

The other major problem with this production ultimately comes down to the title character. Who exactly is Rigoletto in this context? He hangs around the Duke and his entourage, though his role is not clearly defined. The class structure is questionable given that Rigoletto occupies a room in the hotel that the Duke presumably owns, which would likely be an expensive one to live in. Moreover, with the Duke himself playing the role of the entertainer for his friends, he usurps Rigoletto’s original position in the story. Originally Rigoletto’s role as jester not only exemplified that he was lower than the Duke and his Court in the social hierarchy, but that people of his social class were essentially there to be used for the entertainment of the higher classes. Given the context of Los Vegas where this medieval hierarchy is not only less present, but also muddied by the Duke’s role as an entertainer, Rigoletto’s character in this production doesn’t really make any sense.

On the technical side of things, the ever-present neon lights did not add much to the performance overall, though they did have two notable moments. The first came at the end of the stretta in scene one, where the lights begin flashing rapidly as if fueled by the energy of the court, their lives being the public spectacle which keeps the game of debauchery going. The second was the use of wide neon light to run a flickering current, in sync with the flute, and give the impression of lightning for act three’s storm.

With so many variables, there was much that could have gone wrong in the evening’s performance, and it was not without its share of technical bumps in the road. The opera began only a few minutes behind schedule due to a malfunctioning podium light, and after the performance I noticed the curtain becoming stuck for a few moments before it managed to close.

While Mayer’s production has many shortcomings, its greatest strength may lie in its ability to generate strong reactions one way or another, even if only as momentary shock value. With such a stellar cast of artists, many of whom at the top of their game, the Metropolitan Opera has found a winning combination that is sure to make great entertainment through its run of “Rigoletto” this season.


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