Rigoletto

Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Pave
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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The Cast of Rigoletto Credit: Marty Sohl
Piotr Beczala as The Duke Credit: Marty Sohl
Željko Lučić as Rigoletto and Diana Damrau as Gilda Credit: Marty Sohl

Which is your favourite Verdi opera? When Verdi was asked the same question, he replied Rigoletto, which had premièred in 1851 with great success. It has a wonderful melodious score and one of the best librettos.

The opera, a gripping story of crime and punishment set it in 16th century Mantua, is based on Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse which had had its première in 1832 and caused something of a scandal. Verdi thought it might well be the greatest drama of his lifetime and that the hunchbacked court jester was a creation worthy of Shakespeare. The final scene is superb melodrama and can still shock.

This performance at The Met, New York, directed by Michael Mayer and conducted by Michele Mariotti, dates from 2013. The cast includes Željko Lučić as Rigoletto, Diana Damrau as Gilda, Piotr Beczała as the Duke, Štefan Kocán as Sparafucile and Oksana Volkova as Maddalena.

Jonathan Miller did a brilliant iconic Mafia production for English National Opera in 1982 and it has remained hugely popular ever since. Broadway director Michael Mayer also wanting to update the story and, looking for a time and place equally licentious, chose Las Vegas in the 1960s during the Rat Pack era. Neon lights blaze and the colour is blinding. We might be about to watch a Broadway musical. Even the subtitles have been updated.

Mayer’s production is not in the same class as Miller’s production but it is very watchable and has many good things, not least some excellent performances.

The Duke’s Palace is now a casino and the Duke himself is a lounge singer who likes women and presumes they are all as fickle as he is. There is nothing sinister about Piotr Beczała’s likeable playboy. He’s every girl’s dreamboat, all revved up and ready to deliver.

It is Sparafucile, the professional assassin, who prostitutes his sister and runs a pole-dance club, who is the real villain and to whom Verdi gives an irresistible sinister melody. Stefan Kocan, vocally and physically, is perfect.

The Rat Pack and the hangers-on, fed with Rigoletto’s vicious jokes at their expense, decide to teach him a lesson and kidnap his mistress. Only to discover the woman is not his mistress but his daughter.

Željko Lučić cuts a truly tragic figure when he is pleading with the kidnappers to give Gilda back to him. It’s a massively impressive performance, vividly showing the two very different sides of his nature: vicious, bitter, murderous in public and the loving father at home.

Lučić and Diana Darnrau, who have played the roles of father and daughter in many opera houses, have a natural chemistry and admit they give the same emotional performances they have always given, the update not affacting them one bit.

Verdi wrote the opera as a series of duets and their duets and the duets between Rigoletto and Sparafucile and Gilda and the Duke are all character driven and unfailingly melodious. The opera’s high spot, as always, is the third act quartet, one of opera’s great quartets.

Victor Hugo resented the opera’s popularity but, when he finally heard it, he had to admit its greatness. “If I could only make four characters in my plays speak at the same time and have the audience grasp the words and sentiments, I would obtain the very same effect.”

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera on Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch