by Gregory Moomjy
Today it is difficult to imagine the canon without Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata. Written between 1851-1853, it is safe to say that these operas don’t just form the backbone of Verdi’s middle period, but they also are the backbone of the standard repertoire. However, an unfortunate drawback of their ubiquitous status is that with so many productions of these operas each year, it is occasionally difficult to remember what made these works so revolutionary to begin with. Starting with Rigoletto, set in the seedy underbelly of the Duchy of Mantua and with a physically disabled court jester as its lead– Verdi began to eschew subjects about noble figures who suffer tragically as they balance their personal needs with the good of the state. Rigoletto became the first opera in a trilogy where Verdi searched for novel subjects and protagonists that had not been given the operatic treatment before.
For instance, the central character of Il Trovatore is a Romani woman suffering from PTSD. This trend continued with La Traviata, which tells the story of a call girl whose struggle for true love and acceptance into society is tragically upended by tuberculosis. La Traviata, is also the first opera where the main character dies on stage of natural causes. Therefore, many music historians refer to it as ‘the beginning of the Verismo school.’ Verismo is an Italian philosophy of opera about everyday people living everyday lives, which would culminate in the work of Puccini and others. However, I would argue that this distinction can also be applied to Rigoletto.
With all that said, the Met’s new production of Rigoletto which opened on New Year’s Eve is a valiant, if slightly flawed, attempt to reimagine the work. Bartlett Sher, who at this point is no stranger to the Met, updated the story from Renaissance Italy to Germany during the Weimar Republic. The set, which was for the most part, a unit set on a turntable aptly depicted the gaudy art deco courtly atmosphere of the Duke’s palace one minute and was able to swiftly change to the dilapidated slums where Rigoletto lives and assassins lurk, in this case, literally in the shadows.
The cast, led by Baritone Quinn Kelsey, who is finally back at the Met after recovering from Covid, was in fine form. Kelsey who possesses a smooth and flexible Verdi baritone brought out all the complexities of his character. He was at turns a father trying to protect his daughter and a disabled person trying to stay alive in an unjust society. His performance had a very Shakespearean quality to it, giving Rigoletto the feel of Hamlet or the fool in King Lear.
In the pit, the orchestra was led by Daniele Rustioni. Musically Rigoletto is in many ways a traditional number opera – albeit one where Verdi starts to push the envelope by integrating music from previous numbers as the story progresses. The best example of this is, of course, the last act where the tune from “La Donna E Mobile” comes up again and again to demonstrate that despite Rigoletto’s plan to kill the Duke it does not succeed. With that said, under the direction of Rustioni, the score had a degree of naturalness to it. The individual numbers, arias, duets, and ensembles seemed to grow naturally out of the dramatic situations. The only notable exception was the Duke’s cabaletta at the beginning of Act II. Given that by that point, he’s running off to have sex with Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter, and most likely about to brag about it to his courtiers, it makes sense that that aria should stick out a little bit, just to give it an extra degree of flashiness.
Rustioni’s interpretation was also noteworthy for his decision to avoid certain tropes of the performing “tradition” that has grown around this opera. Most notably, Gilda did not sing her usual high note at the end of the storm scene before she sacrifices her life for the Duke. In much the same way, Quinn Kelsey did not sing his high appoggiatura before the start of the stretta of the duet which closes Act II. The latter was more effective than the former. According to musicologist and author Philip Gossett, by singing the tonic before beginning “Si vendetta” it further establishes a similarity between Rigoletto and the Assassin Sparafucile. They are in a sense, two sides of the same coin, and this duality runs throughout the whole opera. More importantly, this worked because Kelsey’s Rigoletto was not flashy. By contrast, the decision to cut Gilda’s high note at the end of the storm scene may have been more authentic to what Verdi originally wrote but lacks a certain dramatic intensity which other coloraturas like Joan Sutherland instill in this scene.
On the subject of bel canto style, Piotr Beczala’s performance as the Duke was mixed. His vocal embellishments were well-placed and beautifully executed; however, he sang with perhaps too much bluster, lacking the smoothness required for bel canto tenor roles. Adriana Chuchman who covered Gilda for an indisposed Rosa Feola made a striking impression. She possesses a warm bright soprano which easily makes her the focal point whenever she’s on stage. As Gilda, she was naïve but also passionate. This dichotomy was brought to the fore by Bartlett Sher’s direction. For instance, she fought her captors as she was being abducted by the Duke’s courtiers. Thankfully, in this production, they don’t carry her off in a giant sarcophagus. However, despite her strength, the rotating set which showed her being undressed and prepared for the Duke during his scena at the beginning of Act II made it clear that she was about to be assaulted which in turn made her insistence that she and the Duke were in love all the more heartbreaking.
The staging of the first scene of Act II says a lot about the mismatched way in which Sher handled crowds on stage. As with Gilda’s abduction, the stage business could be powerful and yet as with the first scene of Act I where Count Monterone enters the Duke’s palace during a scuffle, the activity could make the action unclear, consequently leaving the audience without knowing where to focus. Unfortunately, these faults in the staging became extremely apparent during the entirety of Acts III. During the quartet, Gilda and Rigoletto actually entered Sparafucile’s Inn. The fact that they were inside the Inn, instead of watching the Duke and Maddalena from outside, made it implausible as to how Maddalena and her brother would not recognize Gilda later on, before they kill her (even though at that point, Gilda is dressed like a man). What’s more, updating Rigoletto to 1920s Germany means that these characters were living in a time when electricity, at least in this production, would have been in full use. As such, on stage during the killing here the lights were on the entire time.
More importantly, during the storm scene, particularly during the orchestral conclusion, the set started to rotate. On paper, this makes sense, there’s a storm happening so there must be some way to indicate this phenomenon on stage, however, the issue here is that the basis for this entire production is a unit set, where one side serves as the opulent settings of the Duke’s court and the other side is the squalor. Therefore, rotating the set made it seem as if the Duke’s ballroom was also in one way, the entrance to the rundown inn.
As with many updated productions of Rigoletto, ideas that are good on paper lose something when transferred to the stage. This was largely the case with the previous production that director Michael Mayer set in Rat Pack era Las Vegas. Fortunately, the Met and its creative team can be pleased with this production despite the occasional blemish, as it serves the story in a way that speaks to our contemporary sensibilities while honoring what originally inspired Verdi to tell this story. When combined with performances of such a high caliber, it’s safe to say that here the Met offers its audiences a reminder, just in case we needed one, of why Rigoletto is deservedly a classic.