This was the recent Met production of Verdi’s Rigoletto which I saw in a live broadcast at the DCA last Saturday evening. A very colourful and spectacular production it was, with some great singing and performances from the cast. Piotr Beczala was the epitome of the lecherous male, while Diana Damrau was equally convincing as the naive and romantic daughter in search of love. Željko Lučić’s Rigoletto was less of a success, not on account of his voice but rather the confusion arising from the staging. This brings me neatly to the heart of the matter. For this Rigoletto was set in 1960s Las Vegas. The brainchild of Michael Mayer, a Broadway producer, this was yet another attempt to update the opera and somehow make it more relevant to a modern audience. Now I have nothing against these attempts, at least nothing in principle. It is just that so many fail to convince. In large measure because the dramatic and psychological context of many operas are deeply entrenched in a particular period. Rigoletto in particular relies on two very specific circumstances for its drama to work. First and perhaps foremost, the opera is about a curse. For this to be believable we need to feel that both the curser and the person being cursed actually believe in curses and their effects. Secondly the opera takes place in a very confined and limiting space. One where rivalries were rife, but one in which it was possible to keep some things secret. In the original this was the court of the Duke of Mantova in the 16th century. Though rich, this would be a fairly small and close community. It was also a time when people, or at least some people did believe in curses. At the court Rigoletto was the duke’s jester and given licence to insult and provoke others, while protecting the interests of the duke. Not a set of circumstance easy to recreate nowadays. It has been done quite successfully, by Jonathan Miller who set his version in a bar in New York’s Little Italy of the 1950s and the Duke was transformed into a mob boss and Rigoletto was the barman who served the boss’ interests. It was also a world in which the characters could believably speak Italian. However there is virtually nothing in common between 1960s Las Vegas and 1950s Little Italy. For a start the action takes place mainly in a casino, a very public place, without any sense of a restricted clientele. The duke is now a casino owner and singer. The characters are supposed to be modelled on the famous Ratpack of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davies Jr et al. But this was not a hermetic sealed community. Though there was no doubt licentiousness aplenty, it is was all pretty open and it is hard to imagine anyone from that set believing in a curse. This setting also takes away much of the power from Rigoletto. In this version it is never clear just what his role is. Then there is the small matter of Gilda, Rigoletto’s young daughter, who he is at pains to keep hidden away from everyone. No-one else knows about her as she is kept pretty much as a prisoner, only allowed out once a week to go to mass. Now this may have worked and even been pretty common in 16th century Italy and perhaps in parts of Little Italy in the 1950s. But it just does not work for Las Vegas at any time and certainly not in the 1960s.
I have one other quibble, this time with the English subtitles. Too often this attempted to turn the words into modern or presumably 1960s American. With baby, gal and goodness knows what else. I can see the point of translating the libretto into English and singing the whole thing in English – English National Opera does this for example. Next month in Dundee we will have the opportunity to see and hear an English language version of La Traviata. But, unless, unbeknown to all of us, the Met has rewritten the Italian of the libretto, then why oh why do they need to change the translation. We can see the action on stage and can see how the characters are dressed and portrayed. It was pretty obvious from the stage that we were in something very like Las Vegas in the 1960s or thereabouts. We did not need a false translation of the Italian words. Many of the audience will be quite familiar with Rigoletto and its libretto. No need for this gratuitous nonsense. All this is a great pity, because the performances, both individually and collectively are very good. The bright flashing neon lights and the brash costumes are also very effective and probably a good modern reflection of the garishness of a minor Italian court in the 16th century, which was not always the epitome of good taste. So, in summary, a visual and singing treat, just a pity about the updating.