Friday, February 22, 2013

RAT PACK RIGOLETTO

RIGOLETTO                LIVE in HD
Metropolitan Opera 
16 February 2013 

© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA

Rigoletto...............Zeljko Lucic
Gilda...................Diana Damrau
Duke of Mantua..........Piotr Beczala
Maddalena...............Oksana Volkova
Sparafucile.............Stefan Kocán
Monterone...............Robert Pomakov
Borsa...................Alexander Lewis
Marullo.................Jeff Mattsey
Count Ceprano...........David Crawford
Countess Ceprano........Emalie Savoy
Giovanna................Maria Zifchak
Page....................Catherine Choi
Guard...................Earle Patriarco

Conductor...............Michele Mariotti

Production..............Michael Mayer
Set Designer............Christine Jones
Costume Designer........Susan Hilferty
Lighting Designer.......Kevin Adams
Choreographer...........Steven Hoggett
TV Director.............Matthew Diamond

Rigoletto tableau (Metropolitan Opera)

Several months ago, tickets went begging for performances at the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Ballo in Maschera. But the Live HD Relay was pretty much sold-out in cinemas around the world. All the more remarkable if you factor in ticket prices for the relayup to three times more than the tab for a new feature film in 2D. The simulcast of the Met’s new Rigoletto on 16 February was pretty much a sell-out in cinemas. In the house too -- judging from the numerous panning shots of the audience just before the performance. 


And from the looks of Michael Mayer’s zazzy production on the silver screen, it's an eye-popper. Forget the original setting in 16th century Mantua.  We're in 1960s Las Vegas, abetted by Christine Jones’ super-gaudy sets, Susan Hilferty’s retro-trash costumes and Kevin Adams’ nervy neon lighting. For a near-sighted spectator watching from the Met’s upper regions, the stage pictures may seem like a LeRoy Neiman chroma blur. But out in HD Land, this production has been tailor-made for high-def viewing.
 

There are enough distractions in this strategy to keep you from asking tough questions about the logic of placing Rigoletto in a Rat Pack mileu, some of which have been posed by the New York Times. What, for instance, is Rigoletto’s job? And how many people know what the Rat Pack was? The latter question was answered to some extent in a string of live intermission features hosted by the redoubtable Renee Fleming. Mayer said he found parallels between the original characters and the clique of entertainers that headlined in Vegas during the 1960s (and sealed their notoriety in the 1960 film Ocean's Eleven). But if indeed the Duke is Frank Sinatra and one of the supporting characters is supposed to be Dean Martin, then who is Gilda?  Judy Garland?  No.  Shirley MacClaine?  I don't think so. Lauren Bacall?  Huh?  Mayer’s concept is so fleetingly thought out, that it may not bear thinking about. At least it’s not offensive, except maybe to those who take umbrage at Sammy Davis, Jr. being portrayed as a white guy.

Compare, then, this production with Jonathan Miller’s memorable staging for the English National Opera back in the 1980s, which was set in New York’s Little Italy. (It played at the Met for several performances and featured a thrilling cameo by Norman Bailey as Monterone.) You didn’t need liner notes to “get” the looming reference to Edward Hopper in order to absorb the chill that permeated Rigoletto’s cheerless Mafia-driven world. Miller's sotto-seething sous-monde concept illuminated Verdi by enlivening the subversive motives behind Hugo's Le roi s'amuse, the source on which the composer's librettist Francsco Maria Piave based his text.  But you didn't need to know any of this to be utterly taken by this gem of a production.

Thanks to HDTV, I have some idea of what this Rigoletto looks like in the house, but I have little idea how it sounded to the audience at the Met. All the voices during transmission seemed to be about the same size, thanks to toney audio engineering; everything sonic was endowed with a pleasant aural “bloom” that made the singing and orchestral playing especially appealing. The singers in particular sounded flawlessly on pitch and blended nicely in the famous ensembles. But there’s not much you can say about them with certainty, because you’re entirely dependent upon the audio producer's team and how they ply the vast array of level controls at their disposal.

Zeljko Lucic sans hunchback lump delivered an effectively morose Rigoletto, but he might have made more of the character’s transition from stooge to avenger. Diana Damrau is a comely Gilda, although she is clearly in slim-down mode following the recent birth of her second child. Piotr Beczala (Beh-CHA-weh) was in superb form as the Duke. Oksana Volkova (Maddalena), Stefan Kocán (Sparafucile) and Robert Pomakov (Monterone) rounded out the principals satisfactorily.

Michele Mariotti acquitted himself promisingly at the podium, following his successful Met debut leading Carmen this past autumn. At age 32, he follows in the deep footsteps left by the likes of Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti, who both were already on the threshold of maturity at the starts of thier careers. 

After talking with some grunts at the Met in recent seasons, I’ve been left with the distinct impression that the world’s leading opera house is currently not a happy place to be employed. But when was it Paradise? Some of the complaints center on the trend toward making new productions TV-friendly. “The Met’s becoming a television studio,” is one of the more frequently stated grumblings. Meanwhile, hostess Renee again encouraged the transmission audience to experience a Met performance in the house, stopping just short of giving directions to the box-office. Poor attendance at the Met but sell-outs at live transmissions may portend a sea change for how audiences want to experience opera.  After all, you can munch and sip deadly beverages while watching a relay at a cinema near you. Given the louder-than-life ambience of HD relays, though, those who decide to attend a Met performance for the first time ever, may, as I’ve said before, be in for a letdown.

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