Updated productions of classic works are always greeted with a degree of skepticism, especially if you add Las Vegas to the mix. The rowdy Las Vegas scene of the 1960's was the new setting of Michael Mayer's production of Verdi's acclaimed tragedy, "Rigoletto." Despite some initial resistance to the Las Vegas idea, it proved compatible, but only under the right circumstances.
Many opera-goers loath the idea of trashing traditional productions for something raunchy and classless (this production does feature a bare-chested stripper), but a serious parallel to the Las Vegas of the 60's could have made the opera easier to relate to; Mayer's production, however, turned this tragedy into more of a comedy. His attempts to recreate the Vegas of the 60's was lost in sets that lacked organization or stylistic unity and exaggerations that turned both the opera's protagonists and antagonists into mere caricatures of real people undermined the drama. Mayer's vision seems to be more of an entertaining spectacle than a drama.
With a shaky framework to go by, baritone Zeljko Lucic, in the title role, seemed unsure and uninspired in his portrayal Friday night. Though he sang with accuracy and elegance, it did not make up for his lacking stage presence. The second act is brimming with volatile emotions: rage, despair, and vengeance, but Lucic sang unwaveringly in his demure tone with hardly a change in facial expression.
Lucic's engagement with soprano Diana Damrau, in the role of Rigoletto's innocent daughter, Gilda, hardly helped matters. Her body language and general demeanor belonged to that of a girl of 9, not an adolescent. Damrau did, however, show tremendous vocal inflection and was able to express Gilda's inner conflict much more effectively by vocal means. Her vibrant tone was a nice change from the usual dainty Gilda, but because of her exaggeratedly naive portrayal, her powerful voice came off as forthcoming in context.
Piotr Beczala presented one of the few realistic characters of the night as the Duke, in this production more of a Frank Sinatra character. Though a little lacking in charisma in the first act, he expressed passion like no other. Through the second and third acts, Beczala displayed much more vocal vigor and sang with impressive lyric beauty and style. In a handsome tuxedo, he looked the part of the suave Duke and, despite his contemptible character, was, admittedly, a hard character to dislike.
The fateful finale takes place in a strip joint where the Duke comes to be entertained by Maddalena, sung by Oksana Volkova. Volkova had a warm, voluptuous tone befitting of the scantily-clad Maddalena, but there were times, particularly during the famous Act III quartet, that Volkova was completely overpowered by the orchestra and other cast members. To counter Volkova's sympathetic Maddalena was bass Stefan Kocan's callous Sparafucile. His ample, dark voice and stature gave the sordid thug a palpable edge of danger.
Maestro Michele Mariotti wielded the orchestra with purpose and kept appropriate tempi and balance throughout the performance.
Rigoletto will be running through May 1, 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera House.