NEW YORK (AP) — For all the bright lights and razzle-dazzle of the Las Vegas locale, the most illuminating stretches in Michael Mayer's showy new production of "Rigoletto" at the Metropolitan Opera occurred when the three commanding singers were left alone at the front of the stage and the splashy scenery receded into the background.
The opening-act fan dancers were distracting and the third-act topless stripper/hooker was gratuitous. Countess Ceprano resembled Marilyn Monroe and the Count of Monterone was an Arab sheik. Gilda was carried off in a sarcophagus when she was kidnapped, then died in the trunk of a Cadillac Coupe Deville.
Clearly this wasn't the "Rigoletto" that played at the Met 841 previous times over 129 years.
Overall, Mayer's transfer of Verdi's first great middle-period opera from 16th-century Mantua to a 1960 hotel and casino on the Strip resulted in straightforward storytelling. The gamble with regietheater was largely successful, an entertaining, bold rendition that some will conclude lacks new insight and others will find frenetic and fun. The notoriously conservative Met audience mostly cheered the Tony-winning director following Monday night's production premiere, with only a few boos scattered in.
In her first performance since giving birth to her second child in October, Diana Damrau gave a searing, loving portrayal of Gilda, a total melding of her silvery soprano with the persona of a vulnerable, confused young girl, unsure how to deal with her overprotective father and sexual awakening amid the bawdy decadence of Sin City.
Zeljko Lucic let loose a fierce and pained baritone as Rigoletto, combining with Damrau for an unforgettable second-act duet filled with emotion, inflection and even tears. Piotr Beczala as the Duke was a breezy, sleazy leader of the Rat Pack, a Frank Sinatra-type lurching from bender to hookup. His arias were winning and convincing, his tenor perhaps underpowered by the slightest tad.
Even before opening night, there was sharp disagreement among aficionados over Mayer's switch from the Renaissance Palazzo Ducale to a casino floor filled with slot machines, gambling tables and faux neon. The photos and videos posted on the Met's Facebook page inflamed factions pro and con that contemptuously regard each other as Luddites and Jacobins.
The locale of "Rigoletto" changed even before its first performance in 1851 — Francesco Maria Piave adapted the libretto from an 1832 Victor Hugo play set in France, but objections by censors led to the shift to Italy. In recent decades, Jonathan Miller's controversial 1982 English National Opera production, filled with Mafioso in New York's Little Italy circa 1950, has been followed by concepts as goofy as relocating the action to "The Planet of the Apes" in a 2005 staging in Munich, Germany.
Rigoletto, the Duke's court jester in Piave's libretto, is transformed by Mayer into a hanger-on and comic along the lines of Don Rickles and Joey Bishop. Monterone's curse created what some may perceive as an anti-Semitic overtone.
Like Franco Zeffirelli with his hyper-realistic sets for the Met's productions of "La Boheme," ''Tosca" and "Turandot" in the 1980s, Mayer, set designer Christine Jones and lighting designer Kevin Adams go for spectacle, sometimes at the expense of clarity.
The Duke's opening "Questa o quella (This or that)" is delivered while clothed in a white tuxedo jacket. He waves an arm and croons into a microphone — no worries, amplification is not used — as eight dancers shake large yellow-and-orange feathers. Rigoletto's biting humor is lost in the extravaganza, to some extent evaporating that plotline and the reason for the anger of the Duke's toadies.
The staging settles down after that, with a few silhouetted palm trees in green and gold, enabling the basic story to come through: the kidnapping of Gilda by an entourage mistaking her for Rigoletto's mistress, the lecherous Duke's rape of Gilda, her unwavering crush and her father's quest for revenge. In the calamitous conclusion, she disguises herself in a trench coat and hat, allowing herself to be killed by the hit man her father hired to murder the Duke.
The Duke sings "Possente amor (A great love)" while swilling Scotch from a bottle (one verse only) and "La donna e mobile (Women are fickle)" while swinging around the stripper pole.
Monterone is shot in the head at the Duke's apartment — which has three chandeliers that are replicas of the ones hanging from the Met's ceiling. Sparafucile's inn becomes a seedy strip club out in the desert.
Mayer, making his opera debut, has a keen eye for detail. Gilda dabs tears from her father's eyes and with an embarrassed look buttons the top of her dress as she speaks with her father. She clutches and smells the white coat the Duke leaves on his apartment floor. While nearly all the Duke's buddies watch stone-faced as Rigoletto pleads, Marullo alone is disgusted, turns away and hangs his head.
Susan Hilferty's costumes had the Duke looking dashing, Rigoletto frumpy and Gilda girlish. The supporting cast was top-notch, with Stefan Kocan a vocally and visually imposing Sparafucile and Maria Zifchak a spineless Giovanna. In their Met debuts, Robert Pomakov was a booming Monterone and Oksana Volkova a seductive Maddalena. Emalie Savoy, in a floor-length gown, was a standard for glamour as Countess Ceprano.
Conductor Michele Mariotti impressed, drawing color, energy and dynamics from the orchestra.
Mayer's interjection of a half-naked stripper at the start of the third act was greeted with cheers — and then countered quickly by a few loud boos. His decision to have the sycophant group remain in the back of the Duke's apartment in the shadows during Gilda's confessional "Tutte le feste (Each holy day)" was jarring, and there the chorus remained through Damrau's chilling high note that ended the "Si, vendetta" duet.
Marring the evening were gimmicky updated Met Titles by Michael Panayos and Paul Cremo. Mayer's direction spoke for itself. No need for the chorus' "Vittoria!" to become "Jackpot!" and Sparafucile's "further on the stream is deeper" to be replaced by "it's a long drive to the river. Make sure you have enough gas!" Some in the audience giggled.
There are seven more performances with this cast through Feb. 23, with the Feb. 16 matinee telecast to theaters around the world. It returns for six nights in April and May with different principal singers. It will be interesting to see how Mayer's vision comes across with other casts.