NEW YORK — Inevitably, it's come to be known as the Rat Pack Rigoletto, the new production at the Metropolitan Opera that is being beamed live into movie theaters on Saturday afternoon. Set in Las Vegas in the 1960s, this staging has the Duke as a Frank Sinatra type and the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto as a comedian modeled on Don Rickles.
"I wanted to create a Rigoletto that would have American cultural currency for a general audience and not necessarily for the most sophisticated operagoing audience," said director Michael Mayer, known for the Broadway rock musicals Spring Awakening and American Idiot, making his Met debut.
Mayer's concept, transplanting Verdi's classic from 16th century Mantua to Vegas, works remarkably well, with an eye-catching set by Christine Jones, vivid neon-like lighting by Kevin Adams and Susan Hilferty's retro-tacky costumes, such as the red-checked cardigan worn by Rigoletto and the Duke's white dinner jacket.
And the Met's casting is to die for, with the Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as the dark-voiced, elegantly phrased Rigoletto; the rising young tenor Piotr Beczala as a cocksure Duke, singing his famous aria La donna e mobile while spinning around a stripper's pole; and the splendid soprano Diana Damrau as the jester's doomed daughter, Gilda (whose corpse is hauled away in the trunk of a vintage tail-finned Cadillac). Italian conductor Michele Mariotti drew a rich, nuanced reading of the score from the orchestra on the night I was there. Saturday's matinee is also being aired on the Met's radio broadcast, and listeners will be able to enjoy a brilliant performance without all the visual razzle-dazzle.
I spoke with Mayer in New York after attending Rigoletto in January, and asked if it bothered him that some moments drew titters from the audience, such as when the Act 3 curtain rises on a club run by the assassin Sparafucile (bass Stefan Kocan) that features a pole dancer, perhaps a first in Met history. "The pole dancing response didn't bother me at all," he said. "It's shocking, a visual surprise."
Another surprise is the characterization of Monterone (bass Robert Pomakov), who casts a curse on Rigoletto, as an Arab sheik. This resulted from Mayer's realization that a lot of Saudi oil money financed Vegas casinos in the '60s. Rigoletto taunts Monterone by using a bar rag as a head scarf.
"By making Monterone exotic, it does two things," Mayer said. "It makes the curse have weight, because this is coming from an ancient, foreign culture. It has more meaning than if it was just another guy in a suit coming in and saying he put a curse on Rigoletto. And it gives Rigoletto an opportunity to make fun of him in a very scabrous way. In productions of Rigoletto I've seen I've never seen the jester actually be that funny before."
Saturday's presentation in theaters will feature controversial supertitles translating the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave into groovy English. For example, a line from the Duke's decadent seduction aria Questa or quella is rendered thusly:
My sights are set on a swingin' girl,
So hop on baby, let's take that whirl!
It's all a little bit like Dino, Sammy and Frank in the original Ocean's 11.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.