The Metropolitan Opera’s last two productions of Rigoletto might ask the question, “What is wrong with Renaissance Mantua, where Verdi originally set the opera?” Michael Mayer's staging, from 2013, took place in Las Vegas in the 1950s, complete with strippers, neon lights and thugs in tuxedos. After the initial surprise wore off, we were left with a vulgar set and costumes, an elevator stage right, and distraction. This new one by Bartlett Sher, which premiered on New Year's Eve, takes place in Weimar Germany (the production was first seen at the Staatsoper Berlin. Certainly not as kitschy as the Vegas setting, one can relate to the type of indulgence and corruption in Berlin in the 1920s, where wealth and power reigned, much as it must have in Mantuan Court of the 15th century.

Piotr Beczała (Duke of Mantua) and ensemble
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

But the only hints we get are a lavish, art deco ballroom with women in stunning gowns and men in military regalia (gorgeous costumes by Catherine Zuber). Otherwise, it’s merely dark. Forbidding streets on the way to Rigoletto’s home, with pitch black walls, actually help in the portrayal of Sparafucile, who is dressed in black with a black hat: he disappears eerily into the scenery. Andrea Mastroni’s presence and pitch dark bass made him an ideal killer.

Michael Yeargan’s huge set is on a revolving platform and scene changes are incredibly smooth, the contrast between the glitz of the “Duke’s” court and darkness of the street and later, the waterfront dive of Maddalena and Sparafucile. But still, Weimar Germany? No proof anywhere. Good to look at, but as a concept, it is half-baked. Rigoletto and Gilda’s home is a plain, three-storey affair, cut out for us to see the two staircases, doors and otherwise unimpressive furnishings. The stairs and railings offer a fine vehicle for Gilda to ascend, descend and lean over while singing, and the lovely Rosa Feola, part girlish, part almost-womanly curious, sang exquisitely and inhabited the role ideally. “Caro nome” was not marred by too many extra notes or embellishments, but it had a wonderfully hypnotic effect, taken slowly and gently, allowing the character’s infatuation and hesitancy to be expressed simultaneously. Initially ashamed in Act 2 after the Duke has had his way with her, she slowly becomes defiant and remains so in Act 3. And the sheer loveliness of Feola’s voice is something to behold.

Michael Chioldi (Rigoletto)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The overall concept may be murky, but Sher’s direction makes certain that the characters are finely drawn and that their relationships are clear. Rigoletto, in high-waisted striped trousers, top hat and cane, is awkward but never pathetic nor lame, which means he can be mocked at one point and feared at others. He’s nasty and rude in the first scene but takes a turn when he is cursed by the fierce, vicious Monterone of Craig Colclough. The big man cowers. Michael Chioldi, stepping in for an indisposed Quinn Kelsey, scored a triumph in the title role. His baritone is muscular and grand, but can be scaled back for intimate moments with Gilda. His “Cortigiani” was a damning attack on the courtiers he so despises and later, a pathetic plea – warm, sad and tragic. His superb enunciation of the text allowed for a truly terrifying spitting out of the vicious moments – “Si, vendetta” was dangerous.

Rosa Feola (Gilda)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Having seen Piotr Beczała in this role three time previously (he was the Duke in the Vegas production as well) I knew what to expect and looked forward to his performance, but it was even finer than expected. His voice has grown and his Duke is now not just a roué, but aggressively nasty in the first and last scenes. But he is more complex: “Questo o quella” was tossed off more derisively than usual, but his duet with Gilda and “Ella mi fu rapita” made us believe that he was in love, albeit momentarily. And stunningly, after a whip-smart “Addio” duet, both soprano and tenor rose to a D flat and nailed it. He sounded at times, much like Nicolai Gedda in his prime, but with more ping. This is a great compliment.

Rosa Feola (Gilda) and Piotr Beczała (Duke of Mantua)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The last act was a dramatic puzzle, despite the sexy, vibrant performance of Varduhi Abrahamyan as Maddalena. The tavern was tiny. Gilda listens to Maddalena and the Duke from a small staircase that leads to the very tiny room they are in. The tavern has three doors, front, back and from anteroom to tavern. We hear Gilda’s knocking, but she is not knocking on any of the doors. The whole set turns red when Gilda returns, and it is she who hands a knife to Sparafucile. Some sort of new concept 15 minutes before the opera’s end? The set rotates two more times. Or just a poorly thought through staging? Mr Sher on shaky footing, I fear.

Conductor Daniele Rustioni led a tight reading, clear and transparent. Strangely quiet at times as well, as if to highlight Verdi’s frequent pizzicato and weeping strings, but he brought out the big guns for the Storm scene and finales. Avoiding the oom-pah-pah moments in favor of melodic inside lines, much of the score felt new. 

****1