Verdi’s Rigoletto is possessed of a truly tragic plot. A physically disabled jester keeps his innocent daughter locked up except for weekly church visits, a situation which she only lightly resists. Rigoletto believes a curse is to blame for his daughter being killed, although she only dies as a substitute for the man Rigoletto himself has arranged to be assassinated. It’s a tragic, sexist and uncomfortable story which belongs firmly in the 16th century. But director Michael Mayer has managed a believable update to 1960s Vegas, where the powerful, swinging lifestyles of the Duke and his associates, mixed with a cruel twist of fate, ruin the life of the eponymous title character.

Piotr Beczala as the Duke and Željko Lucic as Rigoletto © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera. Taken during the rehearsal on January 22, 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City
Piotr Beczala as the Duke and Željko Lucic as Rigoletto
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera. Taken during the rehearsal on January 22, 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City

The production apparently takes as its influence the “Rat Pack”: the group of superstars first formed in the 1950s and then again in the 1960s, the second time including Frank Sinatra (who famously hated the nickname). I find the allusion distracting – Vegas glamour of the 1960s could work on its own without the director apparently justifying the update with frequent Rat Pack references. The phrase appears in the subtitles and there are visual references such as a microphone passed around in the first casino scene – which is otherwise pointless. A word about those subtitles, too: they are significantly changed to reflect their 60s setting. The libretto is same, but the audiences get a relaxed, rather entertaining translation – for example, there are a lot of “baby”s.

Yet for all the glitz, excessive amounts of neon and hammed-up 60s Vegas staging, it is the music that really shines in this production. It’s easy to be distracted by the flashing lights and the hype about Mayer’s 400-year update, but Verdi’s engrossing, beautifully melodic and frequently virtuosic score is still what makes it special. Tonight, Željko Lučić as Rigoletto provided a solid performance. I’ve seen angrier, more punchy Rigolettos, but he was convincing despite the odd note under pitch. We could just about believe Diana Damrau as his daughter, her mellow voice tackling the considerable technical demands Verdi makes of this particular soprano part well, for the most part. It did expose moments of breathiness in her voice, plus the very top of her range sounded strained. But Lučić and Damrau’s voices blended well and their duet in Act I was a highlight. Little can be said about the conducting of Michele Mariotti and performance of his orchestra, except that they were both of a high standard, perhaps holding a little back but generally working well with the singers to on stage.

Tenor Piotr Beczala as the Duke (not specifically of Mantua, here) was fabulous. In fact, he was so good it was hard to hate his womanizing character. Beczala has a charming stage presence and a commanding voice, owning difficult arias including “La donna è mobile” and proclaiming his love to Gilda in rapturous tones. He never came across as particularly sinister, just playboyish – but that seemed to fit the context in which Mayer placed the production. Another stellar vocal performance came from Štefan Kocán as Sparafucile. He was brilliantly cast as the sly assassin, with a silky bass voice and a naturally foreboding presence. The choreography and stage dressing were brilliant – the mob of men in smoking jackets inside the casino moved together like a predatory pack, and the set was appropriately plush. All this made for stunning cinema, although my usual gripe still stands about the cringeworthy funding pleas, illusion-spoiling backstage cameras and contrived hosting that come with the Met in HD showings.

The ending to this opera leaves me dissatisfied every time. Here it was particularly abrupt. Finding his daughter dead in his car boot, Rigoletto sings some brief lines of misery, cries “the curse!” and then... that’s it, folks. His emotions at the death of his daughter were rather muted for my taste, a little reflective of the production as a whole, which had tremendous style but no emotional extremes.

Neon lights and brightly coloured smoking jackets made refreshing ingredients in this smooth re-setting of Verdi’s Rigoletto. But in the end they were just wallpaper to the same fine opera as ever, the story slightly lost in its glamorous setting, but brilliantly sung nonetheless.

****1