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Heather Mac Donald
Rigoletto, L’Elisir, and Clemenza
Considering new and returning Met opera productions
10 April 2013

It says a lot about opera staging today that when the Metropolitan Opera sets a new production of Rigoletto in 1960 Las Vegas, one breathes a sigh of relief and says: Thank heavens! It could have been so much worse. There are more and less obnoxious forms of Regietheater (German for director’s theater)—that style of opera production wherein narcissistic stage directors turn opera plots into vehicles for their own usually puerile self-expression. Met general manager Peter Gelb has so far confined himself to the least obnoxious versions. Considering the alternatives, one has to be grateful.

To be sure, the eye-catching “Vegas” Rigoletto rests on the same condescending assumption behind all such theatrical updatings: that a work set in the past (Rigoletto takes place in the sixteenth-century Mantuan court) is less “relevant” than one contemporaneous to the audience. Asked to explain the role of updating during a Met panel discussion on the new production, director Michael Mayer responded: “It gives the audience a chance to recognize these people in a way that doesn’t require a giant imaginative leap. I’m not totally sure where Mantua is in Italy, it’s not one of those beautiful places I’ve visited.” Good thing Mayer didn’t advise Shakespeare before the playwright chose such distant settings as the Roman Empire, or the Greek tragedians before they took on the Trojan War.

Directors and impresarios flatter themselves that updating requires precise aesthetic judgment. Gelb had asked Mayer to produce a “concept,” but warned him that an opera re-set “right up to the minute can become dated very quickly,” Mayer reports. So the updater needs to find that sweet spot between excessive contemporaneity and pathetic irrelevance. “You try to find the right setting in a context that’s in the past but not so far in the past that it feels like a museum piece. That way it can have real, immediate resonance but also a kind of purity and universality,” Mayer explains.

As is inevitable in all such modernizations, setting Rigoletto in 1960 Las Vegas destroys crucial aspects of the story. Mayer’s conceit is that we are among the Rat Pack—Verdi’s womanizing Duke (Polish tenor Piotr Beczala) is Frank Sinatra, or at least a Sinatra-like figure who performs in his own casino (Mayer has noted triumphantly that Beczala even has blue eyes: “And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, Old Blue Eyes!’”). Publicity materials variously describe the court jester Rigoletto (Serbian baritone Željko Lučić), divested of his hunchback and limp, as a blend of Don Rickles and Jackie Gleason, or simply as a “hanger-on.” The production itself doesn’t clarify the matter; in fact, Rigoletto is the least defined (or redefined) of the characters, rather a handicap, considering his central role. The action takes place in the duke’s casino, his art deco penthouse, and a seedy club, complete with bare-breasted pole dancer, on the outskirts of town.

But however vigorously Mayer asserts the similarities between an allegedly “misogynistic” Las Vegas and a still largely feudal court, the modern setting lacks the original’s essential character: absolute, hierarchical power. No modern entertainer in a democratic society, even one with mob ties, could hope to exercise the authority over his retinue that a sixteenth-century duke exercised over his subjects, a power that Verdi himself said was key to the plot. And without a court, you can’t have a court jester or fool, that ambiguous, often tragic, staple of pre-modern European literature.

Further, if you strip from Rigoletto his physical defect, you lose what was a centuries-long literary symbol of otherness and spiritual deformity, however unacceptable such a linkage is today. Victor Hugo, whose play Le roi s’amuse formed the basis for Verdi’s opera, drew the once-conventional association between the physical and the spiritual in describing the jester: “[He] is deformed, [he] is unhealthy, [he] is a court buffoon—a three-fold misery which makes him evil.” Thus, the opera’s most pathos-filled moment—Rigoletto’s pleas to the duke’s courtiers to restore to him his abducted daughter, now in the duke’s clutches—has little emotional punch. In the original, a weeping Rigoletto grovels before the indifferent courtiers and begs them to have pity on an old man whose daughter is the world to him: “Signori, perdona, perdona, pietà!” At the Met, the scene was static; a Don Rickles, or even a mere “hanger-on,” lacks the marginality and powerlessness that makes the deformed fool’s anguish so acute. Milling around uncomfortably in his London Fog overcoat, this Rigoletto could have just come in from the rain to ask for help jumpstarting his Chevy.

Mayer translates the libretto into 1950s slang to suggest that the contemporary American setting was what Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, intended all along (a trick also used by directors Peter Sellars and Jonathan Miller). But the characters only sling around such hep-cat phrases as “Hit the road!” “Your movie star looks light up the place, baby!” or “What’s your beef now?” in the Met’s back-of-the-seat supertitles. On the stage, they’re still singing mid-nineteenth century operatic Italian.

Despite these anachronisms, the Met’s updated Rigoletto avoids the worst abuses of Regietheater. There is no juicier target to an adolescent director than chastity and its perils, the plot motivator par excellence in Western literary history until the twentieth century. In the hands of most contemporary European directors, Gilda’s virginal purity would have been the first thing to go. Certainly after her deflowering by the duke, she would have become a slut, but even before her conquest, she could easily be portrayed as sexually aggressive. Instead, in the Met’s production, Gilda (soprano Diana Damrau) was truly innocent before the duke got his hands on her and truly devastated afterwards (however archaic such ideas might have been in 1960, at the dawn of the sexual revolution). Rigoletto was not, say, a panderer complicit in his daughter’s fall, as a Berlin opera house might render him, but rather, a devoted and loving father. Such characterizations might seem self-evident, but they are no longer so.

Indeed, Gelb appears to have fended off just such a revisionist reading. His original commission for a new Rigoletto had gone to Luc Bondy, the director of the Met’s recent lackluster Tosca. Bondy’s nineteenth-century Rigoletto, performed in Vienna in 2011, transformed Gilda after her deflowering into “just one of the court ladies [in a festive red dress] seeking the Duke’s attention,” according to a review in Bachtrack. Gelb cancelled the Bondy Rigoletto without much explanation (“I think the production just wouldn’t have worked here”) and asked Mayer to step in. Predictably, the new Rigoletto has drawn the scorn of the New York press precisely because it preserves certain key emotional relationships. Frequent New York Times contributor Zachary Wolfe, writing in the New York Observer, blasted Mayer for not undertaking a “fundamental, ground-up rethinking of the work” and for never veering far “from the standard takes” on the characters. Such are the critical pressures under which Gelb operates.

The singing was certainly all Verdi could have intended. Damrau, in a simple, scoop-necked cotton blue dress, is gloriously at the top of her game. She panted the opening syllables of “Caro nome,” breathless with her newfound love, then coquettishly unleashed waves of crystalline trills and arpeggios. It was an inspired touch to have this young ingénue excitedly write the “dear name” of her suitor in a diary.

In his offstage appearances, Željko Lučić conveyed a distinct lack of enthusiasm about the production concept. “How do you play Rigoletto in Las Vegas?” Gelb had asked him at the pre-production Met panel. “I’m still working on it, there’s three more rehearsals, but I’ll be there on Monday [opening night],” Lučić answered gamely. His jester was tightly wound and inscrutable, but there was no reason to think that Lučić’s was anything other than a committed performance. His covered sound brought a haunted, Macbeth-like quality to Rigoletto’s suffering; his voice possesses a vulnerability and humanity that resupplied some of the pathos that the staging had stripped away.

The production’s payoff image was the assassin Sparafucile (Stefan Kocan) hunched over a drink late at night at a desolate bar, seemingly about to break out in “One for my baby.” The powerful Slovakian bass poured out the hit man’s lethal proposition in notes of astounding length and darkness. Piotr Beczala, in a white dinner jacket and black tie, was a good-natured rake, convinced of the sincerity of his intentions toward Gilda—until he forgets her, of course. Beczala is fast becoming a house favorite—understandably, in light of his winning personality and obvious delight in performing. But he often lunges at high notes, including in the iconic “La donna è mobile,” and his phrasing was less nuanced than the rest of the cast’s.

“Questa o quella,” the Duke’s paean to his own amorous inconstancy, held up musically under its camp nightclub act treatment surprisingly well. Beczala belted out the aria into a mic while fanned with ostrich feathers by sequin-clad show girls, and though Verdi is still light-years from Harold Arlen or Cole Porter, the aria has enough internal pulse to be transferred to the world of swing without seeming laughingly out of place.

As was to be expected, the Met held nothing back when it came to neon. Designer Christine Jones’s recreation of the Vegas Strip, splashed across the back of the stage, was a dazzling invitation to vice in winking emerald green, cobalt blue, and hot pink. A standing gold nude statue in the duke’s apartment was encircled by a glowing yellow helix. Even the back wall of Sparafucile’s lair on the outskirts of town was slashed with mysterious diagonal strips of flashing purple and blue.

Despite the extravagant lighting, this Vegas Rigoletto will leave newcomers to the opera in the dark about a host of plot devices, if this matters anymore. It is, nevertheless, a relatively harmless foray into modern directorsland, and certainly more visually snazzy than Otto Schenk’s 1989 production. The Met’s pitch for “real, immediate resonance,” in Mayer’s words, will not, however, keep the critical dogs at bay, who are demanding more transgressive fare.

Another new production this season represented a subtler version of Regietheater. Director Bartlett Sher has been Peter Gelb’s most frequent collaborator, and for good reason. His comic vision, displayed in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory and The Barber of Seville, has been almost infallibly sure. This time, however, it failed him, because he succumbed to that fatal directorial temptation: the quest for the Big Idea. Sher’s Big Idea in this case was that Gaetano Donizetti’s light-hearted comedy, L’Elisir d’Amore, about a country rube’s effort to win his beloved through the ingestion of a supposed love potion, was really about Austria’s oppression of Italy. To complicate matters further, Donizetti wrote L’Elisir for two distinct audiences, Sher asserts: “the Austrians, who on opening night, would have seen one opera [i.e., a frothy entertainment], and the Italians, who would have seen another opera [i.e., a subversive political tract]!” In Nemorino, the sweet-natured but gullible suitor, the Italians would have recognized the spirit of an independent, unified Italy, Sher says, whereas the self-infatuated military captain Belcore, whom Nemorino’s idol Adina briefly threatens to marry, would have represented the Hapsburg occupiers (despite his Italian name and Commedia dell’Arte lineage). The Austrian spectators, meanwhile, would have been clueless about this political “subtext.”

It can be stated unqualifiedly: Sher’s conceit is sheer delusion. The chance that Donizetti, a veritable geyser of the theater, wanted to make a political statement with his comedies, or with L’Elisir in particular, is zero, and Sher has adduced no biographical support for the claim. In Donizetti’s day, opera was entertainment, churned out as quickly as possible to feed a voracious public. Donizetti premiered three other operas the year that L’Elisir appeared (1832). His equally prolific collaborator, Felice Romani, allegedly wrote the libretto for L’Elisir in eight days; Donizetti took at most a month to create the score. If these busy entertainers moonlighted as political propagandists, the record does not reflect it.

The Met audience was undoubtedly as clueless as the original Milanese one would have been that two different operas were in progress before it, though Sher flatters himself that Met spectators grasp his complicated bifocal interpretation. Nevertheless, Sher’s Big Idea took its toll. This L’Elisir was simply not very funny, presumably because the singers were trying so hard to embody the “pain” that Sher had preposterously sought in the libretto. “Sher wanted this to be a modern performance,” Anna Netrebko (Adina) said in a pre-opening panel discussion. And thus, even though Sher respected the opera’s nineteenth-century village setting, he subjected viewers to a Robert Wilson–like sequence in which silent supernumeraries slowly drag bundles of wheat through a field marked by a lonely oak tree and a lowering black sky—a lugubrious montage more appropriate for a Bergman film than a Donizetti comedy. Belcore’s soldiers pummeled the hapless Nemorino with an edge of malice, undoubtedly enforcing Austrian rule. The scenes in which the mountebank Dulcamara peddles his “magical elixir” to the credulous peasants were mildly amusing, but not as madcap as they could be (and were in the Met’s candy-colored John Copley production, which Gelb unjustly derides as the “pink” Elisir). In Sher’s final scene, a few elixir bottles are primly and puzzlingly lined up at the front of the stage (perhaps representing bayonets?), rather than being rambunctiously tossed around and quaffed. The lack of comic fizz was all the more striking from a cast of superlative comedians (Netrebko, Matthew Polenzani, and Mariusz Kwiecien) who had achieved comic perfection just two years earlier in the Met’s revival of the Otto Schenk–directed Don Pasquale. (Their singing here was nearly everything one could hope for—robust, sexy, and finely shaped.)

Hard as it is to imagine, the production would have been even less effervescent had the cast not rebelled against the full force of Sher’s concept. “It was too dark, Nemorino was too angry, and we drew back,” Polenzani said in the pre-opening panel discussion. Phew! To be sure, Donizetti’s comic scores contain moments of aching pathos and vulnerability. But realizing those bittersweet moments does not require ignoring the overarching demands of the genre, which require a reigning artifice and silliness.

Sher’s commitment to “exploring the text,” as he puts it, is admirable—to a point. Without question, it is better to read closely than not. But one also needs to know when to let up. Many “texts” are purely functional objects and are simply not appropriate for deep analysis. Sher undoubtedly thinks that he is honoring Donizetti’s intentions with his political reading, but as a man of the theater, he should also understand that audience expectation and theatrical convention were once the polestars of those who created for the stage.

On a scale of contemporary operatic abuses, the problems with Sher’s Elisir are minor. It remains a charming and lovely show, thanks to set designer Michael Yeargan’s painterly recreations of the Tuscan countryside, Catherine Zuber’s rustic costumes, and Donizetti’s irrepressibly energetic score. But there are already far too few comedies in the operatic repertoire, so the opportunity costs of failing to maximize Elisir’s comic potential are high. The next stage director for the production would do well to junk the “subtext” and stick to the text.

This season’s greatest triumph to date affirmed the power of following a composer’s intentions and showed that revivals can be more dramatically compelling than new stagings, the commissioning and promoting of which Gelb has made his hallmark. The late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s elegant 1984 production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, set in a Baroque version of Imperial Rome, is all the sharper a rebuke to Regietheater ideology, since the opera belongs to an “outdated” genre that would be at the top of any historically challenged director’s list of “museum pieces,” in Mayer’s words. Yet this season’s revival, brilliantly overseen by stage director Peter McClintock, contained as erotically charged a scene as anything a revisionist, sex-obsessed director could hope to make up, even though the moment focuses on forgiveness, not sexual conquest.

Mozart began work in the summer of 1791 on what would prove to be his last opera, commissioned by the Bohemian aristocracy to celebrate the coronation of King Leopold II of Bohemia. Mozart turned to a musical genre that he had not worked in since his first operatic masterpiece, Idomeneo (1781) —opera seria, the once-dominant form of eighteenth-century Italian opera, concerned with the tribulations of rulers. Passions run as red-hot in opera seria as they do in any late nineteenth-century Verismo opera; but unlike in post-Enlightenment works, they must ultimately bow to the rule of reason.

Mozart chose a libretto composed in 1734 by opera seria’s supreme poet, Pietro Metastasio, about the magnanimous Roman emperor Tito Vespasiano. Mozart’s collaborator, Caterino Mazzolà, brought Metastasio’s text up to current musical tastes; Mazzolà’s most valuable contribution was to increase the choral interludes, which, in their thrilling outbursts of elation and terror, are the highpoints of Clemenza, as well as of Idomeneo.

If the selfless Tito were the norm for monarchs, there would be little need for democracy. As portrayed by tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, he possesses an utterly touching sweetness and humility. We first see Tito in a wordless sequence renouncing his foreign-born fiancée, because the populace demands a Roman empress. As a royal march announces Tito’s arrival at an imperial plaza of elaborately columned arcades, the emperor and his banished love embrace one last time before guards drag her to her waiting ship. Filianoti, wearing a superb Louis XIV wig of leonine gray curls, a scarlet robe, and a golden laurel wreath, collapses to his knees, gasping for breath. The chorus breaks out in a triumphal hymn of praise, and he turns dazedly to them, unable to fathom where or who he is, his hand distractedly steadying his crown. His advisor, Publio, approaches the stricken emperor and gently lifts off his wig and robe, revealing a long, slender coat of aubergine silk and sleek, black hair tied back in a velvet bow. Filianoti’s marble-white skin, black-lined eyes, and high forehead recall the decadent vampire sensuality of Ruggiero Raimondi in Joseph Losey’s 1979 film of Don Giovanni—but here, such androgynous physical beauty, enhanced by the courtly splendour of Ponnelle’s costumes, accentuates Tito’s nobility.

After the populace retreats, Tito’s best friend and confidant, Sesto (Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, in thigh-high fawn boots and a vanilla satin tunic), asks him how he could have sent away his chosen queen. Filianoti responds softly: “Ah, Sesto, what a terrible moment. I didn’t believe . . . ,” only his eyes fully expressing his suffering. Then, in a quintessential reflection of Enlightenment ideals, he shuts his sorrow out of sight and conforms himself to duty: “Enough; I conquered; she left.” (Basta; ho vinto; partì.)

The production’s most hypnotic scene occurs as Tito faces the supreme test of his benevolence. His companion Sesto has instigated a failed plot against the emperor, and now the Senate has condemned him to death. Tito refuses to sign the decree until he hears from his friend, convinced that there must be an exculpating reason for the crime—and indeed, Sesto had undertaken the plot only under the relentless badgering of his beloved Vitellia, a scheming princess furious that Tito had not made her his bride. Garanča appears at the back of the stage silhouetted against a massive iron grate, a miserable, shrunken creature in rags and sandals, frozen with self-loathing. Initially soft and encouraging, Tito begs Sesto with increasing desperation to confide his motives so that a ground for pardon can be found. Sesto holds back, unwilling to incriminate his love. Tito finally snaps and angrily commands that the criminal be taken from his presence: “Go: time has run out, I am now your judge” (“Parti: non è più tempo / or tuo giudice sono”). Garanča then begins a seduction as mesmerizing as anything in Don Giovanni or Così fan tutte. Breathing a languorous legato line as the strings descend sweetly and the winds rise up in a sighing melody, Garanča slowly walks toward Filianoti and kneels at his feet. Her hand moves almost imperceptibly toward his; he grabs it impetuously, gazing imploringly into her eyes, then drops it and turns away in anguish, carefully moving his fingers out of reach. Garanča rises and moves behind Filianoti’s chair, whispering into his ear, “For this moment only remember our first love” (“Deh, per questo istante solo / ti ricorda il primo amor”). He inclines toward her, his hand again reaching instinctively toward hers, then falls back in his seat, grasping his heart in despair. He finally gathers himself up, wheels back toward her, and brandishes the decree to order her out of his sight.

Garanča, with her feline eyes and knowing smile, was an XXX-rated Carmen in the Met’s 2010 production of that opera, but with this carefully choreographed dance of touch and glance, she and Filianoti achieve a more transcendent version of Eros, limning the forces of attraction and fear that flow between human beings, irrespective of sex.

After Sesto is taken away, Tito struggles through a rapidly evolving chain of emotions: anger that Sesto spurned his repeated offers of clemency, revulsion at his own instinct for revenge, and a sense of duty to uphold the law. Recitative is often regarded as the Achilles’ heel of opera seria, and indeed these stretches of only minimally composed speech are of limited musical interest. But recitative can be the site of intensely dramatic moral reasoning and persuasion, as the riveting monologues and dialogues in Clemenza demonstrate. Tito finally recognizes that the dictates of his heart drive him irresistibly toward mercy. Filianoti triumphantly tears up the death warrant, eyes blazing, and proclaims: “If the world wants to accuse me of a fault, let it be of compassion, not severity.”

By the time he launched into his final valiant aria, “Se all’impero, amici Dei,” Filianoti was running out of voice, laboring through the treacherous ornaments and sinking in pitch. It didn’t matter. Opera is drama as well as music. Filianoti’s acting had been so moving and his powdered beauty so captivating that they compensated for the vocal shortcomings that emerged over the course of the performance.

Filianoti is not, in any case, known for the eighteenth-century repertoire. Several of his fellow singers are, and they served as reminders that we live in a golden age of Baroque and Classical performance. Garanča was simply stunning, differentiating each musical attack with a unique vocal color. Her trills unfurled like buds opening in the sun in Sesto’s farewell to Vitellia, “Parto, parto,” as the clarinet frisked happily around the vocal line like an amoral Cupid. Her syncopated “Non, non, non’s” floated above the beat with radiant clarity in the intensely charged trio with Tito and Publio, “Non può chi more.” Mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey, as Sesto’s friend Annio, and soprano Lucy Crowe as Servilia, Annio’s beloved, blended exquisitely.

Barbara Frittoli gave one of her most compelling performances as the manipulative Vitellia, the self-absorbed foil to Tito’s selflessness. Clothed variously in a crème negligee and an imposing black-paniered court dress, Frittoli reveled maniacally in her power over the smitten Sesto, but disintegrated when forced to decide whether to let Sesto go to his death with her own guilt undisclosed. She navigated the punishing leaps in her final virtuoso aria, “Non più di fiori,” with confident abandon, growling at the bottom of her range and unleashing her enormous vocal power at the top, her unpainted ashen lips and cheeks lit biliously from below.

The final notes of “Non più di fiori” modulate into the opera’s most glorious chorus, “Che del ciel,” whose regal string glissandi and off-beat blasts from the sopranos celebrate the stability of rule. Painfully, “Che del ciel” disappears almost before it has begun, which made it all the more disappointing that the chorus members’ placement at the back of the stage prevented their full force from crashing down upon the audience.

Clemenza was popular in the first two decades of the nineteenth century but then fell out of favor. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century audiences had apparently concluded that they already possessed more than enough great Mozart operas and could afford to ignore one of them. Fortunately, the world came to its senses in the 1960s and 1970s, and Clemenza reentered the repertoire, probably spurred by the early-music movement. If some of its arias have incongruities (such as a jaunty, almost saccharine interlude in Sesto’s “Deh, per questo istante solo”), Clemenza is shot through with plaintive harmonies and breathtakingly taut ensembles, with echoes of Don Giovanni and Figaro.

Ponnelle was one of the greatest modern stage interpreters of the Baroque sensibility, unafraid to glorify the aesthetic and assumptions of nobility. His Clemenza di Tito allows us to enter a world no longer our own, one bodied forth with such sensuality and grandeur by Mozart’s music. Gelb is to be congratulated for reviving the production and gracing it with such a peerless cast. It contains a lesson for future commissions.

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