Proving that money and insight do not necessarily mix, this first revival season of Met Opera’s new Rigoletto looks suitably grand, and sounds wonderful, but generally leaves the audience cold.
Far more traditional in tone than Michael Mayer’s groovy 2013 Las Vegas Rat Pack Rigoletto, this staging nonetheless involves a concept of its own. Prolific director Bartlett Sher, a resident director at Lincoln Center, sets the dark tragedy in 1920s Weimar Republic, a world of glossy grandeur contrasted with darkly dangerous back alleys.
Sher’s regular collaborators, scenic designer Michael Yeargan and costume designer Catherine Zuber, make the most of the design possibilities of the setting, but, ultimately, Sher’s concept plays out as little more than superficial gloss, adding nothing of note to the drama of the opera itself.
Yeargan provides a huge revolving central set piece. As the curtain opens, the dark walls of the unit rotate ever so gradually to reveal a rich red interior where Zuber has men in crisp uniforms and women in gooey gowns enjoying the festivities of “court.”
When the action follows a spooked Rigoletto home to check on his precious daughter, Gilda, the set becomes the vast brick wall of an alley and then the interior of Rigoletto’s two storey apartment. The fact that large scale aspects can be added to the set as it revolves is quite impressive, efficiently saving time that would otherwise have been lost to set changes.
A feature of Sher’s direction is the naturalism of the performances, increasing the dramatic stakes and adding a degree of realistic tension. The drama could be happening anywhere at any time, but the individual performances are certainly strong and uniform in approach.
In an ideal world, there would be no need to draw attention to the fact that the season of Rigoletto has a female conductor, but, having regularly attended performances at the Met since 2007, this is the first time this reviewer has ever seen a female conductor at the podium. Maestro Speranza Scappucci leads the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a notably lively rendition of Verdi’s classic score. Positioned quite high, Scappucci supports the singers as much as the orchestra, resulting in a smoothly unified performance.
French tenor Benjamin Bernheim makes an instant positive impression, his luxuriously smooth tenor voice ringing out in the infectious opening aria “Questo o quella.” Bernheim gives the Duke the straight back of a disciplined military man, and goes on to lean strongly into the Duke as more of an ardent lover than a self-serving cad. With a supple tenor voice that exhibits the same lovely tone at all reaches of his range, Bernheim holds the audience in rapt attention as act two opens with twin arias “Ella mi fu rapita!” and “Parmi veder le lagrime.”
Highly experienced American baritone Quinn Kelsey brings a gentle dignity to Rigoletto, playing the role without the affectation of a hump. Although it is not remotely clear why the Weimar Republic gathering needs a court jester, nonetheless Kelsey’s Rigoletto reacts to society ain the manner usually seen in the opera, and is particularly successful at conveying the troubled man’s passionately protective love of his daughter and his quaking fear of Monterone’s curse. Kelsey demonstrates his thorough knowledge of the role in his two extended solo scenes, in which his vocal expression is distinctly compelling.
As dear Gilda, Italian soprano Rosa Feola has a lovely pure soprano, and enjoys chemistry with both Kelsey and Bernheim. Feola and Bernheim delight with charming duet “È il sol dell’anima.” Feola then comes into her own with “Caro nome.” Despite the character’s youth, Gilda is dressed rather frumpily in act one, perhaps to have her look more like Rigoletto’s mistress to the malicious men. Thankfully, when kidnapped, the women of court have the sense to change Gilda’s attire.
Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea characterfully emits a growling rumble as shady assassin Sparafucile.
The quality of Rigoletto itself shines through, as do the singers’ performances, but this production does not deliver the thrills that should rightly be there.
Rigoletto plays select dates at Met Opera, New York until 29 December 2022.
The Rigoletto program can be read online.
Photos: Met Opera