Los Angeles Opera, Ken Howard / AP
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 | 6 p.m.
Diana Damrau recalled when she learned the Metropolitan Opera's new production of "Rigoletto" would be set in the glitzy Rat Pack-era Las Vegas of 1960, not 16th-century Mantua.
"At first you get a shock. Why and how?" the German soprano said. "But I think it works perfectly for the U.S.A., so they have a real American 'Rigoletto.'"
The first of Giuseppe Verdi's three great middle-period triumphs has been shifted to New York's Little Italy, Federico Fellini's Rome, modern-day Hollywood and even the Oval Office. Now it will take place amid dazzling Sin City lights and not in the Renaissance Palazzo Ducale when Michael Mayer's version of the 162-year-old classic opens Jan. 28.
"Many people are a little bit scared about it, because they just see or hear about Las Vegas," Polish tenor Piotr Beczala said.
Beczala sings the Duke in a cast that also includes Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto. Damrau is Rigoletto's daughter Gilda.
The Met, known for having a conservative audience, has seen divisive debate unfold on its Facebook page. The 200th anniversary of Verdi's birth is Oct. 10, and a segment of fans abhors regietheater, where the director reinterprets the original creation.
"I know that there are some people who come to boo new productions, particularly new productions that are of staple repertory pieces," Met General Manager Peter Gelb said. "My expectations and hopes are that this will work and that it will be grand and spectacular and dramatically right and a good platform for these three great singers."
Michele Mariotti conducts.
"From the beginning, I was a little bit suspicious because I'm very traditional and a classic-oriented guy," Lucic said during the final week of rehearsals, "but now I'm enjoying this very much."
To replace Otto Schenk's traditional 1989 staging, Gelb at first hired Swiss director Luc Bondy, whose grim vision of Puccini's "Tosca" prompted intense booing when it debuted on the opening night of the 2009-10 season. A co-production with the Wiener Festwochen and Milan's Teatro alla Scala, Bondy's "Rigoletto" opened in Vienna in May 2011 with a dark 19th-century setting, and Gelb decided to drop it. He called Mayer, who won a Tony Award in 2007 for the rock musical "Spring Awakening," and asked him to make his opera debut.
Mayer noticed billboards for "Bridesmaids" and "The Hangover" film series and thought of Vegas. Gelb said he should make it a different time period, because contemporary quickly becomes dated.
The Duke is now a casino mogul/lounge singer on the Strip. Mayer suggested Beczala think of Frank Sinatra for the Duke and Lucic think of Don Rickles and Joey Bishop for Rigoletto, a cigarette-smoking, hunchback comedian rather than a court jester. Marullo is akin to Dean Martin and Borsa to Peter Lawford.
Mayer cautions they are mere templates, not actual representations.
"We're really living in a world right now that celebrates Las Vegas all the time in the movies and TV," he said. "It's just a cultural touchstone for all of us to represent a decadent place with power, money, glamour, sex, crime."
Beczala worked during four weeks of rehearsals to replicate the nonchalant movements of Ol' Blue Eyes — and Beczala does have blue eyes.
"Questa o quella (This or that)," the opening aria, is given as a showpiece by a microphone-tossing Duke attired in an elegant white tuxedo jacket and backed by eight fan dancers. Set designer Christine Jones and lighting designer Kevin Adams, who both won 2010 Tony Awards for the Mayer-directed "American Idiot," planned sets that include 6,000 feet of the artificial neon product Neoflex, 2,100 feet of three-color light-emitting diode (LED) tape and about 1,600 individual light bulbs.
The ladder for the abduction becomes an elevator. Rigoletto keeps Gilda in the tower of a residential hotel. The inn is a strip club out in the desert, and Gilda winds up in the trunk of a midnight blue Cadillac Coupe Deville instead of a sack. Swords are guns. The Count of Monterone is an Arab sheik.
While first-act go-go dancers and a large third-act arrow sign were dropped during rehearsals, this isn't for everyone.
"Bravo. Las Vegas — at Caesars Palace? It's exactly what Verdi wanted. The music reflects that," conductor Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, said sarcastically. "You cannot create situations that are then in conflict with the music, because the music tells you exactly what's happening."
"Rigoletto" has long been portable. Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave maintained a French setting when they adapted the Victor Hugo play "Le roi s'amuse (The King Amuses Himself)," about a licentious King Francis I, his rape of the young girl, Blanche, and the quest for revenge by her father, the court jester, Triboulet.
Some perceived it as criticism of the reigning king, Louis-Philippe I; the morning after Hugo's play opened at Paris' Comedie-Francaise on Nov. 22, 1832, the French government imposed a ban that lasted a half-century.
When the Austrian government ruling Venice refused to give Verdi permission to stage what the composer then called "La Maledizione (The Curse)" for the 1851 carnival season at Teatro La Fenice, negotiations led to the plot being kept and the names and location changing.
Francesco — the Italianized version of the king — transformed into the Duke, Bianca was changed to Gilda and the jester was adjusted from Triboletto to Rigoletto after "Rigoletti ou le dernier des fous (Rigoletti, or the last of the fools)," a parody of Hugo's play. Renamed "Rigoletto," the opera opened on March 11, 1851, to reviews praising the music and deploring the subject.
British director Jonathan Miller famously reinvented "Rigoletto" for his 1982 staging at the English National Opera, moving it to Little Italy in the 1950s. Inspired by "The Godfather" movies and the film "Some Like it Hot," Miller turned the Duke into a mafia boss and Rigoletto into a waiter at a mob hangout. His decision sparked protests when the production toured the U.S. in 1984, which included a stop at the Met.
"I know perfectly well there are those killjoys whom orthodoxy, or what they like to call orthodoxy, invariably takes precedence over pleasure," Miller said in the introduction to the video, available on Kultur. "I think you'll agree that doing the opera this way renews and somehow revitalizes the work."
Elijah Moshinsky's 1991 production for Opera Australia was inspired by the immoral Rome of Fellini's 1960 film, "La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life)," and Bruce Beresford's 2000 Armani-costumed staging for the Los Angeles Opera switched the tenor into Duke Mantua, a Hollywood producer with Rigoletto as his agent.
James McDonald's 2002 Welsh National Opera production transferred the action to the 1960s Kennedy White House. Then came Doris Doerrie's 2005 production for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Germany. Gilda was Princess Leia, stuck with a Rigoletto akin to Charlton Heston in "The Planet of the Apes."
Damrau was Gilda when that production opened and Beczala the Duke during its 2007 revival. Damrau said the audience was distracted trying "to figure out which character came from which science-fiction movie," calling it "really unnecessary."
Gelb attended a Munich rehearsal and took a swipe, saying in his January program note: "I am no more interested in watching the Duke in an ape suit ... than the next member of the Met audience." Beczala, however, said "the proportions between characters are there. It's not really something completely stupid."
"I took the libretto literally: what Rigoletto says about the Duke, the Duke is like an animal. Lovers of your teenage daughter usually are," Doerrie said in a telephone interview from Germany. "I was quite surprised about the reaction at the premiere, because people were throwing bananas at me and there was literally howling — they turned into literally animals."
Mayer's excitement about his version has filtered down to the cast. Whether the audience likes it, that's another matter.
"I'm not looking forward to the boos, but I'm not worried about it," the 52-year-old American said. "If they're going to boo me, that's how it goes."