Review: In the middle of Omicron, the Met Opera opens a Weimar “Rigoletto”
While a wave of coronavirus cases, driven by the spread of the Omicron variant, has profoundly affected live performances in New York City, the Metropolitan Opera has yet to cancel a performance. The company were so determined not to lose the premiere of their new production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” that at the last dress rehearsal on Tuesday everyone on stage wore medical masks.
These precautions, and perhaps a little luck, paid off: the premiere went as planned on New Year’s Eve in front of a large audience. And it was a compelling new “Rigoletto” – marking Bartlett Sher’s eighth production for the Met since her debut in 2006.
While moving the opera setting from Renaissance Italy to 1920s Berlin wasn’t entirely convincing, it was nonetheless a detailed and dramatic staging, full of glimpses of the characters. The choir and orchestra excelled under the direction of Daniele Rustioni, who conducted a lean and transparent performance that balanced urgency and lyricism.
Baritone Quinn Kelsey, a mainstay of the Met for over a decade, made his breakthrough as jester Rigoletto, who was part of the lecherous Duke of Mantua’s sequel. With her muscular, penetrating voice and commanding presence, Kelsey has always been a striking performer. But this role shows all its vocal and dramatic depth.
He sang with an elegance and tenderness that I had never heard from him before. In scenes from the Duke’s Palace, Rigoletto’s sneering rawness barely masked his hatred for the court. Yet, when alone with Gilda, his beloved daughter, Kelsey’s Rigoletto melted away, singing with warmth – but also a touch of suspicion, lest too much vulnerability would leave him open to the threatening outside world.
Soprano Rosa Feola, who made an outstanding Met debut as Gilda in 2019, was back in the role on Friday, and even better now. Her soft, warm voice carried effortlessly through the theater. The Coloratura runs and trills emerged as full extensions of the long vocal lines. She captured Gilda’s innocence, but also the sensual emotions and secret mistrust that motivate the disastrous decisions of this overprotected young woman.
Tenor Piotr Beczala has sung The Duke in the two previous Met productions. Once again, he brought a bugle sound and ping top notes, as well as an arrogant swagger to the role. The fleeting moments of vocal rawness did not seem out of place for this rapacious character.
When Joshua Barone reviewed this production for The New York Times during its performance at the Berlin State Opera in 2019, he wrote that Sher’s treatment of the Weimar Republic was “more of a context than a concept “. For the Met, Sher was able to fully realize his vision, including the introduction of a turntable for Michael Yeargan’s massive set, which now rotates to allow for fluid cinematic changes between scenes.
Sher recently told The Times that he chose 1920s Berlin as a pre-Fascist world of unchecked cruelty and extravagance, exploring “how corrupt leadership infects a culture, infects how wealth and privilege dominate, and crush the people below. Yet while the production conveyed this disturbing shock of indulgence and oppression, there was little specific indication of Weimar politics or culture other than a stage curtain borrowed from the work of the artist George Grosz.
Which does not mean that the staging lacks daring. In the first scene, when the Duke brags to Rigoletto about his latest intrigue – with Count Ceprano’s attractive wife – he complains that her husband is embarrassing.
Volunteer Rigoletto openly mocks the unfortunate count. But Kelsey, true to the production’s franchise, boldly crosses the line, intimidating the Earl, even slapping him on the back of the head. No wonder Rigoletto becomes the target of vengeful courtiers, who plot to kidnap Gilda, whom they assume to be his mistress.
In the next scene, walking past a row of menacing gray houses and wearing a clownish version of a long black coat and top hat – the dazzling costumes are by Catherine Zuber – Rigoletto is visibly shaken by a curse that has just been cast on him at the palace. As he returns home, stabilizing himself with a cane, he stumbles upon Sparafucile (creepy bass Andrea Mastroni), an assassin for hire. This moment reproduces the opening image of the production, when, through that Grosz curtain, we see the jester walking home while the orchestra plays the ominous prelude. You have the striking realization that Rigoletto takes this secluded walk every night; her life and her emotions become a new focal point.
Rigoletto’s house is here a modest but comfortable three-storey mansion. This performance made it clear just how wrong he was to restrict Gilda’s freedom and push back questions about her background, even about her late mother. Her treatment just makes Gilda the prey of the advances of the dashing young man who follows her: the duke, pretending to be a poor student. Passionate Gilda sings the tune “Caro nome” outside her second-floor bedroom, sometimes leaning over the banister – an image that is both dramatic and intimate. Feola sang exquisitely.
The most disturbing moment comes in Act II. After being kidnapped and deposited in the duke’s room, where behind closed doors he imposes himself on her, shaken Gilda comes out wearing a simple slip, a white sheet draped around her shoulders. As she confesses to her father what happened, the shameful Gilda de Feola sang with heartbreaking poem. Yet the blossoming of youth and even sexuality also radiated through his tone, suggesting how muddled his feelings were.
In the final act, which takes place in the cheap hostel run by Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena, we finally get to see some garb of 1920s Berlin. To lure victims for his brother, Maddalena (mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan , in an auspicious debut at the Met) is styled like Louise Brooks in “Pandora’s Box”. The famous quartet is brought to life in a vivid way, as Maddalena romances Duke Lothario in an upstairs bedroom, while downstairs at the bar, a stunned Gilda listens with Rigoletto.
Rustioni’s direction was always lucid, colorful and dramatic. I don’t need to urge the Met to bring it back, since the company has already called on Yannick Nézet-Séguin to cover a piece of “Le Nozze di Figaro” by Mozart from Yannick Nézet-Séguin, opening this week, alongside his “Rigoletto” duties.
In the enthusiastic ovation that followed Friday’s performance, gold glitter rained from the ceiling of the Met. The cast and creative team on stage applauded the audience – a fitting tribute to opera fans who put aside their worries about the virus in order to be there for this momentous evening.
Continues through January 29 with this cast and conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan; metopera.org.