Worthy cast finds fiftul humanity beneath the neon of Met’s “Rigoletto”

Sat Jan 21, 2017 at 12:53 pm
Željko Lucic in the title role and Olga Peretyatko as Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Karen Almond

Željko Lucic in the title role and Olga Peretyatko as Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Karen Almond

Since its debut in 2013, Michael Mayer’s Vegas-strip take on Rigoletto has been perhaps the most talked-about production in the Metropolitan Opera’s repertoire. With its topless pole-dance, flashing neon, and lines of cocaine, it is more than anything a send-up of Verdi and Piave’s classic tragedy. On some nights, the gentle parody is quite effective, offering a self-effacing interpretation that softly teases the piece’s flirtation with melodrama, winking at the audience but still retaining enough respect for the work to convey its emotional elements honestly.

But all too easily, as at Friday’s season premiere, this approach can slip into a glib, almost snide spoof that becomes something else entirely, a celebration of the director’s cleverness with Verdi’s music brought along for the ride.

Setting the tone for the revival, Stephen Costello played the Duke as a high-rolling cocaine addict, throwing in twitches and spasms for comic effect. Playing the opera for laughs like this papers over the darker elements of the story, such as the rape of Gilda in Act II, which here becomes an incongruous interruption in an otherwise perfectly chummy group hangover.

Vocally, though, Friday’s showing included several excellent performances, beginning with Costello. He doesn’t quite have the pealing brightness that one might wish for in an ideal Duke, nor a lot of meat on his voice, but he sported a firm, solid tenor that could get all the way up to the role’s highest reaches. He showed a natural lyrical sense, especially in his monologue at the top of Act II, “Ella mi fu rapita!” The highlight-reel aria of the opera, “La donna e mobile,” showed hints of strain, but Costello sang the music with suave confidence.

Olga Peretyatko took a while to settle into the role of Gilda, letting pitches stray in her first appearance with her father. As she went along, the soprano found more focus in her voice, and her singing was exemplary; “Caro nome” was a pure delight, sung with pinpoint accuracy and liquid phrasing. There is a touch of dusky color to her instrument, but also ringing clarity, and even a steely edge here and there. Peretyatko had an innate sense for the winning innocence of the role, with many of the evening’s most affecting moments coming in her loving duets with Rigoletto.

For his part, Željko Lučić gave a convincing portrait in the title role, one with which he is by now quite familiar. He has a lean, gristly baritone, which suited well for his brooding interpretation, a man with little joy in life save his beloved daughter. His most brilliant moment came in Act II’s “Cortigiana, vil razza dannata,” as he spat fire at his tormentors before breaking down into a heartrending plea for mercy.

Andrea Mastroni made a superb company debut as Sparafucile, playing the slick, shady hitman with a rich barolo voice. Many of the supporting roles got flattened out in their sparkling lounge suits, but Jeff Mattsey found sparks of humanity in the largely repellent role of Marullo, allowing a pang of sympathy to flash across his face when Rigoletto begged for his daughter’s safe return.

Nelson Martínez blustered well in his debut as Monterone, here portrayed as a sheikh whose rantings at the craps table are, for some reason, treated with prophetic regard. Oksana Volkova was an ideal Maddalena, matching the sultry allure of her dramatic presence with deep, rich tone; though billed as a mezzo, she had all the weight and warmth of a contralto. And for the second night in a row, the Met got a fine pinch-hit appearance, as Edyta Kulczak combined playful camaraderie and motherly warmth, filling in for Maria Zifchak as Giovanna.

On a night of several first bows, the biggest assignment of all was Pier Giorgio Morandi’s debut in the pit. This was not a completely seamless performance by any means, showing raggedness of ensemble in more than a few spots. Still, he captured the essential spirit of the piece, from the grand brooding of the overture to the dizzying energy of the first two acts, to the crushing drama of the conclusion.

Rigoletto runs through April 27 at the Metropolitan Opera. A second cast, featuring Joseph Calleja as the Duke, Štefan Kocán as Sparafucile, and Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Maddalena, opens on April 19. metopera.org

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