Bartlett Sher’s production of Rigoletto, which opened on New Year’s Eve at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, takes place in Germany during the Weimar Republic, far removed from Verdi’s 16th-century Mantua, but contributes usefully to a ghost of political authoritarianism. Satirical images by artist George Grosz confirm Nazi horrors as they lend their dark yet vibrant colors to Michael Yeargan’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes, touchingly illuminated by Donald Holder. The sets have a Met style of grandeur, especially in the depiction of an imposing hall where the voluptuous duke gives parties and, presumably, pays attention to state affairs.
Sher’s simple performance is far from the radical production style favored in Germany, where it opened at co-producer The Berlin State Opera in 2019. Some German critics have criticized his alleged lack of new ideas; For me, it was often a relief to meet characters whose behavior Verdi could recognize. In Sher’s treatment, court jester Rigoletto’s reunion with his beloved daughter Gilda, after a hard day’s work, is both joyful and moving. Later, you feel the horror of her abduction when you look at how she offers long-lasting but vain resistance.
Not everything is right, but Sher’s biggest mistake is his handling of the girl’s murder. To the novice opera-goer, her self-sacrifice as vengeance for the unbelieving duke – for whom Rigoletto contracted to kill because he raped and betrayed her – may seem hopelessly unlikely. But fueled by her unstoppable passion for the Duke, the crucial moment in which she chooses to die can make a huge impact. Here, unfortunately, she first tries to explain her decision to the assassin, Sparafucile (Andrea Mastroni), in a mock conversation that dampens her driving passion and robs the scene of its spontaneity.
Yet Gilda emerges as a woman of character, not one who merely responds to forces generated by others. Rosa Feola sings with clear tone and a winning ability to twist phrases smoothly and evenly. She makes you realize the doomed Gilda is the opera’s one character developing. The Duke, on the other hand, does not change a shred, a point that Verdi brings home by making him condescending towards women in the opera’s first and last arias. Piotr Beczala sends each one with light-hearted charm and brings the firm, clear tone we expect of him to the Duke’s fiery central aria, when his infatuation with Gilda has not yet been noticed.
Quinn Kelsey, an expressive singer who is not afraid to sing quietly (a virtue that Feola and Beczala also possess), gives a captivating, well-thought-out portrayal of Rigoletto, though his large, rather woolly voice will not be at all does not resonate. Conductor Daniele Rustioni leads a successful performance that occasionally lacks energy.
Before the start of the Omicron defiant premiere, general manager Peter Gelb addressed the audience, noting that the Met should cancel another performance this season. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Until June 11, metopera.org