Cher Public

It’s a Mantua’s world

Verdi’s Rigoletto returned to the Met Friday in the stilted “Las Vegas” production by Michael Mayer, with mostly competent singing from a good-looking cast. However, in the role of Gilda, Olga Peretyatko was the standout performer, with a clean, brilliant soprano and a fresh face. In both “Caro nome” and “Tutte le feste al tempio” she displayed a spinning, controlled vocalism with moving, evocative phrasing. 

However, it seems that she has been directed to behave like a callow teenager—a choice that makes some sense within the context of the plot, though the effect comes off as half-baked. For example, when the soprano sings the famous “Caro nome,” she is directed to write into a small diary, confiding her first flush of romance to the page. While the aria suggests the revelation of sexual awakening, as Gilda steps into this mysterious world of adulthood, Mayer’s direction portrays her as a child in the throes of puppy love.

It’s not that the choice is invalid, but that it reduces Gilda’s subjectivity to a superficial level, making the tragedy that concludes the opera more perverse than noble. Moreover, Peretyatko’s demeanor was sweetly innocent enough, her beautiful face beaming with youthful exuberance. She needed no additional parlor tricks to indicate Gilda’s inexperience.

As her father, Rigoletto, Zeljko Luciv used his sizable, cutting baritone to bring out all the pathos, humiliation, and rage inherent to the role. His portrayal was nuanced and clear, each gesture arising from a specific dramatic impulse. He was especially moving in his scenes with Gilda, in which he and Peretyatko illuminated the more tender aspects of filial love.

In contrast, Stephen Costello flounced about the stage doing his best imitation of Bobby Darin, but he came off more like Jimmy Fallon in a Saturday Night Live skit. His Duke was a broad sketch, uptight and awkward, leaving little room for vulnerability or spontaneity. Moreover, his scenes with Gilda offer no hint of chemistry. The voice, on the other hand, sounded dependably handsome—better than it has done in the past few years, in fact—but his top notes, as before, lacked the radiance one would expect from his middle. His final note, sung from the wings, was by far the best produced, and consequently the most frustrating.

And in the fascinating role of Sparafucile, Andrea Mastroni brings sex and danger to a role that could easily be a one-note wonder (low F). Especially during his duet with Rigoletto in Act I, his voice and demeanor display all the oily charisma one could desire. As his sister, the saucy Maddelena, Oksana Volkova provided a female counterpoint to this figure, with a warm, mellow mezzo-soprano and a delightfully glib approach to murder and theft.

Pier Girogio Morandi’s conducting, a debut at the house, showed a keen attention to detail as he drove the orchestra with confident grandeur, then pulled back the reins to great effect. Under his baton, the score menaced and seethed with aggressive, muscular phrasing.

Mayer’s production offered an odd mix of brilliance and ineptitude. His neon sets are slick and clever, with a seedy flair appropriate for the material. While his “concept” works in some ways, especially within the homosocial domain of the Duke, it also feels a little stretched and gimmicky—like superimposing an idea simply for the sake of being clever, and not truly investigating the meat and bones of Verdi’s text.

However, there is a wonderfully murky aspect to the production. One image I cannot erase from my mind occurs during the first act, when Gilda is abducted by a horde of men: it is the pathetic legs of Giovanna, whose body lies on the threshold of the elevator. The doors move to close, but cannot, and so they rear back mechanically, only to try to close again. Whether the woman has been murdered or simply knocked unconscious is difficult to determine, but the effect is chilling.

And when Gilda steps out to greet her father in the Act II, her dress torn away and her undergarments ripped, one gets a better sense of the stakes involved in such a “practical joke”—how Rigoletto can compare the tongue and the dagger in “Pari siamo.” As Rigoletto knows all too well from his experiences with the Duke, the masculine sphere is not safe for women; this is especially true for an unworldly girl like Gilda. This undercurrent of violence and anxiety remains a modern concern, as women today still navigate through our own treacherous topographies of rape culture.

Instead of the traditional sense of a director offering a reading of Rigoletto, in this instance Rigoletto reads our own culture. And this highlights the universality of Rigoletto’s themes: volatile relationships between the sexes, intergenerational conflict, and the violence woven throughout. Rigoletto is a work so dramatically adept that it can withstand the poetic license of a shortsighted director. In other words, the opera is genius, working to deepen our understanding of the human condition, whether set in 1960s Las Vegas or 16th Century Mantua.

Photo by Karen Almond.

  • Rowna Sutin

    I guess we were sort of at different productions. I was there in the house, and while we agree on Mr. Costello, Andrea Mastroni and Ms. Volkova, the rest we are on opposite ends. I found Caro Nome absolutely ordinary. And her high notes sounded cloying. I am not a fan of Mr. Lucic so lets leave it at that. The conducting was a mystery to me. Between the weirdo tempos and lack of energy, I found the entire performance just strange. I went to hear a friend make his debut -- Nelson D Martinez sang Monterone. To me, he was the star. Friendship rules!

    • Amika

      Thanks for ‘telling us like it is’ Rowna!

  • What a great headline…and the review was very enjoyable as well. Thanks Patrick. Admittedly, I’ve only seen Youtube videos of Olga Peretyatko and I think she is an excellent singer with a pleasant voice but her interpretations come off as bland and a bit too studied. Not really sure why. I know it’s an unfair assessment and I am definitely going to give her the benefit of the doubt until I see/hear her live. I still haven’t seen this production which makes me feel really behind the times lol. Will try to finally watch it soon.

    • Lohenfal

      I saw Peretyatko as Elvira in Puritani several years ago. Her singing was correct but, as you say, somewhat studied. The voice also sounded rather small in the huge Met space. Netrebko, although not as perfect in the details of the fioritura, was much more striking in the role.

      You definitely should watch this production--not that it’s the greatest setting of Rigoletto--but it has been one of the touchstones of the Gelb era. It is somewhat more entertaining than some of its fellow Gelb creations, in a fairly obvious way. Much of its success depends on the particular cast: some singers just seem more comfortable and convincing when trying to look and act “modern.”

      • Well, I think any comparisons to AN are a bit unfair. But thank you for chiming in as I’d hate to say something about a singer that I haven’t heard live that sounds super far-fetched or inaccurate.

        I know I should watch the Rigoletto. I just haven’t gotten around to it but I would definitely like to. So much to see/hear yet so little time. I have other recordings I’d like to finish soon as well. But I’m sure I’ll watch it eventually lol.

        • Lohenfal

          It’s never unfair to recall what was more memorable. Netrebko just did more with the music and character, and Elvira is a problematic character, going in and out of madness several times. Anna had more feeling for Bellini’s Romanticism, and that certainly helped. She was able to play with the music and had a good sense of rubato. Smudging a phrase here and there couldn’t take anything away from her achievement.

          • Well recalling what was more memorable and who did more with the character dramatically I would agree is not unfair but as I said I do think it just a bit unfair, specifically because they have different voice types and because it’s difficult not to let the vocal trajectory and development AN has had in recent years color our pereception of her success or lack thereof of her past forays into bel canto rep, which would include the role of Elvira, since we now know it didn’t suit her as well as verismo and certain heavier Verdi roles do. But that’s just my opinion.

            • DonCarloFanatic

              AN did not please the experts with Elvira, but she totally wowed me and all the people watching that perf in HD. She could have continued to improve her bel canto detail--she has shown she can work hard--but she chose not to. On the whole, we’re all the richer for that decision.

            • Lohenfal

              You’re right. It was somewhat unfair to make that comparison. Still, I remember my reaction at that 2007 performance. I noted the imperfections but felt they were worthwhile in light of the total effect. Eventually, I began to tire of her concentration on bel canto, but that wasn’t my initial feeling. I also remember telling a friend of mine, who is a Sutherland fanatic, that this performance was remarkable in its own right. Since AN mentioned at the time that she wasn’t trying to emulate Sutherland’s vocal splendors, I appreciated her modesty and could concentrate on her own qualities.

            • Porgy Amor

              Hmm. The repertoire is not a particular “specialty” of mine, but I thought that Puritani was just an abysmal performance. It was the sort of thing to make me wonder why they were even doing the opera. I am not referring to Netrebko’s Elvira alone, but everything around her as well. I’m glad if other people got enjoyment out of it (the same I would say about the Lepage Ring or anything I thought a failure), but I would never sit through it a second time.

            • Williams

              I would give my eye teeth to be transported back in time to that marvelous night of the prima in late 2006 when Anna lay on her back on stage, dangled her head and shoulders into the orchestra pit and filled the Met with wave upon wave of shimmering, lush sound…heaven!

            • Lohenfal

              Was that because of the musical side or the staging? The production is antiquated. It seemed antiquated even when Sutherland and Pavarotti were in it. And admittedly the others surrounding Netrebko weren’t exactly stellar. Yet I remember a palpable excitement in the house, largely because of her. It might be difficult to experience this solely through watching the HD. Also, as I’ve mentioned, there were imperfections in her singing which some of us noticed but didn’t really care about.

            • Porgy Amor

              Oh, I would never say a performance was abysmal just because the production was antiquated. If it were musically splendid and the production was antiquated, that is what I would say. I saw and heard nothing of distinction in that Bellini broadcast: not Summers, not Netrebko, not Cutler, not the revival direction, on down.

              I also have some opinions about I puritani that are coming into play here. Even if I had thought Netrebko lying on her back and pouring out beautiful tone elevated her above all her colleagues, I do not think this opera can stay aloft as a soprano vehicle. Then it would be a bad Puritani with a good soprano performance in it. The great performances of it I have heard — every one of them — have been ensemble efforts.

              Regarding excitement in the house, I am sure many people were excited to see Domingo as the Ernani Don Carlo, Dessay as Violetta, Voigt as Minnie and Brünnhilde, et cetera, too. If I praised these people just for showing up and sort of getting through a role, I would not feel it meant anything when I praised them because they were well suited to something and really excellent. No one hits a home run every time out.

  • chicagoing

    This observation from the New Yorker’s Goings On About Town listing, ” The Met is going all-in on Michael Mayer’s flamboyant production of “Rigoletto,” which is set in a Las Vegas casino: the company has revived it almost every season since its premiere in 2013.”

  • Rowna Sutin

    Just wanted to make a second comment about Ms. Peretyatko, who I enjoyed very much in Puritani a few seasons back. I feel very badly that she read my comments and were hurt by it. I know very well how hard it is to please one’s entire audience. I went with 2 friends, one a very established conductor who loved her singing as Gilda. I was disappointed. But had I known my comments would be personally hurtful I would not have said anything. Singers have it tough enough. So, if anyone can convey this to her, please do.

    • Rick

      Dear Rowna, I do not think that you should worry. I read your comments now -- and there is nothing malicious in what you write. If one, as Ms. Peretyatko has decided to do, makes once career on the world stages -- and in particular if one is as successful as Ms. Peretyatko, one must assume that one will be reviewed -- and this cannot always be positive. I noticed Ms. Peretyatko’s reference to you on her twitter account -- and I don find it somewhat childish of an artist to mention something like this.
      Kind regards

      • Rowna Sutin

        Thank you, Rick. You may not know this but I was a professional singer at one time (I consider myself retired as I haven’t been paid to sing in over a year) and I know how hard it is to get up in front of the public and present yourself. I sometimes think it is better to say nothing at all . . .but as I put my thoughts out there on parterre, I really didn’t think the cast would be reading the comments of the public. I am quite sensitive myself and truly feel badly that Ms. Peretyatko read my comments. Oh well. I had a great day celebrating the 1st birthday of my grandson!

        • Rick

          My mother was a professional operasinger as well so I do have some first hand experience on how it is to wait for the reviews after opening night etc. But for a singer, not least someone with a big career, to comment publicly about what is not even a real review but rather some remarks on a website by an operalover, for me that is simply wrong and too thinskinned for my taste.