Verdi’s Rigoletto, which comes to the Metropolitan Opera this month, is perennial favorite among opera lovers with a timeless story. Want proof? The work has been set in just about every era imaginable from the dark ages to a futuristic dystopia.
This evergreen quality was instilled in the opera from its conception, when Verdi plucked his plot from its 18th-century France setting in Victor Hugo’s play, Le roi s’amuse, and placed it in 16th-century Mantua to appease censors. The womanizing King became the lusty Duke of Mantua, whose tryst with the hunchback Rigoletto’s daughter becomes reason for an ill-fated revenge scheme.
When Michael Mayer’s new production at the Metropolitan Opera opens on Jan. 28 with Rigoletto, Gilda and the Duke in Rat Pack–era Las Vegas, it will be one in of a series of new contexts for this warhorse. Before it does, we've collected our favorite unconventional settings of the opera.
1. Planet of the Apes (2005)
Perhaps the most outrageous, or at least the hairiest take on Rigoletto, came in 2005 courtesy of the Bavarian State Opera’s Planet of the Ape–inspired production. The director Doris Dörrie was forthcoming in crediting the Charlton Heston classic (Rigoletto has the George Taylor role) with the initial idea for the staging. As a student of Jane Goodall’s work as well, Dörrie explained that she was interested in the idea “that apes are ultimately more human than human beings.” However, this isn’t the case in the opera, as the morally corrupt Duke and his simian cronies are certainly “damned, dirty apes.”
2. 1950's Little Italy (1982)
Jonathan Miller’s placement of the Duke and Gilda in 1950s Little Italy seems rather conventional these days, but when the production premiered at the English National Opera in 1982, the idea was so novel it sparked outrage. Controversy followed the production on its U.S. tour two years later. Then Senator Alfonse D’Amato even protested the ENO’s run at the Met, calling it anti-Italian—the libretto featuring the company’s English translation was taken off the company’s bookstore shelves after ethnic groups took offense. The inspiration came from a line from the Marilyn Monroe vehicle, Some Like It Hot: George uses Rigoletto’s as his alibi for missing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
3. The Kennedy White House (2002)
The Welsh National Opera took a more political twist on the Verdi masterpiece, using John F. Kennedy as a starting point for its 2002 Rigoletto. The production has since been revived twice, most recently with Simon Keenlyside in 2010. In director James Macdonald’s Camelot conceit, the Duke becomes the President, while Rigoletto becomes somewhat of a handicapped White House fixer with a naïve daughter in bobby socks.
4. Hollywood (2000)
When the Los Angeles Opera tapped the film director Bruce Beresford, who directed Driving Miss Daisy, to stage a new Rigoletto for its 2000 season, the company looked to its surroundings for inspiration: Hollywood. With his loose morals and philandering, the Duke became the worst-type of movie studio boss. Meanwhile, Rigoletto was cast as an agent and the henchman Sparafucile, a stunt man, eager to take on side jobs. Appropriately, the fashion house, Armani, designed the costumes.
5. "La Dolce Vita" (1991)
Men with aviator sunglasses, malevolent-looking clowns, and teeny-tiny green Fiats populate director Elijah Moshinsky’s Rigoletto for Opera Australia. If it sounds like this production, which debuted in 1991, belongs on a set for a Fellini movie (below) that’s because Moshinsky was inspired by the dark and seedy atmosphere from "La Dolce Vita."
Weigh in: Do you have a favorite version? Tell us about it in the comments below.