"Be careful with that sarcophagus. There's a diva bound and gagged inside of it."
Such words — probably muttered in some form during rehearsals for the Metropolitan Opera's new Rigoletto — are normally non sequiturs but not in Michael Mayer's radical updating that was unveiled on Monday. Not only is Gilda (sung by Diana Damrau) abducted with the sort of kitschy Egyptian coffin that might be found lying around in 1960s La Vegas (the opera's new setting), but she dies in the trunk of a Cadillac. (Yes, I'm spoiling it for you, but if I don't, others will).
The big news is that director Mayer got out of Monday night alive. As much as the opening scene's intentionally vulgar casino-style neon lights were greeted with stunned silence, the final curtain response suggested that it's a hit. What might initially seem like an act of operatic vandalism from a director of Broadway musicals (Spring Awakening) as well as classical theater had precision not often seen in updates. Mayer's ideas were sometimes improvements.
As much as Verdi has resisted updating, his tale of a nasty hunchback court jester whose daughter is killed by his own need for revenge arrived here in the early-'80s as a gangster movie courtesy of Jonathan Miller and the visiting English National Opera. More recently in Wales, the Duke of Mantua's decadent court became the Oval Office. Mayer's production did everything that a Las Vegas setting threatens to do — colors never seen in nature, pole dancing, glitzy satellite chandeliers (not unlike the Met's) and even Met titles with modern English colloquialism. Some wondered aloud why the translation even bothered to keep names like "Duke." Why not Frank and Sammy?
Ultimately, you realized how much you've strained to make sense of an opera about a malevolent court jester. Here, Rigoletto is a combination enabler, doormat, pimp and, with his humped back, the Duke's Dorian Gray portrait - making his early-on callousness far more understandable. Scene changes were fast and fluid since the first scene's casino setting is also a likely hangout for the assassin Sparafucile. Quick entrances and exits were made possible by modern elevators on each side of the stage.
The problem is that set designer Christine Jones didn't know when to stop - unlike, say, the late Maria Bjornson, whose Paris Opera designs for The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny zeroed in on three or so iconically vulgar images and rendered them with a scale, detail and clarity that made them speak. This Rigoletto had ten neon signs too many and, in the final scene, odd, squiggly shapes appearing in the sky.
Musically, the performance standard was high but also full of dramatic truth. Though Damrau was made to look amazingly frumpy, she's exactly the kind of smart coloratura who makes the ornamental aspects of her vocal writing a vital part of her character. As the Duke, dashing Piotr Beczala has exactly the right kind of gleaming, middle-weight lyric tenor voice with effortless high notes. As Rigoletto, Zeljko Lucic isn't much of a physical actor but colored his voice in ways that took you to the core of his humanity. And who is Michele Mariotti? This young Italian has only been conducting opera since 2005, but, in his debut season here, brought an intelligence and temperament to Rigoletto that insures re-engagements.
Photos: 1) Piotr Beczala as the Duke and Oksana Volkova as Maddalena, 2) Željko Lucic as Rigoletto and Diana Damrau as Gilda (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)