Review: Metropolitan Opera's Rat Pack Rigoletto Hits a Jackpot

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - 12:00 PM

Piotr Beczala as the Duke in Verdi's 'Rigoletto' Piotr Beczala as the Duke in Verdi's 'Rigoletto' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

"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)

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Comments [24]

concetta nardone from Nassau

Watched it on a repeat telecast a few weeks ago. Was prepared to hate it as I have not liked some of the recent trashings of operas by Gelb. Only able to watch the first act and thoroughly enjoyed it. Really impressed by the Sparafucile. He made me think of Jack Palance. I had fun watching this.

Jul. 06 2013 10:53 AM
markiejoe from California

Watched the TV broadcast today. As usual, opera singers can't act, although this performance's Sparafucile was as close to what opera singers need to bring to the stage (but almost never do) as you're likely to see. Why opera singers almost never suit their actions to the words they are singing is beyond me. (Maybe because they're almost always standing still doing Recital Singing.) But the most shocking part of this Met performance was that only two of the principal singers was not more than occasionally roaming off pitch. Rigoletto sung in the cracks. No new converts from this stagnant clump.

May. 18 2013 10:02 PM
Elizabeth from Canada

Disappointing. Acclaim for costuming and staging not merited. Pole dancing disgraceful, superfluous, and inappropriate-- especially for the many school children invited to view this live transmission.

Adherence to the highest possible standards are expected from the Met. Magnificent voices deserve no less.

Feb. 19 2013 11:53 AM
kenny52

The odd, squiggly shapes in the sky represent the rain. Jones is a genious.

Feb. 17 2013 11:04 AM
A E Probst from Baton rouge

i' ve seen 7 live productions since 1966 Including dr miller's absolutely loved this production I tried to imagine someone who never had seen an opera watching this performance and was delighted every time there was a relevant moment . Like spreading gossip with the microphone . I liked the harlequin diamonds on rigoletto's sweater . Loved the singing . Loved everything about the production Can't wait for the repeat. Wish I could be in NYC to see lisette in the next few days

Feb. 17 2013 10:54 AM
louis kleinerman from Audubon NJ

I had read the reviews and comments before seeing the HD broadcast yesterday and was prepared to hate it. Never having seen this opera i wanted a real hunchback and Duke, courtiers and scenery from the 16th century.I was initially put off by the garish scenery and costumes but very quickly was able to accept it as the music rapidly transcended the 1960's setting. At times the translations were ludicrous, made to fit the 20th century but this proved only a minor distraction. The singing and acting was so magnificent, the music so timeless that this opera could have been set on the moon. I'm not a fan of updating operas but this was exceptional.

Feb. 17 2013 08:56 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, LaKE Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ


GENARAL MANAGER PETER GELB, WE ALL HAVE GREAT RESPECT FOR WHAT YOU HAVE ACHIEVED BY YOUR HD IN REAL TIME PRESENTATIONS OF THE MET OPERA LIVE PERFORMANCES WORLD-WIDE IN HUNDREDS OF MOVIE THEATERS AND OTHER PERFORMING ARTS CENTERS, BUT PLEASE REFRAIN FROM PUTTING UNDER CONTRACT THOSE SELF-SERVING NARCISSTIC SET AND COSTUME DESIGNERS WHO WOULD DO ANYTHING TO SENSATIONALIZE THEIR OWN "ACHIEVEMENTS" BY CROSS-OVER PRODUCTIONS THAT CONTRADICT THE LIBRETTISTS' AND OPERA COMPOSERS' INTENTIONS. YOU ARE TOO GOOD A MAN, A MENSCH, WITH ALL YOUR PREVIOUS ACCOMPLISHMENTS, TO CONTINUE TO BARBARIANIZE THE MASTERPIECES OF OPERA. THE AUTHORS/COMPOSERS HAVE CHOSEN TO COMMUNICATE. NOT TO APPEAR TO BE A PRUDE PURIST, BUT FLASHY, SENSATIONALISM THOUGH IT MAY EXCITE ENTHUSIASM FOR THE UNIQUE, THE SPACED OUT, MAY ALSO SO CLASH WITH THE ORIGINAL INTENTIONS OF THE AUTHORS/COMPOSERS THAT THE AUDIENCES WILL NEVER REALLY BE ABLE TO COMPREHEND WHAT WERE THE CREATIVE TEAMS' INTENTIONS AND UPDATING THE STORY LINE AND CHANGING THE LOCALE CAN ONLY CONTRADICT WHAT THE MORES, CUSTOMS, OF THE ORIGINAL TIMES WOULD HAVE COMMANDEERED. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer, "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare" and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. My websites where one may download, FREE, my singing in four solo concerts at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall by going to "Recorded Selections"; www.WagnerOpera.com, www.ShakespeareOpera.com and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com.
Roles that are represented in my singing to be heard on my websites are: Tristan, Siegfried, Goetterdaemmerung Siegfried, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Siegmund, Walther von Stolzing, Florestan, Federico and Eleazar.

Feb. 16 2013 06:24 PM
Ted Cerame from Perris, California

Mr. Cool Observer,
I agree with you and the others who understand that decadence must stop at, “The House.” Otherwise we are doomed. If there is any hope of upholding the worthy standards of grand Opera it is people like you that will stir up the music lovers of fine music to take a stand and through the power of the pen democratically let the powers that be in New York that we object to allowing the standards of the Masters and of the “House,” to be brought down to the common denominator of the gutter.
For some time now a universal wave of decadence has been spreading like a cancer to all areas of society/culture. We have observed cycles like this throughout history. In the end the Earth will endure and the, “pinnacles,” of Art and Culture shall endure. I know that when we see this cheapening of our beloved Met we feel hopeless. But that which the King, Verdi and all the other Masters gave to the world has endured through the thick and thin of it, through pestilence, famine and the sword and shall continue on and make it through these decadent times.
“Build upon the old and the true before going on to the new,” says Novalis.
If the new General Manager is disillusioned to think that parlor tricks are necessary to broaden the listening audience he is mistaken. Opera lovers have always been and shall always be a select minority.
Consider, how many souls have we met that understand the purity of Mozart, or the Literary excellence of Hawthorne or Dostoyevsky?
Thank you for your effective words and strong stand. It is about time that someone has told it like it is.
Good listening to all

Feb. 16 2013 01:16 PM
avice wilson from New Brunswick, NJ

I saw the new production of Rigoletto at the Met on Feb 13th. And enjoyed it as a fun evening. But that is not really what Rigoletto is all about. The singing, playing, conducting, were superb, but I doubt if the production will have a long life as the opera is trivialized by staging. However, I asked ten young people in the family circle what they thought of it, and all replied they loved it. So if it contributes to bringing in a younger audience to the Met, so be it.

Feb. 15 2013 10:19 AM
HM from East Hampton

Fought the weather to come in and see this production last Friday evening. The effort was amply rewarded. The performances were outstanding. The understated orchestra allowed the singing to emerge without the usual pompous competition. I actually liked the set design though I felt that Rigoletto himself was inadequately costumed. Just a trench coat did not deliver the right mix of pathos and absurdity appropriate for the character. Yes, I wanted him in a funny hat, at least.

Feb. 13 2013 10:31 AM
BobG from NYC

I did see this production of Rigoletto at the Met on Monday, 02/04. The problem with the updating is that moving the action to Las Vegas does nothing to enhance or clarify the dramatic power. In fact, the opposite occurs. The Duke is the most important person in 16th century Mantua, essentially with the power of life and death over everyone at the court. Plotting to kill the Duke is probably the biggest crime possible in Renaissance Italy. Plotting to kill a lounge singer in Vegas is simply not the same thing. Everything in the production trivializes the grandeur and the tragedy of Verdi's opera.

There are practical problems too: In Mantua, Gilda lives in a house with a garden; in Vegas she and Rigoletto live in an apartment on the 6th floor. This makes the actions of the conspirators essentially impossible in carrying her off. (And the Duke would run into them when he leaves the apartment!) Rigoletto himself is sidetracked into an empty elevator. It's just silly. At the end, Rigoletto finds Gilda in the trunk of a car. In Mantua, he can't do anything but lament her fate; but in Vegas, in the 60's, with a car for which he has the key, you wonder why he doesn't rush her off to the nearest emergency room.

David Patrick Stearns describes Gilda as frumpy, which is actually kind. Add dowdy and dumpy. She is the least sexy Gilda imaginable, and there is no chance she would attract the attention of the duke in Mantua, or in Vegas. By the way, the Duke supposedly becomes infatuated with her in church. A lounge singer hanging out in a church in Vegas in the 60's? I don't believe it.

I thought the singers were valiant, but from where I sat in the Balcony, the orchestra sounded muted and the conducting seemed sluggish. OK, I'll say it: the worst Rigoletto production I have ever seen (excepting only the singing, which was excellent).

Feb. 09 2013 04:03 PM

Hey Mr. Gelb,

Want to really fill the house with a new audience.? Why stop with travesties like Rigoletto, Faust,Traviata and Ballo? No point in destroying just the setting. Transpose Boheme down, put mikes on the stage and cast Justin Bieber as Rodolpho and Beyonce as Mimi. That'll pack'em in.

Feb. 04 2013 11:25 AM
Bernie from UWS

I suspect most of the critics here haven't seen this production. I did and found it to be a really fun and entertaining take on the opera. To say that Zefferelli (or name your older generation director) was somehow being truer to the composer's wishes doesn't quite add up though.

Every director puts a stamp of some kind on the classics. They can hold up just fine with radical reinterpretations. After all, Rigoletto has been done in Little Italy, on Planet of the Apes, and in various other stagings. If you go to opera in other countries you'll realize that "naturalistic" productions are in the minority. It's just that NY audiences were trained for decades under Volpe and Bing that naturalistic=authentic. That's not quite the full picture.

Feb. 03 2013 09:03 AM
CoolObserver from New York, New York

Before generalizing about the Met's approach, let me say the new Rigoletto presents some giggles, fun and not a few groans at the overdone idiocy, even Tomassini in the Times, usually a puppy dog for Gelb's monstrosities, gave a very qualified review. Why do we have to tolerate junk, garbage or crazy visuals with top notch musicianship and great singing? BUT David Patrick Sterns is pathetic if he thinks Zeffirelli is "the stone age." Zeffirelli is the golden age of presenting opera with AUTHENTICITY, not sensationalism or iconoclasm masquerading as innovation for the sake of controversy and commercialization. Are to really believe such ignorance and condescension that a modern audience doesn't understand or can't relate to what a jester is? Where did Mr. Sterns learn his classics or culture? Isn't he the reviewer who also raved over less intermissions so he could get home earlier? That is the kind of value system that seems at work above.

Feb. 02 2013 01:52 PM
CoolObserver from New York, New York

I have personally been going to the Met opera since I was 13 for over fifty years, and never have I witnessed such pathetic and misguided productions as recently. In the name of attracting new audiences and making opera more “popular and relevant,” laudable goals for certain, Peter Gelb has dumbed down productions, padded their ineptness with gratuitous sex and violence (in an art form that lacks neither), and embarked on a course of cheapening, sensationalizing and trivializing operatic traditions, productions and the audiences he claims to serve.

The main question to be asked is why does he employ a complete double standard where musicians and singers must have proven themselves thoroughly as being at the top of their profession in other opera venues before performing at the Met, but directors and designers need not even to have seen or heard an opera before striking Mr. Gelb’s fancy, and subsequently getting invited to create an interpretation and production of a classic opera at the Met!. This in a house which claims to be the greatest temple of the art and pinnacle of the art form! With James Levine out of the picture (and with him a great deal of honed operatic aesthetic), Mr. Gelb is running amuck with outrageous, and frankly almost incoherent and frequently tasteless, if not downright stupid productions. In the name of iconoclasm and popularism that he thinks will shake up the opera world and create controversy for attention, he is following a “Euro trash” movement that allows directors “to brand” and burden great classics with their own idiosyncratic and often bizarre obsessions and interpretations. This, Mr. Gelb hopes, will create “buzz” to sell tickets, but in fact, it is insulting audiences’ intelligence and dumbing down opera to play to the lowest level of theatrical taste and dispelling much of it’s magic and intrinsic value.

Feb. 02 2013 01:44 PM
CoolObserver from New York, New York


In opera three ingredients are absolutely essential: spectacle, drama and most importantly authenticity, and all these are to serve one and only one great purpose, to tell clearly the story of the opera and convey it to the audience. A felicitous production is like a beautiful dress on a woman which is meant to introduce, enhance and establish her presence in a room. In my personal opinion, an authentic traditional setting of an opera more easily allows the audience to focus on the core story without the distractions of trying to guess a director’s hidden agenda and message or witnessing the often confusing and bizarre uprooting of a tale to some fantasy time that makes a pretentious modern director more important, or at least more prominent, than the original composer and librettist.

I am certainly not adverse to relocating an opera to another era, and we have had genius directors such as Jonathan Miller and Peter Sellers who have brilliantly accomplished such transitions. BUT, Mr. Gelb has decided that “updates” (a misnomer suggesting some sort of improvement but which is nothing more than a relocation of the original composer’s and librettist’s chosen setting) make a story more relevant and real to the audience. But, sophisticated or even inexperienced audiences do not need to see themselves or their own times on display on the stage to be able to relate --that is grossly underestimating audiences. Further, these “relocations” frequently distort or mangle the original opera story to fit into some fantasy of the director. When these visions flag or stumble, they are spiced up and cheapened with gratuitous sex, violence or vulgarity --the usual addled addictions of cheap entertainment. We do not come to see a runway show of some director’s and designer’s zany and outrageous fantasies. We come year after year to see and hear subtle, great interpretations of classics!

Feb. 02 2013 01:41 PM
CoolObserver from New York, New York

Please do not get me wrong, Mr. Peter Gelb is a great promoter, an almost indefatigable CEO and a fantastic opera movie maker. But with 16 to 18 cameras, any production can be made to look interesting, intense and successful, even if the actual stage productions are usually pitifully lacking in the key ingredient of authenticity. Further, from the first day of the HD plan, operas have been directed, cast and even designed with the HD foremost in mind, all promises and denials to the contrary --and I have this from chorus, from singers, conductors and from technical people. This approach is sacrificing the essential in-house authentic theatrical experience of opera lovers and high price ticket purchasers for the future film project and mass marketing. I LOVE the HD idea and wish we’d had 50 or 100 years of them for archival purposes, but I do not want to go to the opera in person to be made painfully aware that I am not participating in the primary art, but one contorted for a film project. That puts the cart before the horse. Shallow Broadway pizzazz, “high design” concepts and slick gimcrackery have been substituted for the age old, traditional effort to simply present and to tell the composer’s story in the most authentic way possible.

I went three times to the recent revivals of the Met’s Turandot by Franco Zeffirielli --the single greatest and most successful production the Met has left (aside perhaps from La Boheme, also by the unequaled Zeffirelli and their Aida). In a very telling opening gambit, Mr. Gelb, his new administration and his new approach did not come to the Met’s repertory and produce some forgotten or neglected operas and prove the brilliance of their new approach and innovative ideas. No indeed. Instead, Mr. Gelb immediately set about destroying, eliminating and replacing the greatest and most popular and most beloved existent productions such as Tosca, Traviata, the Ring and several others as if to try to make certain that there was nothing or little of the old for comparison, and that there was no going back to stage production tradition and story authenticity for the Met.

Feb. 02 2013 01:37 PM
CoolObserver from New York, New York

Mr. Gelb has brought a corporate CEO mentality and drive with this vision that he seems to want to shove down our throats. He has sought to ban reviewers critical of his productions, banned the Met’s own Opera News access (until a public outcry forced a retreat). I have actually seen and heard him misrepresent to the point I would say crosses the line about reactions to his productions in an effort to counter criticism. Four trustees have now told me that dissent and criticism are not tolerated from the Board of Trustees and that only the biggest giver has any say. Sybil Harrington, now deceased, gave many millions in the past for some of the most brilliant productions ever seen at the Met. But Mr. Gelb prefers big donors like Mrs. Bass and Mrs. Ziff who give millions for his use without taste, strings or aesthetic concerns or restrictions. The Met has even hired public relations firms and survey takers, but long time or frequent opera goers are excluded and dropped from such surveys because Mr. Gelb does not want audience experience or knowledge of opera to interfere with his singleminded agenda.

No one is or should be objecting to new blood, fresh ideas and different approaches to opera, new singers and musicians are welcomed warmly almost every week. But the major complaint is that novices are being foisted on us in the directing and designing who either under think or over reach out of inexperience. We don’t want to be experimented on or subjected to inferior and lame learner’s productions. Again, why the double standard(?), except that Mr. Gelb thinks his innate instincts and personal taste are omnipotent and sadly, the last few seasons have shown this emperor has mostly shabby clothes if any at all. It is as if a posh restaurant owner hired a chef who had only worked at burger joints and pancake houses to cook for people who expect and pay for soufflés, madrilenes or cassoulets! We don’t need blatant experimentation for the sake of novelty or iconoclasm for the sake of sensationalism. These will not please current supporters and audiences nor attract a new audience who is going to stay for more than the passing controversy. Nor are Broadway’s far more flippant and transient values an asset or welcomed in someplace considered to be the refuge from over amplified sound, shallow flashiness, technical pyrotechnics and cheap gimmicks. Opera, and The Met, need seasoned professionals with insight and experience to tell the stories and plumb the depths of emotion in the Jungian aspects of cultural treasures that have come down to us for hundreds of years.

Feb. 02 2013 01:29 PM
Peter Feldman from New York City

I have not seen this new production but I feel that Verdi had very different intentions than Peter Gelb and these updates CANNOT WORK on the long run.

Jan. 31 2013 10:19 PM
ted heslin from juneau, ak

while such a new "updated" version may work, may not, and where it may be of interest and entertaining to someone who knows the opera and has seen it time and again in a traditional staging, it may entertain, but not be too useful to a first time viewer/listener, in helping understand the composers intent. but you do get the gist of the story. and good music is always still good music.
my feeling though, is that these productions age quickly and i question how far into the future they will still entertain. enjoy it as i may, next time i will want to fall back on the old rigoletto i have loved for decades - that is, a traditionally staged rigoletto.
the same goes for an aida-ala-"madmen" that opened in toronto two years ago. enjoyed it the first time, next time i want elephants and pharaohs.
it is just a lot of bucks for any company to invest and either see it go quickly to mothballs or tediously bring back regularly for a decade or more. sometimes it works and sometimes it don't.

Jan. 30 2013 09:17 PM
David from Flushing

Too bad what happens in Vegas doesn't stay there.

Jan. 29 2013 08:57 PM
Peter O'malley from Oakland, New Jersey

I haven't seen ityet, and am in no rush to do so. It looks like silliness for the sake of being able to say the production isn't stuffy or old-fashioned, but it leads to my inevitable question about these exercises: what becomes of the text and the story? how do the words fit in with the irrelevant images being thrown at the audience? How does the relationship of the ill-defined character of the possible insult comic that Rigoletto has become with the glitzy entertainer convey the power structure that made Rigoletto, as court jester to an all powerful nobleman, totally powerless and dependent on the Duke's every whim, despite being superfically free to insult the other courtiers? The relationship is feudal, not Las Vegas, and these "my production is more clever than yours" gimmicks obfuscate what the words and music are saying.

Jan. 29 2013 05:22 PM
beachsiggy from NJ/NY Metro

"POLL" dancing???? This is Vegas, not Congress. As far as commenting on the production, I would have to see it to say anything. I sometimes enjoy updated productions, sometimes not. Sometimes they work, other times not. Everyone is entitled to their own ideas. As long as they don't start doing to opera what singers are doing to the National Anthem these days. Then we've got problems.

Jan. 29 2013 04:49 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

NOT TO APPEAR TO BE A PRUDE PURIST, BUT FLASHY, SENSATIONALISM THOUGH IT MAY EXCITE ENTHUSIASM FOR THE UNIQUE, THE SPACED OUT, MAY ALSO SO CLASH WITH THE ORIGINAL INTENTIONS OF THE AUTHOR/COMPOSER THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO COMPREHEND WHAT THE AUTHOR/COMPOSER HAD CHOSEN TO COMMUNICATE. CONDIMENTS SHOULD NEVER CONCEAL THE REAL TASTE OF THE FOOD. CONDIMENTS USUALLY MAKE THE FOOD LESS HEALTHY AND THE EATER LESS AWARE OF THE NATURAL TASTE. UPDATING THE STORY LINE AND CHANGING THE LOCALE CAN CONTRADICT WHAT THE MORES, CUSTOMS, OF THE ORIGINAL TIMES WOULD HAVE COMMANDEERED. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer, "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare" and dirctor of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. My websites where one may download my singing in four solo concerts at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall by going to Recorded Selections; www.WagnerOpera.com, www.ShakespeareOpera.com and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com.
Roles that are represented in my singing to be heard on my websites are: Tristan, Siegfried, Goetterdaemmerung Siegfried, Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Siegmund, Walther von Stolzing, Florestan, Federico and Eleazar.

Jan. 29 2013 04:24 PM

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