Zifchak, Maria


RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

The Metropolitan Opera, 2013 | Michele Mariotti, Michael Mayer, Željko Lučić, Diana Damrau, Piotr Beczala, Oksana Volkova, Štefan Kocán, Maria Zifchak, Jeff Mattset, David Crawford, Robert Pomakov, Alexander Lewis, Emalie Savoy, Catherine Choi, Earle Patriarco | The Met: Live in HD, 16th February 2013

Diana Damrau and Željko Lučić appeared in one of the promotional slots during an interval in last month’s Met Live in HD broadcast of Maria Stuarda to promote their appearance in the Met’s forthcoming new production of Rigoletto. When asked whether they thought that Verdi’s opera would benefit in any way from an updating of its 16th century Mantua court setting to a casino in 1960s Las Vegas run by members of the Rat Pack, Damrau and Lučić just laughed. Of course not. Verdi’s brilliant work is strong enough to withstand most interpretations, but, who knows?, it might just be fun to see it in the context of the colourful sets and situation developed by Broadway director Michael Mayer and his creative team.

In the event that’s exactly how the Met’s new production turned out. Rigoletto doesn’t gain anything at all by setting it in Las Vegas in the 1960s, but the idea has a certain merit and fascination in how it aligns characters from the opera to real Rat Pack figures. Here, the Duke of Mantua is a Frank Sinatra-like owner of a casino with a coterie of hangers-on willing to indulge his every whim, while comedian Don Rickles is the basis for the acerbic comedy of Rigoletto - or Rickletto, if you like. With Count Monterone a wealthy Arab sheik backer of the casino, Mayer’s production is as an effective way as any of putting across the glamour and power struggles as well as the respective positions of the characters in Verdi’s mid-period masterwork.

The production’s greatest impact came, not unexpectedly, in the licentious First Act, the Old Blue Eyes Duke in a white dinner jacket, grabbing a microphone to “croon” ‘Questa o quella‘ for his guests, accompanied by Las Vegas dancers with colourful fans. Visually, it looked magnificent, and it did get across all the necessary glamour and cruelty of the situation, with all the back-biting asides and casual sexism generated by the Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin-like members of the pack towards “dolls” anyone outside of their little group. A few subtle tweaks in the subtitles to reflect the swinging sixties dialogue worked well in this context, matching the intent and raising a few smiles without being too far removed from the original.

The setting didn’t over-impose itself however, or else it ran out of ideas, fading mostly into the background after the colourful opening scene, and allowing the mechanics of the drama that is driven by Verdi’s magnificent through-composed scoring and duets to assert its rightful position as the true engine of the work. Nonetheless, all the important dramatic points of the opera were made to fit into the setting fairly well, without too much awkwardness. The abduction of Gilda from Rigoletto’s apartment in the casino’s hotel using a lift worked best, the setting of the tavern in a strip club complete with pole-dancer perhaps a little gratuitous but workable, the dumping of her body into the boot of a Cadillac at the end a little less so. It was a nice touch, but it just made things a little difficult for Diana Damrau to get across the poignancy of Gilda’s final moments in her ‘Lassù in cielo’, and it was hard to feel any sense of remorse in her father either. If that doesn’t work, you’ve got a major problem with your Rigoletto.

It’s the dramatic conviction in the singing that ultimately determines the level of success of any production of Rigoletto, and while it was hard to fault the singing from any of the cast, that necessary commitment and direction wasn’t always there. The Met’s production at least benefitted from casting that mixed youth with experience, often within the same person. It was noted by both the singers and the director that Diana Damrau and Željko Lučić already had considerable experience in these roles and have often even performed them together in their time at Frankfurt. Piotr Beczala too has performed the Duke before - there’s a Zurich production on BD/DVD - and is clearly quite capable in the role as well as being boyishly bright-eyed and charming. It seemed however that for the most part they weren’t directed enough by Mayer - or indeed by the conductor Michele Mariotti - but left to bring their own experience with the characters to this production, with the result that they never seemed entirely comfortable with how that fitted into the Las Vegas setting.

Damrau - recently returning to the stage after giving birth to her second child - seemed to show a little more effort in her singing than before, but with such a wonderful and expressive voice, it was more of a problem that she didn’t really seem to be able to connect with this Gilda and her dilemma come to life. These are relatively minor points since the singing from Damrau, Lučić and Beczala was just superb, but Rigoletto is indeed an opera where such considerations and attention can make all the difference. These are much richer characters than they were allowed to be in this rather superficial production. Curiously, there actually seemed to be more effort put into drawing the secondary roles, Štefan Kocán in particular standing out as the Sparafucile. With a deeply toned and wonderfully controlled bass, he was a refreshingly youthful assassin and consequently even more dangerous in a character role more often given over to veterans. Superficial but fun and wonderfully sung, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Met’s Las Vegas updating of Rigoletto that a little more attention to the characterisation and a tighter hold on the conducting couldn’t improve.

SatyagrahaPhilip Glass - Satyagraha

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Dante Anzolini, Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch, Richard Croft, Rachelle Durkin, Molly Fillmore, Maria Zifchak, Mary Phillips, Kim Josephson, Bradley Garvin, Richard Bernstein, Alfred Walker | The Met: Live in HD - November 19, 2011

It’s taken a long time for Philip Glass to find acceptance in his home city of New York, his success and popularity as a living modern composer undoubtedly regarded with some suspicion by music critics, as well as his ability to blur the lines between classical and modern music through the writing of numerous film scores and symphonies based on David Bowie albums. Mainly however, it has to be admitted, the criticism has been principally on a failure to grasp the value of his minimalist approach to music that consists of long sections of repetitive rhythms with slowly changing parts, music that seems to be more mathematical in its structure and precision than relating in any meaningful way to human emotion or expression. It’s a valid criticism, but it’s one that a serious consideration of Glass’s 1980 opera Satyagraha very strongly refutes, and with this production at the Metropolitan Opera, it seems as if recognition for the brilliance of the work – one of the greatest opera works of the late 20th century – and for Philip Glass has finally been achieved.

The Met have of course been more receptive towards Philip Glass than the music critics, with his first opera Einstein on the Beach – an abstract avant-garde theatrical project that is undoubtedly one of the composer’s more difficult works – performed there in 1976. It was the Met who also commissioned Glass to write The Voyage (1990), an opera to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, which, if it approached the subject from a typically oblique angle, was however rather more conventional in its musical form. Of all Philip Glass’ opera works, Saytagraha remains one of the most interesting, shaped as it is by period of its writing with Glass still in minimalist mode but moving towards a more conventional use of classical orchestra instrumentation. Forced by necessity of the size of the orchestra pit of the commissioning house in Rotterdam, Satyagraha is distinctive also for making use only of strings and woodwind instruments, with no percussion or brass, and some supplemental electronic organ to hold the rolling sequences of rhythms.

Satyagraha

There is however one more vital component to the sound and the score for Satyagraha that doesn’t require space in the orchestra pit, and that is the composer’s remarkable and unconventional use of the voice in the opera. Apart from the ensemble arrangements for duos, quartets, sextets and choir, what is significant and unconventional about how the voice is implemented in Satyagraha, is that it the libretto is sung in Sanskrit, the words broken down into syllables that give additional force, rhythm and another layer of instrumentation on top of the orchestration. The choice of Sanskrit is, of course, not random, but inextricably tied into the purpose, the themes and the expression of the subject of the opera, which deals with Mahatma Gandhi, specifically his early years in South Africa where he first formulated his principles of non-violence and civil disobedience working as a lawyer for the immigrant Indian population there.

The entire libretto of Satyagraha, written and arranged by Glass and Constance De Jong, is drawn from an ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavada Gita, and what is highly unusual about its use is not just that it’s sung in Sanskrit, but that this sacred text replaces any kind of conventional narrative spoken by the principal characters. Gandhi would have meditated on the Bhagavada Gita, and rather than use any external means of expression through the libretto for the actions of Gandhi and his supporters during this period in their following the path of truth (the meaning of the word “satyagraha” is roughly “truth force”), Glass chooses to have his characters look inward as a means of dealing with the increasing violence, prejudice and injustice enacted by the European South Africans against the blacks and Indian immigrants. Used in this way, the rhythmic intoning of the verses of the Bhagavada Gita are attuned Janacek-style to the tone and inflections of the voice with a mantra that seems to bear the sacred voice of truth. Working in conjunction with the barest outline of the setting of the real-life events, the words of the libretto and their delivery combine to create a near-religious purity of expression that has all the sincerity, conviction and spirituality of a Handel oratorio.

It starts as one voice, initially Gandhi alone (sung well in this production by Richard Croft), who has just arrived in South Africa as a young lawyer, and has immediately been put off the train for failing to give up his seat to a white man. In a moment of silence before the music and singing commences, he looks at his suitcase lying in the dust as if trying to decide whether to just give up and go home. Instead he turns his thoughts inward, finding the determination to go take up the struggle in the Bhagavada Gita’s description of the great conflict between the Kuruvas and the Pandavas. That voice is taken up by others as the opera progresses, his secretary Miss Schlesen, Kasturbai and Mrs Naidoo, culminating in an extraordinary sextet by all the principals through the New Castle March of Act III, each of them finding truth in the words and the strength to stand up to the injustice of the South African government’s racially discriminatory laws. There are few real dramatic reconstructions, not one word written that attempts to describe the narrative playing out of events or the interaction between the characters. The characters for the most part face the audience and express the truth as it is written in the Bhagavada Gita, and find their strength and unity through this.

Satyagraha

That’s very difficult to get across on the stage, particularly as the ancient Sanskrit text is not translated into English surtitles for the audience, but the opera is only difficult if the audience is expecting a conventional narrative. Words, and attempts to define or interpret their meaning, would just get in the way here. The meaning should come through the intoning and recital of the vocal arrangements themselves, driven forcefully with the accompaniment of the orchestra. It helps however if there is something visually interesting and relevant to focus on in the place of dramatic action. That might not have been there in previous very rare productions of the opera (the Stuttgart production of Satyagraha by Achim Freyer, currently the only version available on DVD), that perhaps haven’t been able to bring the meaning across quite as well as it’s done here. Directed by Phelim McDermott, with the set designs by Julian Crouch and the Improvisational Puppetry of their Improbable theatrical company’s skills ensemble, this production manages to find a balance between the stylised setting of the events in Gandhi’s life in South Africa between 1893 and 1913, the words of the libretto – some of which are projected in English onto the set designs – and the wider context of the opera and the meaning of satyagraha, past, present and future (in Tolstoy, Tagore and King).

I first saw this production of Satyagraha when it premiered in London at the English National Opera in 2007 (and again when it was revived in 2010), and even then it was clear how those subjects and the broader meaning of Gandhi’s message in the opera were still relevant and successfully put across by the inventive but unfussy production that combined spectacle with meaning. That relevance is perhaps even more pronounced at the present time, with the power of non-violence and peaceful demonstration evident in upheavals in the Arab world, but also in events closer to home at St Paul’s in London and, not so far away from the Metropolitan Opera itself, contemporaneously on Wall Street. The timing seems fortuitous, resulting in deserved recognition belatedly given to Satyagraha and Philip Glass in standing ovations at the Met global broadcast around the world in HD-Live, but the truths expressed in the opera itself have always been there, only needing the means to spread the word and find an audience who will be receptive to it. It’s gratifying to see then that the same global communications technology that played such a vital part in the Arab revolutions as a new Indian Opinion could, albeit in a much less important way, help gain wider appreciation for this particular work, but – who knows? – some might even find deeper inspiration from the truths expressed in it.