Mariotti, Michele


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.

SigismondoGioachino Rossini - Sigismondo

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2010 | Michele Mariotti, Damiano Michieletto, Daniela Barcellona, Olga Peretyatko, Antonino Siragusa, Andrea Concetti, Manuela Bisceglie, Enea Scala | Arthaus Musik

Updating an opera and setting it in an asylum isn’t a terribly original idea and it does usually have a sense of desperation about it, but there is a tradition of mad scenes in Italian bel canto opera, so it’s not entirely an inappropriate or all that far-out an idea. All the more so since Rossini’s rarely heard 1814 opera Sigismondo actually opens with a mad scene of sorts rather than builds up to one, where Sigismondo, the king of Poland, is still tormented by the loss of his wife Aldimira, who he had executed 15 years ago after accusations of infidelity had been laid against her. The loss and the agonising doubts about the truth of these accusations - or just his inability to accept them - has left the king raving and delirious, his kingdom unprepared for the attack that is being launched against him by Ulderico of Bohemia, Aldimira’s father.

Sigismondo belongs to another traditional opera theme, that of innocent women unjustly accused of infidelity or having their maidenly honour called into question by a jealous admirer who has had his advances rejected. This theme of innocent women whose purity has been impugned would become a popular theme in bel canto and opera semiseria works - Halévy’s Clari, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, Bellini’s La Sonnambula - for its ability to drive the heroine to madness and consequently to the heights of coloratura vocal abstraction. Starting the way it does however, already wading in the depths of madness, Rossini’s Sigismondo would seem to have other ambitions towards a psychological drama more closely aligned to that of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello - worked into an opera of course not just by Verdi but by Rossini himself soon after Sigismondo - and to the medieval legend of the saintly Genoveva, the subject of Schumann’s only opera.

Directed by Damiano Michieletto for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2010 and conducted by Michele Marotti, there’s certainly a belief here that Sigismondo - the last of Rossini’s early works written just before the move to Naples that would take his career in a whole new direction - is worthy of more serious consideration and capable of bearing that more rigorous approach. Although there are a lot of familiar Rossini melodies and characteristic touches here (the composer re-using the best elements in later works after the failure of Sigismondo), it isn’t always the case however that the music or Giuseppe Foppa’s libretto are strong enough to bear any real dramatic conviction, but the opera is certainly more experimental in its arrangements than some of Rossini’s earlier work and it does indeed build up to a forceful expression of the situation in an impressive series of arias, duets and ensembles in the distinctly Mozartian Second Act.

As a two-act opera, there’s no great call for scene changes, so the viewer has to bear with the asylum set for the entire First Act, whether they like it or not. Although it doesn’t leave the king not looking terribly regal, rolling around under a blanket in a filthy nightgown with his hair hacked back short, the madhouse setting is not inappropriate considering the rather dark tone that is adopted here, which is more a reflection of the state of Sigismondo’s mind than the reality of the outside world. There are other effective touches that bear this out, such as the three identical Aldimiras who torment both Sigismondo and Ladislao - the scheming First Minister who has betrayed and denounced the former Queen after being rejected by her - and by the other asylum inmates who, since they all carry over into the palatial Stateroom of the Second Act, are clearly intended to be representations of the psychological mindsets of the characters as expressed in the music rather than actual real figures.

The sense of ghostly apparitions haunting the characters also works well within the context of the drama, since (probably no surprise to opera-goers here) Aldimira is not actually dead, but having been rescued from her unjust fate 15 years ago returns in the guise of Egelinda, the daughter of the noble Zenovito. On the one hand this helps restore the king’s sanity when it is suggested that since she looks so like Queen Aldimira she could pretend to be her in order to forestall Ulderico’s attack, but it also reignites the feelings Sigismondo had for his wife, and his guilt over what has happened. It also reawakens the desire and the suspicions of Ladislao, giving the production team the opportunity to restage what amounts to a re-enactment of the attempted rape of the Queen that led to the First Minister’s denunciation of her. If the plot inevitably slips into high melodrama, the staging does however manage to show that there are powerful feelings expressed with considerable skill by Rossini in this near-forgotten work.

It’s tremendous then to have the opportunity to see this work - and many others like it - revived by the Rossini Opera Festival and now being made available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s particularly interesting to see these works being given the best possible representation in terms of musical performance and staging and being cast with fine singers capable of handling the specific demands of Rossini opera. Such is the case with Sigismondo, which gives the singers the opportunity to really shine if they are up to it and are capable of making these characters even half-way convincing, and fortunately they’re all exceptionally good here. As Sigismondo, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona (yes, it’s a trouser role) brings a brooding intensity that underplays the potential for raving melodrama, her vocal expression of the king’s torment alone powerfully emotive, particularly - as it should be - in the king’s direct encounters with Egelinda/Aldimira. As Aldimira, Olga Peretyatko’s rich, dark soprano suits the nature of her character’s steely determination to resist the injustice of her fate. It’s not a coloratura role, but there are certainly vocal demands in the role, and she handles them more than capably, working particularly well with Barcellona in the ‘Tomba di morte e amore‘ duet. It’s the tenor role of Ladislao however that has more of the coloratura arias (’Giusto ciel che i mali miei‘), which are sung terrifically well by Antonino Siragusa.

Despite the faith the Pesaro team have in it, I don’t think Sigismondo is a 5-star Rossini opera by any means, but this is certainly a 5-star production of an interesting work preceding and prefiguring Rossini’s Neapolitan period that merits the effort and the commitment put into its revival here. It’s well filmed and recorded, looking and sounding very good in High Definition on the Blu-ray release. It’s mostly filmed ’straight’, but the director does use split-screen effects a few times, although only for a few occasions of ensemble singing where it’s actually good to be able to see all the performers. Discreet radio mics are also used by the cast, but the sound and mixing sounds natural in both the PCM stereo and the upfront DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks. The Blu-ray is all-region compatible and contains subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.