Beczala, Piotr


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.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Nello Santi, Gilbert Deflo, Leo Nucci, Piotr Beczala, Elena Moşuc, László Polgár, Katharina Peetz, Kismara Pessati, Rolf Haunstein | Arthaus Musik

Judged on its own merits, this 2006 production of Rigoletto from the Zurich Opera House is a good traditional production, more than competently played and sung, even if it doesn’t have any great qualities to distinguish it from countless other productions. Packaged here however as a budget-priced promotional release, including a full-length opera alongside 45 trailers from the Arthaus Blu-ray catalogue, this is a good value option that serves as an introduction to just how good opera can look and sound in the format, as well as providing samples of other catalogue titles. As one of the most impressive works in the repertoire, Verdi’s Rigoletto is also a fine accessible opera that sits well alongside the previous Arthaus catalogue samplers - La Traviata and Tosca - all good solid productions of works with proven dramatic and musical qualities and plenty of familiar melodies.

Gilbert Deflo’s staging is traditional then but it looks good, keeping things simple but effective in how they relate to the drama. The opening scene, for example, captures a sense of the decadence of the Duke of Mantua’s orgies at his palace, with extravagant period costumes and the hunchbacked Rigoletto appropriately devilish in a bright red jester’s costumes, taunting the Count of Monterone, whose daughter is being seduced by the Duke. There’s a similar sense of working effectively with the mood and situation in the subsequent scenes, in the blue-lit night-time alley where Rigoletto encounters Sparafucile, the assassin-for-hire and the contrasting sense of comfort in home surroundings where Rigoletto can be himself with his daughter Gilda. There’s no cleverness attempted in the balcony abduction of Gilda, nor in the stormy night setting at the inn in Act III, the sets designed to look good and not unduly trouble the performers as they move through the mechanics of the plot.

It’s all nice and tastefully done, with no modern cleverness to frighten the traditionalists, and the same can be said about the singing performances and the playing. It all feels a little too restrained however, lacking dramatic fire and urgency. There’s a pleasant transparent openness to the orchestration under Nello Santi which captures the lyrical beauty of Verdi’s score, but there little of the passion and the urgency that you ought to find in it and in the performances. Piotr Beczala is probably the best here as the Duke, singing well with a distinctive and robust tenor voice, but Elena Moşuc is also fine as Gilda. She’s a little unsteady in Act I’s ‘Gualtier Malde‘ aria and doesn’t always bring a great deal of acting fire to the role, but she comes through strongly where it counts in the Act II duets, in the fabulous Act III quartet and her sacrificial scene. Leo Nucci isn’t the strongest Verdi baritone and lacks the necessary personality to really bring out the conflict of fatherly emotions that lie behind the jester’s mask, but it’s by no means a bad performance, just one that fits in with the overall uninventive tone of the production.

All in all however, if it lacks any real edge and passion, this is nonetheless a solidly performed and dramatically effective production of a terrific opera that will serve - as it is intended here - as a reasonably good introduction to opera on Blu-ray for anyone - perhaps inspired by the Verdi bicentenary - who might be curious about sampling it. It’s looks good and sounds good in High Definition (with a PCM stereo and a DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 mix), although the live sound recording is a little echoing and the lower-frequency sounds are a little booming. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. This particular edition of Rigoletto also includes 130 minutes worth of trailers from 45 opera, ballet and documentaries available on Blu-ray from Arthaus Musik, which can be very useful in determining the nature of the production and the singing and whether it might appeal to you or not. There are better productions of Rigoletto available elsewhere (and personally, I’d like to see a BD release for the fine 2010 Rigoletto with Plácido Domingo filmed live in the actual locations in Ferrara), but at around £8, you can’t really go wrong with this.