Kocán, Stefan


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.

AidaGiuseppe Verdi - Aida

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2009 | Daniele Gatti, Sonja Frisell, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Johan Botha, Dolora Zajick, Violeta Urmana, Stefan Kocán, Adam Laurence Herskowitz, Jennifer Check, Carlo Guelfi | Decca

Although there is an intimate and tragic love story at its heart, Aida is set against the exotic background of the Egypt of the Pharaohs, and is full of patriotic, nationalistic sentiments, as the Egyptian army prepare to go to war to fight off a revolt by the Ethiopians. It’s a perfect subject, in other words, for Verdi, and it was undoubtedly the nature of the storyline, much more than any commission for the new opera house in Cairo (which he repeatedly refused) or the grand occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal, that encouraged him to return to opera composition in 1871. This return would herald a new style of opera that we would see from Verdi in his final works, one that is mindful of the innovations introduced by Wagner, but which still retains elements here of bel canto in an opera that is filled with memorable arias and melodies. Despite its setting and the use of exotic Oriental melodies – which really see Verdi at his most inventive and original – Aida is very much an Italian opera, and one that is thoroughly and recognisably a true Verdi opera.

Considering its origins and its setting – whether it was composed for a grand occasion or not – Verdi’s Aida is appropriately stately in its expressions of nationalistic pride and identity, with extravagant marches, battle hymns, ceremonial processions and dances. There’s no point in doing Aida in a minimalist style, as Robert Wilson has done in the past (although it’s certainly interesting to see something different attempted) – this is an opera that just calls out for a grand scale production. If you haven’t got a stage the size of the Arena di Verona, and a director like Franco Zeffirelli to fill it, the nearest grand, traditionally staged Aida you are going to find is this Sonja Frisell production – now over twenty years old – for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

It’s a big production in every respect – and yes, I include the size of the singers in this – with towering temples, the stage filled with chorus, troops, dancers and well-tanned, bare-chested slaves, even horses and chariots, all arranged in grand ceremonial processions and formations. It’s unfortunately a little too static – an impressive spectacle even if it is a little bit kitsch, but not much thought has been put into the interaction between the main players. They just walk on in most cases, sing their part, and walk back off again. But, this is what you expect of an Aida production – particularly a traditional one at the Met – and really, you’d feel somewhat short-changed if it didn’t have all the other bells and whistles (and trumpets) .

You won’t feel short-changed by the singers here either. Johan Botha is one of the finest tenors in the world, a great Wagnerian heldentenor, which serves him in good stead for this particular Verdi opera. I don’t know about his acting ability – there’s not much required here of Ramadès – but he has an ability to fill his roles with life, principally through the wonderful warmth of tone of his voice. Violeta Urmana is the Verdian soprano of choice at the moment, and she is fine singing the role of Aida, if again there are not any real acting demands placed on her. Dolora Zajick is an experienced Amneris and sings the role well, but does unfortunately look constipated when singing (sorry, but she does). The final duet notwithstanding, Act IV of Aida belongs to Amneris however, Verdi giving her character real depth and human passion, and Dolora Zajick launches into it with relish, making perhaps the strongest impression on the whole production, which is a little lacking in energy elsewhere.

Recorded live for worldwide broadcast in 2009 for the Met’s Live in HD programme, the production looks fantastic in High Definition, is colourful and well-lit. The audio mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and, allowing for one or two minor sound issues with the live mix which is a little bit echoing in places, they both sound fine, the surround in particular dispersing the choral singing well. Extras on the BD include edited-down interviews (I’d have been happy to listen to much more of this) conducted by Renée Fleming with the cast and extras.