On New Year’s Eve, the Metropolitan Opera premiered a new production of Rigoletto, the Verdi masterpiece of 1851. This opera is one of the cruelest and craziest in the entire repertoire. You can’t have The Merry Widow or Die Fledermaus every New Year’s Eve, I suppose.
In the pit was Daniele Rustioni, a conductor from Milan. He had conducted at the Met once before: another Verdi opera, Aida, in 2017. The company should have him back frequently. Indeed, he will do double duty this month, conducting The Marriage of Figaro at the Met as well as Rigoletto. On New Year’s Eve, Rustioni was simple and economical. Reasonable and musical. There was no sense of a personal conductorial stamp on the work. What you heard was Verdi and Rigoletto.
The title role was taken by Quinn Kelsey, the baritone from Hawaii. (For years, I’ve enjoyed writing that, because I know of no other singer from Hawaii.) Once, he was Monterone in Rigoletto; now he has graduated to the title role—which he handles very well. He sang with assurance and character. He put across the jester’s shifting moods: swagger, fear, horror, rage. He yelled a bit in “Cortigiani, vil razza,” to good effect.
May I say, too, that he was loud enough, throughout the opera? I am talking about sheer volume—which is not a triviality, particularly in a house the size of the Met.
Taking the role of the Duke of Mantua was Piotr Beczała, the famous Polish tenor. He had a great Act I. He tossed off “Questa o quella” with ease. With tenorly nonchalance. Throughout the act, he scarcely put a foot wrong. He was fresh as a daisy. In Act II, he sang “Parmi veder le lagrime” with a little effort—but who doesn’t? (Alfredo Kraus, the late Spanish tenor, incorporated this aria into his daily exercise routine, to give himself the workout he desired.) All in all, Beczała justified his reputation in this Rigoletto. He is highly valuable on the opera scene. Such tenors don’t grow on trees.
Our Gilda? She was Rosa Feola, the delicious, superb soprano from Caserta. You can expect her to produce a beautiful sound, backed by a top-notch technique. That’s what you got on New Year’s Eve. You also got Feola’s abundant intelligence: musical, theatrical, and otherwise. She went somewhat awry when she was singing unaccompanied. That is, she departed somewhat from the pitch. But (a) so did others and (b) it hardly mattered.
The bass Andrea Mastroni, another Italian, was Sparafucile, the assassin-for-hire. He had appeared at the Met once before, also as Sparafucile. He’s good at it. He has the requisite low, but also some high—a lovely head voice. The assassin’s sister, Maddalena, also for hire, was portrayed by Varduhi Abrahamyan, a mezzo making her Met debut. She is Armenian, as her name tells you, but also French—and she performed ably.
Verdi wants a men’s chorus in this opera, and the Met gives him a very good one.
The new production is in the hands of Bartlett Sher, the Broadway director. That’s what we critics called him when he made his Met debut with The Barber of Seville, back in ’06. He has directed many operas since then. So he is no longer a Broadway man who also does opera. He is a bona fide opera director—and, of course, a very skillful one.
His new Rigoletto is set in Weimar Germany. I’m not sure I would have known that if our program hadn’t said so. The Met’s previous Rigoletto was set in Rat Pack–era Las Vegas. You know what’s a good setting for Rigoletto? Sixteenth-century Mantua. Someone could write a wonderful opera about Rat Pack–era Las Vegas. But . . .
In any case, Mr. Sher has given us a smart and representative Rigoletto. By “representative” I mean—like the opera.
I have a quick question: Is Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse, supposed to collude with Gilda’s abductors? Unless my eyes were playing tricks, or I’m otherwise mistaken, she does so in this production.
Another question: Does Rigoletto have a hunchback? In some productions, he doesn’t. In this one, he does, I believe—a mild one? He also sometimes walks oddly, with a cane. I should say again what I’ve said before: If you don’t want to make Rigoletto a hunchback, fine. But you have to give him some deformity—because it plays a critical part in the story. Rigoletto talks about it, bewails it. It helps to explain the course of his life.
At the top of this review, I described Rigoletto as “one of the cruelest and craziest” operas in the repertoire. Cruel, no doubt—an opera involving rape inevitably is. Crazy? Well, I remember what André Previn said, when asked why he didn’t conduct operas. He said, as I recall, that there was plenty of good music in opera. Great music, too. But the stories?
He cited Rigoletto, saying something like, “A girl in a bag. A girl dressed as a boy in a bag. She’s dead. Then she comes back to life, to sing. Then she dies again. Really?”
I relate to Previn, strongly. Still, what a masterpiece Rigoletto is—one of the greatest operas ever written—and it was given a worthy performance by New York’s leading opera company on New Year’s Eve.