Revisiting a “War Horse” Opera – Rigoletto at the Met

The Metropolitan Opera is once again showcasing a perennial favorite, “Rigoletto”, in a production that was originally done for Luciano Pavarotti by Otto Schenk. (The recently retired Met Ring Cycle was one of Otto Schenk’s greatest creations.) My brother and I happened to be at the Met on opening night, November 3, 1989 for “Rigoletto” with Luciano Pavarotti. As I recall, the sets were beautiful, a huge improvement over the Met’s previous production, which my brother and I had also seen. However, that first night the lighting was so dark that I found it difficult to see set details and the opera singers as well. They all seemed like shadows, including the great Luciano himself.

In those days, “Rigoletto” was my all time favorite opera, so seeing Pavarotti in one of his most celebrated roles was a “Taste of Heaven”! As we all knew, Luciano was not a great actor, but boy, could he sing! He sang all of his roles stationary – either standing or sitting. For “La donne mobile”, he sat on the inn table and dangled his feet. I guess a little foot action constituted “acting”. The most disappointing part of the opera came in the third act, which begins with the Duke (Lucianno) searching for Gilda, who is his latest love interest and who has gone missing. Lucianno entered and sang the wonderful aria, “Parmi, veder le lagrime” His courtiers entered and informed him that they had abducted Rigoletto’s “mistress” (who is actually Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter) and that she is waiting for him in his apartments. The Duke immediately realizes that Gilda is the one he is searching for, and breaks into the exciting cabaletta, “Possente amor mi chiama.” Pavarotti chose to skip the cabaletta. He let out a loud sigh and exited toward his rooms. The audience lowly chanted, “Cabaletta, cabaletta, cabaletta…) as if scolding Luciano for omitting the aria. I have never forgiven him for his indiscretion and the slight to his true opera fans who revered him so.

For those who may not know what a “cabaletta” is, it’s an aria sung to the beat of a horse trot. Cabaletta describes the two-part musical form particularly favored for arias in 19th Century Italian operas, and is more properly the name of the more animated section following the songlike cantabile. As its name (“cabal”) implies, it often introduces a complication or intensification of emotion and/or plot. Giuseppe Verdi continued to adapt the aria-cabaletta formula to great emotional and dramatic effect in his early and middle period operas. This Italian style aria would begin with a small aria (arioso), followed by an aria, possibly another arioso or chorus, and ending with a cabaletta aria. The “horse trot” effect would cause audiences to jump up and applaud feverishly if sung well.

On Saturday morning, September 25, 2010, I attended a dress rehearsal at the Met for “Rigoletto”, remembering the past but so anxious to see what the new, theatrical-conscious Met would do with one of my favorite chestnuts of an opera. I was pleasantly surprised. Conductor Paolo Arrivabene, making his Met debut, took a slower tempo approach, which made the old melodies open up like a refreshing bottle of chilled pinot grigio on a hot summer afternoon. He created a bel canto atmosphere as the brief overture flowed from one note to another and to the cadential notes that set a dark powerful mood. Verdi originally planned to call his opera, “La Maledizione” (The Curse), based a powerful romantic drama, Victor Hugo’s “Le Roi s’Amuse” (The King’s Diversion). The Austrians (who ruled Northern Italy in 1851) had censors who would not allow a “libertine” king on stage and forced Verdi to amend the opera, now known as “Rigoletto”.

“Rigoletto” is in four acts, set in the 1500’s, Mantua, Italy. The characters include the Duke of Mantua (a libertine or womanizer); his court jester, the hunchback, Rigoletto; Gilda (Rigoletto’s daughter whom he loves dearly; Sparafucile, a Burgundian assassin; Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister. Minor characters include Borsa and Marullo, the Duke’s henchmen; Countess Ceprano, one of the Duke’s lady interests; Count Ceprano, her husband; Monterone, a wronged nobleman, and Giovanna, Rigoletto’s house keeper.

In Act 1, the Duke is having an evening party atop his castle in Mantua. Rigoletto antagonizes everyone, including Monterone whose daughter has been seduced by the Duke. Monterone puts a curse on both Rigoletto and the Duke. Rigoletto takes it seriously.

In Act 2, Rigoletto, while returning home, meets Sparafucile an assassin who offers his services to Rigoletto. Once at home, Rigoletto greets his daughter, Gilda, who has fallen in love with a poor student she has seen in church (but who is really the Duke in disguise). Rigoletto cautions Gilda and Giovanna not to let anyone into their home. No sooner has he gone when the Duke in his student disguise enters Rigoletto’s home after tossing a bag of coins secretly to Giovanna. He leaves and the courtiers abduct Gilda, thinking she is Rigoletto’s mistress.

In Act 3, the Duke is unhappy because he cannot find Gilda. The courtiers enter and tell him that “Rigoletto’s mistress” is in the Duke’s chambers. He runs off and Rigoletto enters, angry with the courtiers. Gilda enters, ashamed of what has happened to her. Rigoletto chases the courtiers away and consoles his daughter. They plan to leave Mantua forever. Just then Monterone enters, on his way to be executed for antagonizing the Duke. Rigoletto vows vengeance for both wronged men.

In Act 4, Rigoletto has hired Sparafucile to have his sister entice the Duke to his inn and murder him there. Rigoletto and Gilda watch from an outside wall as the Duke enters and makes sweet love talk to Maddalena. Gilda is crushed as she still loves him.

Rigoletto and Gilda prepare to leave Mantua. However, Gilda returns, dressed as a boy and overhears Maddalena and Sparafucile’s plan to kill the first person who enters the inn in place of the Duke, whom Maddalena fancies as “too handsome to kill.” Gilda sacrifices herself for love of the Duke. When Rigoletto finally gets the body bag with the supposed “Duke”, he is horrified to discover Gilda instead. Rigoletto cries out, A la Maledizione! (The curse!)

The Met breathed new life into this “War Horse” of an opera, war horse meaning tried and true, always there, and in this case, performed many times implying the opera has gone through many battles over the years. Stage director Gregory Keller had the singers and chorus do a lot more movement and dance than was previously done. He even had an onstage string ensemble perform some of the dance music, which I found very effective. (They had to dress in period costumes as well.) Lado Ataneli as Rigoletto actually had a blue costume with hand held puppet clown face on a stick, as was used by some of the great Rigolettos of the past, such as Giuseppe Deluca, which was shown in a painting that the Met used to have in their gallery. Mr. Ataneli used the limp so well that he seemed to be born as the Rigoletto character. Mr. Ataneli has a stunning baritone voice that he used to great effect. Francesco Meli, making his debut, certainly has the looks to be an extraordinary Duke. As he sang, I detected a beautiful tenor tone, but it seemed a bit uneven. His “La donne mobile” aria was beautifully sung and acted, but not stunning. I could not tell whether or not he was holding back, as this was a dress rehearsal and singers are allowed to mark – sing in mezzo voce (half voice.) He did have moments of greatness (I should see a commercial performance in addition to the dress rehearsal). Christine Schafer was superb as Gilda. I had seen her do Gilda on a Royal House, London, opera DVD, which was superb. She was even more amazing in person. Her sweet voice is brilliant for the role.

Special mention must be made for the minor characters and the chorus, who breathed new life into this opera. For instance, as the courtiers sang about the abduction of Gilda, they acted it out. Marullo actually walked up the banister on the staircase, as if he were scaling the walls of Rigoletto’s house. Borsa used his fist to create a hunchback under his cape to imitate Rigoletto as he walked. Okay, okay – the great Pav wasn’t dangling his feet and captivating the masses during Act IV, but over all, this was a refreshing performance of Rigoletto.

Who says you cannot teach an old dog a new trick? Using a traditional set, the 2010 Rigoletto production team devised a much more contemporary approach to dancing, acting and storytelling for a wonderful opera that can speak to audiences today.