With Updates, Opera Rolls the Dice: Sin City Would Have Been a Fine Setting for Rigoletto, if Rigoletto Had Showed Up

'Parsifal' is heartening, but chilly

Evgeny Nikitin as Klingsor in Wagner’s 'Parsifal.'

Evgeny Nikitin as Klingsor in Wagner’s ‘Parsifal.’

Before the season started, chatter among opera gossips would inevitably turn to the prediction of the biggest upcoming fiasco at the Metropolitan Opera.

Would it be Bartlett Sher’s opening-night production of Donizetti’s Elisir d’Amore? No, that would likely be dully inoffensive. Ditto David McVicar’s New Year’s Eve take on another Donizetti, Maria Stuarda.

Thomas Adès’s Tempest, in its Met premiere, would have the thrill of the new. David Alden’s stylized, out-
of-time version of Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera might be weird, the wags foretold, but Mr. Alden’s immense operatic experience would see it through.

Instead most of the talk landed on Michael Mayer’s new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, a pillar of the repertory that tells the story of a bitter jester at the Duke of Mantua’s court and his struggles to protect his blameless young daughter. The show would be a jangly, over-obvious updating (to Rat Pack-era Las Vegas) led by a Tony Award-winning director (Spring Awakening, American Idiot) trying his hand at opera for the first time. It had all the marks of what opera queens like to call filth.

What eventually made it to the stage on January 28, though, was not at all filthy. The rough skeleton of the updating made sense: the callously womanizing Duke became a Sinatra-like singer holding court at a casino. Christine Jones’s neon-filled set pulsed with light and color. There were no glaring embarrassments in either the direction or singing on a par with, say, Scarpia’s risible embrace of a statue of the Virgin Mary during Luc Bondy’s production of Puccini’s Tosca in 2009.

Far from being a fiasco, Mr. Mayer’s ingratiating Rigoletto, conducted by Michele Mariotti, made you want to like it. The only possible objection could come from an operagoer scandalized by the mere notion of a take on Verdi’s masterpiece not set in a naturalistic medieval castle and costumed in doublets, and that is the kind of person who the art form must continue to hope stays home and/or, since this is partly generational, fades away.

In fact, besides the visual aspect, there was little to distinguish the Met’s new production from a “traditional” one, and that is the beginning of the problem. The great operatic updatings—Peter Sellars’s Mozart/Da Ponte cycle in the 1980s is the classic example—involve a fundamental, ground-up rethinking of the work at hand.

Mr. Sellars did not just take the same old Così fan tutte and set it in a contemporary roadside diner in Massachusetts. Instead he used that unexpected (but, in terms of the libretto, completely reasonable) setting to break free of centuries of sclerotic Mozart performance traditions, to sharpen the characters’ relationships and recalibrate our sympathies.

“It’s not about style,” Mr. Sellars once told me. “It’s about content. Once you focus on content, then the stakes are real. What is the surface leading you to? That’s when it gets really serious.”

Mr. Mayer’s Rigoletto, intermittently entertaining and well-meaning to the core, never gets serious. Its problem was not the concept but the execution. Rather than using a new setting to find new sources of pressure and menace in one of the darkest operas in the repertory, the production was as charming, breezy and unaffecting as Piotr Beczala’s Duke. Neither Mr. Beczala nor Diana Damrau—girlish and poignant as Gilda, Rigoletto’s innocent daughter—veered far from the standard takes on these characters.

But more than almost any opera, this is a one-man show. (The Duke and Gilda can come across more as projections of Rigoletto’s fantasies and anxieties than as characters in their own rights.) And it is in its approach to the title character that Mr. Mayer’s version fails.

Reviewing the production in The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini aptly observed that it leaves Rigoletto’s status in the Duke’s casino oddly ambiguous. Is he a Don Rickles type, alternately warming up and deflating the crowd? Maybe. Is he a middle-management figure in the organization? Who knows? We see only the barest and blandest of actions: he shuffles around at the opening, briefly takes the microphone, cracks a mild joke or two.

Without seeing Rigoletto’s cruelty, there is no logic in the crushing curse meted out on him by the count Monterone (whom Mr. Mayer has recast, offensively, as an Arab sheik). And there is no visible shift in personality from his court life to his home life with Gilda, the transition that defines Rigoletto’s character and gives him haunting nuance.

If the audience left the production with no real idea of Rigoletto’s role in this Las Vegas ecosystem or of the tensions that govern his tortured life, it seemed to be as much the fault of the baritone Željko Lučić as Mr. Mayer.

His voice elegant, smooth and unstrained, Mr. Lučić was nevertheless a dismal misfire. This should not have come as a surprise. He has, since his Met debut in 2006, appeared with the company more than 60 times, in finely vocalized and thoroughly boring performances.

He was a Rigoletto without fears or passions, and so this was a Rigoletto that lacked those things, too. His duets with his beloved Gilda were almost comical in their affectlessness. “Cortigiani,” the great second-act outburst against the courtiers that melts into helpless vulnerability, barely registered. Mr. Lučić sang all the notes, but he sang them without emotion.

With a blank space where Rigoletto was supposed to be, there was very little content around which to build a powerful show. (Diverting yet ultimately hollow, the production had a decidedly Las Vegas feel about it.) The most important sequences in the opera—the end of the first act, when Gilda is kidnapped by the Duke’s courtiers to get revenge on the despised Rigoletto, and the tragic third—were muddled.

The idea of turning the last act’s remote house into a seedy strip club after hours had potential, but more attention seemed to have been paid to the vintage car into which Gilda’s body is stuffed than to the blocking of her self-sacrifice. And when Mr. Lučić held his dead daughter in his arms and launched his final cry against Monterone’s curse, he might, given the lack of any palpable anger or hurt, have been complaining about losing a few dollars in the slot machines.

This Rigoletto, in the end, was far less odious than Michael Grandage’s cliché-ridden take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which premiered in 2011. But both suffer from one of the biggest problems with Met productions lately: an emotional temperature hovering just above freezing.

A certain coolness afflicted even a far more successful show: François Girard’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal. Thoughtful, beautifully cast and a little chilly, this Parsifal, taken along with Willy Decker’s spare but vibrantly theatrical version of Verdi’s Traviata, summed up the extent of what seems to be possible these days at the Met.

Mr. Girard’s production, like Mr. Mayer’s, is an updating whose superficial changes try to mask a perspective on the opera that is essentially straightforward. He has set Wagner’s tale of the struggling circle of knights of the Holy Grail in a barren landscape under a sky of ominous clouds (the video is by Peter Flaherty).

The mood is less post-apocalyptic than imminently apocalyptic. Repeated visions of looming planets on an apparent collision course with Earth recalled Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, another epic about the search for meaning in a world that seems to have lost it. The knights are dressed in dark pants and white shirts, like Mormons or an evangelical prayer group.

When Parsifal enters the sorcerer Klingsor’s castle, he is descending into a vaginal cavern dripping with blood. In this production, women do not just play Klingsor’s temptresses, but also a group of wanderers strangely excluded from the knights’ rituals. Mr. Girard’s ending finally integrates them with the men, a moving metaphor of the rejuvenation of the cult.

Conducted by Daniele Gatti with an idiosyncratic deliberation that vacillated between profundity and indulgence, the cast was extremely strong. The standout was Peter Mattei, singing the head knight Amfortas (for the first time ever!) with deep feeling and rich, steady tone. The knight Gurnemanz is one of René Pape’s signature roles, and his voice remains rock-solid, his bearing noble.

With the Parsifal of Jonas Kaufmann, his voice settling further each year into baritonal depths, these three, though their voices are completely different, affectingly suggested a brotherhood. (Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry was not quite on their level.) Mr. Kaufmann’s talents are known to everyone in opera: his intelligence, lyrical phrasing and distinctive tone.

Yet he seemed to be cautiously pacing himself, and in the first act especially he occasionally seemed, well, bored—not so much depicting awkwardness as being awkward. Despite his good looks, he is not a riveting or entirely natural presence onstage, a liability in an opera with such long, reflective passages in which little or nothing happens.

Even quibbling about his performance, though, felt egregiously petty after hearing Mr. Lučić’s confounding Rigoletto. Mr. Kaufmann, at least, is always trying, and this Parsifal was heartening proof that the Met is, too.

editorial@observer.com