Idiots at the Opera, Act III — Or What Happens in Vegas

Here’s the story:  Jaded courtesan and naive young man fall in love and leave decadent Paris for a love nest in the countryside where they spend all the cash she earned on her back. She’s transformed by the lurve. He wants to marry her, but she realizes  her sordid past will ruin him, so she breaks things off. But here’s the kicker: Nobody dies! This isn’t Verdi’s La Traviata. It’s Puccini La Rondine, kind of La Traviata-lite. La Traviette.

Per all the reading I did before and after we saw it on January 11th at the Met, La Rondine is kind of a miss-mash, and Puccini’s least favorite of his works. It is light and pretty. But light and pretty aren’t bad. It kept us interested. The ever reliable baritone, Dwayne Croft, sang Ramboldo – the heroine’s sugar-daddy; the feisty maid, Lissette, was sung by Anna Christy, Prunier, a poet, competently handled by Marius Brenciu, Giuseppe Filanoti sang Ruggero, the young man, and Magda (the traviette) was sung by Kristine Opalais.

None of the singers with the exception of Miss Opalais (making her Met debut) seemed especially energetic that evening. While they weren’t exactly phoning it in, given this was both a premiere and a live radio broadcast, they all seemed a bit low-key. Brenciu managed to be more impressive as an actor than a singer, establishing Prunier’s mixture of archness, good nature, and pragmatism. He handled the recitative with expert comic timing. Opalais was exceptional, also beautiful. She’s big. Not in the fat lady kind of way, but tall and voluptuous. This did lead, however, to both a vocal and physical imbalance with Filanoti. He not only couldn’t match her sound, but in one of the final scenes when she caresses him on a sofa, he looked like he might be crushed.

La Rondine was first performed in 1917 and while the setting wasn’t specific, it’s generally set at an earlier period, la belle epoch. For whatever reason, this production takes place in the 1920’s. The sets had an art deco look, and in the cafe scene the dancers did a fox trot, but I’m not sure what the point of setting it in the Jazz age was. Opalais in an interview talked of what Paris in the 20’s was like for women and referenced women like Coco Chanel who used their male benefactors to “help their careers.” But other than the sets, I didn’t “feel” Paris in the twenties. I didn’t think Magda was particularly interested in a career. Per the libretto, she sort of drifted into the kept woman thing, and longed for emotional connection (or at least said she did). The twenties were a time more analogous to the 1960’s when sex woke up after a long nap and social mores were changing. In the twenties, maybe a bad girl could overcome her past and settle down if she wanted to without “ruining” her lover. Maybe a young man wouldn’t have been so shocked and disappointed by a woman telling him she could be his lover, but not his wife. In any case, I’m not sure what the 1920’s adds to the story…

Speaking of changing the period or historical settings in operas (Nice segue, amirite?), last night we saw Michael Mayer’s notorious Vegas-baby production of Rigoletto.

When we got the Met bulletin last summer, the concept of Rigoletto set in 1960 Vegas sounded like a good idea to us. But what do we know? We’re opera idiots! If you’d asked us to hum something from Rigoletto, we would have been dumbfounded. (Whereas today we’re wandering around the house making up alt lyrics to Dona e Mobile). I didn’t know who Michael Mayer the director (as opposed to the movie supernatural psycho-killer) was. I hadn’t seen Spring Awakening. I didn’t know he was involved in Adult Glee Smash. Had I but known, I might have avoided the production altogether.

So what did we think?

There are several problems with the concept. A feckless monarch who is obsessed with getting his freak on can do far more damage than a feckless casino owner who just wants to get laid a lot. A court jester is kind of a command performance and different than being a rat-pack hanger-on or a comedy headliner. Mayer said he thought the degradation and objectification of women in Vegas at that time was analogous to the degradation of the Duke’s court in 16th century Spain (which was really a stand-in for France in the Victor Hugo play on which it was based.) But finding historical periods where women are degraded and abused doesn’t take a lot of work. We played that game on the subway ride home, and came up with several alternative settings that met the criteria, including 1980’s Wall Street and the Vatican (make Gilda into a trouser role. How’s that for decadent?) I invite you to submit your own. Remember that just because something sounds interesting, doesn’t mean it would actually work.

The point is a setting may seem inspired, but what does it bring? And what do you lose? Does the loss outweigh the gain? In this case, that’s an unfortunate yes.

The first act is a mess. The critics by-and-large have been far too indulgent. My guess is they must know it’s dreck, but they’re trying to save opera. At the post-Act I intermission, the better half whispered to me, “I don’t think this is working.”

Act II and Act III were much better, but the damage was done.

Having done some research this morning, I am convinced the staging in the first fifteen minutes was fatal.

The casino setting looks glitzy, but it’s still a kind of tacky PG-vulgarity. When we see the Countess in full Marilyn drag, it’s glamorous, not sleazy, and the Duke’s flirtation with her seems comic, more like a “playboy” in a Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedy, than a dangerous seducer. The first song Questa o Quella is sung by the Duke holding a “microphone” a gimmicky visual joke. He’s surrounded by showgirls carrying large feather fans. But here’s the problem – it’s way too light. The showgirls aren’t scantily clad by Vegas standards, and the choreography is far more tame and less sexualized than anything Fosse ever dreamed up. The song, is sung mostly to the audience. As the scene progresses we’re given a lot of visual input, but little of it makes sense. The important points of the story – what the audience needs to know and understand for later – particularly how the characters relate to each other, is unclear, particularly Rigoletto’s role, his relationship with the Duke and why the courtiers, or rather “rats” hate him. There’s a lot here that can be told visually, not just through the libretto and the music, but through interactions and gestures. We miss it in all the neon. It gets worse when Monterone shows up as an Arab sheik. Per the Times, on opening night the audience laughed at his entrance. At the performance I saw, they were still laughing. We don’t take him or his curse seriously and it’s hard to understand why Rigoletto does. This isn’t just a miss-step; it’s a campy disaster.

It gets better when we get away from the hurley-burley and into the duets and quartets. The singers were all strong. Piotr Bezcala as the Duke gave a performance that was musically sweet and dramatically subtle. Stefan Kocan, the bass, was outstanding as the assassin, Sparafucile, and Diana Damrau as Gilda put the divine in diva. She owned the house.

The title character, however, seemed one dimensional – a bitter man, who loved his daughter, but not the easiest guy to sympathize with. I don’t blame the singer. Zeljko Lucic has sung it before, to great acclaim, but here we don’t know who he is or why he’s there. Every one else is wearing dinner jackets. He wears a sweater and a Columbo shabby raincoat. We know he’s an outsider. The argyle pattern clearly “indicates” the court jester uniform, but this remnant doesn’t really give the audience much to work with.

The emotional impact is further hampered by the super-title translations. “Courtiers” become “rats” and “hangers-on.” Women are “dolls” as in “guys and…” The faux-Vegas is more stylized and less authentic than Damon Runyon’s faux-ganster. It got to the point where I realized I was better off not looking at the titles. When they modernize the settings for Shakespeare, they don’t change the lines. I get that the libretto isn’t the most important thing, but even without knowing Italian, you know this is not what they’re singing, and that’s a distraction. Opera audiences are sophisticated. Let them work out the Vegas analogy on their own. This was like hitting them with a brick.

As annoying it was, am I sorry I went? Not really. Watching Beczala work the stripper pole (!!!) while singing the money-shot song, was almost worth the price of admission. I just wish I could have seen (and heard) the same cast with the same conductor and a different director. Beczala’s interpretation, in particular, grew on me as the evening progressed. It was more Dino than Frankie, specifically Dino as portrayed by Dean Martin in Billy Wilder’s dark comedy Kiss Me Stupid, which also features a not overly likeable shlub who is trying to curry favor with a louche glamor-boy.

In fact, Kiss Me, Stupid, would probably make a great opera (or at least a good musical).

For your listening and viewing pleasure, I found a 1982 film of Rigoletto, staged brilliantly at the Vienna opera by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, featuring Pavarotti. The subtitles are in Spanish, but even if you don’t know a word of Spanish or Italian, the staging gives you all the visual information you need, clearly and concisely. Being an ignoramus, I don’t know how unique Ponelle’s take is, but the ingenious opening foretells the tragic end. The first scene gives us something pretty close to an orgy, including not only the Duke’s heavy-flirting with the Countess (supported by the libretto) but also the onstage debauchery of Monterone’s daughter (a purely visual invention), making Monterone’s appearance at the “festivities” that much more of a downer AND giving more weight to both “the curse” and Rigoletto’s culpability.