April 22nd Saturday | Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera | New York, NY
If you catch me right at the corner of Columbus & W 63 on Saturday night, I would be all exuberant and tell you what a fabulous performance I just saw.
To be honest, I was not too enthusiastic about watching Rigoletto at the Met, and even running the risk of sounding like a snob, I believe it belongs to those operas that are “too easy to watch.” And it is true, but in a positive sense. After watching Met’s new production of Tristan last fall, I tend to associate the Met with more challenging operas and even controversial productions. But tonight, with Verdi’s Rigoletto, I feel once again the seduction of opera itself that first allured me to its realm.
I got a ticket in the grand tier balance, but both the view and the sound are surprisingly excellent, not to mention that I have one empty seat on each side of me (also two in front of me), so I was lucky enough to have an unobstructed view of the stage. One fascinating aspect about going to the Met is the environment. Before the performance, I had a light dinner/dessert combo at a Parisian café in the nearby Columbus Circle and enjoyed the walk up Broadway. Turning on to W 63rd and beholding the majestic Lincoln Center plaza from across the street, I watched all the fancy people rushing into the Met. The fountain, yes, the icon of the Met, which appears in the opening credit of all the recorded performances of Met operas (and of course along with the name James Levine).
The people sitting on my left side appear to be the regular opera-goers. But there is also something slightly distasteful about that kind of people, if they also happen to be braggers. At least one of them is like that, and she says at one point, “the most *amazing* opera I saw was Carmen.” Oh lady, what an amateur (and you should imagine me rolling my eyes for 10 seconds). In any case, they are civil at least. I’m probably just being a jerk with my own prejudice. But there is also a very uncivil one among us, a man sitting in front of me and a few seats over. You know sometimes during a concert people would dig through their pockets for cough drops and open the very loud candy wrapper. Well, it is understandable if that would stop them from coughing and further disturbing the performance. But in Act II apparently that man is just eating something very loudly (and also talking to his lady friend). Ugh, how rude! Finally an usher comes to shut him up, thank god!
Despite that very ill-mannered man, I still had a great time. I have to say that not only Verdi’s music but also the staging itself is very seductive. Not wanting to spoil anything, I perhaps enjoyed Rigoletto more because of this more playful setting and the fluorescent stage (very Broadway-like). I’m also looking at the orchestra pit from time to time, and naturally I can’t resist the temptation to think about Mahler, who conducted here over a century ago, and all that he’s done to transform the modern opera-going experience. And if only Herr Mahler were conducting here tonight, he would probably throw a despicable glance at my very rude neighbor for disrupting such a marvelous performance.
The sound from the orchestra pit comes out quite remarkably, and there is obvious communication between the conductor and the singers. But too often the performance is “interrupted” by applauses. Perhaps that’s only my habit of not wanting to applaud after every song, but the conductor seems to be perfectly fine with it.
Every time I watch an Italian opera, I feel that my childhood dream to learn Italian is justified. It is such a musical language! Even though the libretto is not first-class writing, I want to let my “literary-scholar-wannabe” self go in front of such amazing music. However, my impulse as a comparatist is simply too strong (sorry, can’t help it!). I chose Italian and could also see the English subtitle one row ahead of me. The translation is terrible, I must say. It’s almost like a free adaptation, which is the reason for some unnecessary laughters. The libretto didn’t actually mean to say anything silly like that! Also there are relatively important parts left out in the translation. For example, in Act III, when Rigoletto is trying to deny that the victim is Gilda, my subtitle says “per Verona è in via,” but the English subtitle only says something like “she’s gone.” She is going to Verona, everybody! I know it sounds trivial, but she is heading to the city of doomed lovers, already foretelling her tragic ending.
Again, dragging myself back to the performance itself, I want to say that the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja is the real star tonight. The crowd-pleasing “La donna è mobile” got himself probably the longest applause during the performance. At that point in Act III, the seductiveness of Verdi’s score has also reached its peak. Rigoletto, portrayed by the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, is also unforgettable. What strikes me in this production is the commonality of the Rigoletto character, not actually hunch-backed or goofy, there’s some commonality to his character instead of his usual absurdity. He’s more human and real, not a Shakespearean tragic hero but a perhaps overly loving father we all know. Especially on a shimmering stage, this Rigoletto is moving, truly.
The Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko sings Gilda, and I feel that her voice is perhaps too feeble for the role, too timid and too childlike. Only in the very last act does she pull out a great dying scene of Gilda, singing about heaven. At that point, I’m imagining “Das Himmlische Leben” in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, the heavenly life from the eyes of a little boy. Ms. Peretyatko sounds like that little boy (portrayed by a soprano in reality) in “Lassù in cielo , vicina alla madre.” And how different is Verdi’s dying heroine from Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San and Mimì! It is almost glorious and ironic, all but sorrowful.
The last time I came to the Met, I saw the mind-blowing Tristan. Comparing the Verdi to the Wagner, I realize how purely entertaining opera can be, reminding me of watching the operetta Die Fledermaus in Vienna a few years ago. Without the metaphysical burden, the music can really set your senses free. I really love it, and I love it especially because I don’t have to force myself into a Schopenhaurian digression in the midst of a 5-hour opera. Rigoletto is very easy to listen to. And what’s wrong with some pure entertainment, even without edification? In the third act, my ears also seem to have captured a Tristan “zu König Markes Land” moment. Am I delusional to think that Wagner stole that tune from Verdi?
Perhaps I am, but I blame Verdi’s music and this fabulous production of Rigoletto, an otherwise gloomy opera. How seductive it is!