The Met's Live in HD series presents its Las Vegas Rigoletto in a simulcast to some 1,900 theatres in 64 countries tomorrow. Jamaicans, along with opera lovers worldwide, will have the opportunity to view this dazzling modern interpretation of Verdi's towering tragedy.
Michael Mayer directs the cast, featuring Piotr Beczala as the womanising Duke, Zeljko Lucic is his tragic sidekick Rigoletto, and Diana Damrau is Rigoletto's daughter, Gilda.
Both Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto and Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse - the work on which its based - have a rich history with the morality police. Hugo's 1832 play, which portrays King Francis I of France as a randy seducer, was banned for its depiction of a licentious monarch after a single performance.
Verdi encountered similar resistance from the Austrian censors, who wielded enormous power in northern Italy. It was only after the composer moved the action of his opera to 16th-century Mantua, whose ruling family had long since disappeared, that Rigoletto was finally able to have its triumphant premiere at La Fenice in 1851.
Regardless of its setting or version, though, the opera takes place in a world where powerful men use women as playthings, where proximity to wealth and power is all-important, and where putting out a hit on an enemy is par for the course. In other words, director Michael Mayer's decision to set his new Met production of Rigoletto in Las Vegas in 1960 is right on the money.
"Rigoletto has long been one of my favorite operas," says Mayer, whose production premiered on January 28 with Zeljko Lucic in the title role, Diana Damrau as his beloved daughter, Gilda, and Piotr Beczala as the womanising Duke. As soon as Mayer was engaged for the project, "I started thinking about what I could bring to this masterpiece, which has been seen all over the world for so many decades and in different incarnations".
"One of the things I discussed with Peter Gelb was to try and make the audience feel closer to the story - without setting the opera today, which dates something automatically. You try to find the right setting in a context that's in the past, but not so far in the past that it feels like a museum piece. That way it can have real, immediate resonance, but also a kind of purity and universality."
It didn't take long for Mayer to land on the '60s Las Vegas as just the sort of semi-recent historical moment that could lend potency to the story. "I started to think about the world of the Duke's palace, and who Rigoletto is, and how that could feel fresh," he says. "I tried to imagine what a contemporary version of the decadent world of the Duke's palace would be, where people are partying and full of a kind of fascination with power and money and beauty. And I thought of Las Vegas as the epitome of an American destiny for the events that happen in Rigoletto."
Mayer, who has had notable success on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for his staging of Spring Awakening, is hardly the first director to take an unconventional approach to Verdi's tale of the hunchbacked court jester. Jonathan Miller famously scored a major success with his Mafia version, set in Little Italy in the 1950s. It premiered at English National Opera in 1982 and has been seen in many houses since then.
Mayer's placement of Rigoletto in Las Vegas clearly is a theatrically intriguing idea as well. Needless to say, the setting also offers great opportunities for devising striking visuals that will bring the neon-drenched atmosphere of Vegas to vivid life on the Met's grand stage.
Mayer turned to set designer Christine Jones and lighting designer Kevin Adams to devise a glittering wonderland. The team has created a series of beautiful light sculptures that bathe the stage in all shades of red, green, yellow, and blue. The effect is dazzlingly electric, with Susan Hilferty's stunning period costumes providing a perfect complement.
In Mayer's vision the Duke becomes a Las Vegas celebrity with his own casino; Rigoletto is a kind of hanger-on, living with Gilda out in the desert; Sparafucile is a trenchcoat-wearing thug; and Monterone is one of the Arab sheiks who started coming to Las Vegas at this time. There were some challenges in carrying through the approach.
"As well as it lined up for Vegas to equal the Duke's world and as beautifully as the big story points seemed to fall into place," Mayer says, "there were moments where we struggled to come up with concepts that would work out line by line and action by action. In the abduction scene, one of my favourite solutions is to use elevators instead of the ladder that usually leads over the wall into Rigoletto's home. Also, we have a car to take Gilda's body away at the end, instead of lugging her to the river in a sack. The idea that you'd dump the body in the trunk of a car and drive it to some little gulch somewhere way out in the desert seemed really probable to me."