Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The head of state is corrupt and venal. Instead of attending to the needs of the people, he spends his time chasing sex and committing assorted crimes to cover it up. One of his henchmen, who combines the roles of fixer and funnyman, has been energetically assisting his boss — but is also convinced that he can keep the contamination of his day job from washing back into his personal life. Of course he cannot, and the whole thing ends in disaster. The fish, as they say, rots from the head down.
Now, wait—before you scroll down to the comment section and start typing furiously — I’m not talking about Donald Trump and Roger Stone. Nor am I talking about the Clintons, their assorted hangers-on, and Monica. Nor am I talking about the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe — though I could be. I’m summarizing the plotline to Verdi’s Rigoletto.
To understand this is to understand why the Metropolitan Opera’s recent revival of a 2013 production of that opera, though musically spectacular, is such a huge missed opportunity. The opera tells a story as old and tragic as mankind, and as fresh and pertinent as a breaking-news tweet. But this production is set in Las Vegas in the early 1960s—perhaps the one setting, out of any time and place, that would most undermine its coherence. The choice makes a travesty out of the work.
My old boss Walter Russell Mead pointed out to me that recreating the Duke as a rat-pack gangster, rather than someone at least expected to rule well, robs Rigoletto of its message. How can corruption eat at the state through its leader’s misdeeds if there is no virtuous polity to begin with? Or, as a friend put it, speaking bluntly of Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, whom Rigoletto tries to protect at all costs: “How am I supposed to care about this woman’s virginity in Las Vegas? Isn’t that why people went there?”
Indeed it was. No city on the planet has spent more time and money convincing people that actions there are consequence-free. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” was the spirit long before it was the official slogan. And this is the 1960s: the era before Vegas became a family town. At least, such is Vegas’s reputation in the popular imagination, and as there is no effort to build up the world outside of the casinos, that’s all we have to go on. Forget Rigoletto’s daughter — what did the courtier Ceprano’s wife, or any of the other characters, come into town for? As a result of the setting, there are no stakes; no stakes, no tragedy.
If, on the other hand, you paid attention to the music and the lyrics rather than the visuals, you saw the pathos and power of the drama, which demands more serious attention than it’s getting. Rigoletto features at least one rape, a murder-for-hire, another (judicial) murder, and a lot of kidnapping. It builds a world in which Rigoletto is distracted from the abduction of his daughter because he’s busy (he thinks) helping the courtiers kidnap another man’s wife — something which, it’s clear, is all in a day’s work. The tensions within the court between this dark and dissolute reality and the air of carefree joie-de-vivre are present — or should be — from the minute the short but ominous overture melts away into a party scene.
To be clear, this production is a directorial — or to put it another way, conceptual — failure. Each component of the opera, though subordinated to this flawed vision, is as first-rate as a performance in America’s premier opera house should be. Vittorio Grigolo, who for my money is one of the best tenors now working, is as energetic in acting the Duke as he is skilled in singing him. Nadine Sierra as Gilda nevertheless steals a scene from him at the end of Act I, vocally and dramatically. Roberto Frontali, in the title role, is less a jester than a fixer, and one who has lost his hair, and by the end his family and nearly his mind, in the service of an ignoble leader. Štefan Kocán, as the murderer-for-hire Sparafucille, rounds out a cast of singers who can also act, while Nicola Luisotto conducted the Met Orchestra to its usual gold standard. And the sets, by Christine Jones, are remarkable — lavish, eye-catching renditions of a midcentury casino that fill the whole stage.
This last item, though, points to the heart of the problem: the producer, Michael Mayer, chose to prioritize spectacle over drama. Opera has had a bad reputation in the English-speaking world since at least the early 18th century, when Joseph Addison spent pages of the Spectator reviling it as irrational nonsense. Addison was a smart man; this was a spectacularly dumb take. The art form started as an attempt to revive ancient Greek drama (which, ancient sources tell us, made heavy use of music). Verdi (who came after Addison) is but one example of a serious composer, a man who adapted, and showed himself equal to, the works of Shakespeare, Schiller, Byron, Voltaire, and in the case of Rigoletto, Victor Hugo. The opera is based on the French author’s play, Le Roi s’Amuse, or The King Amuses Himself, set in the court of King Francis I.
But this old charge of nonsense received a curious validation in mid-century America. The closing of European immigration, which had filled the upper tiers of American opera houses with spectators for whom opera was first-language entertainment, and the end of the period when American elites aspired to imitate their European peers, led to a long period when very few audience-members knew the languages in which opera is written (mostly Italian, German, and French). In turn, that created pressure to stage only a very few operas, i.e. the forty or so works in “The Repertoire” that are good enough to sit through for four to six hours without comprehending a word, due to their sheer musical genius. And it created incentives to make the performances spectacles—with lavish, eye-popping sets, costumes, animals—and neglect the dramatic side of the art. This is not to bemoan cool sets; when they work, nothing is better. It’s to decry concepts that make no sense, that look cool but actively work against the spirit or text of the work.
The invention of surtitles (and the neat little screens-behind-the-seat at the Met) started to change all this. People often forget how recently this development came about — Met Titles were only installed in 1995. They led to a whole new generation of singers who can act and directors who can think as though they were responsible for a play as much as for a concert. But, unhappily, old habits die hard. Visual spectacle is to producers what halfhearted acting is to singers: an old temptation that still recurs—as it did here.
One suspects another excuse for this pointedly un-pointed production. “Politicization” is a word which the Met, whose audience is more politically diverse than heartland stereotypes of uptown Manhattan might suggest, would prefer to avoid. It must be admitted that writers who share the politics of myself and this magazine are often the ones most prone to voice such a complaint. And with good reason: the art world is rife with bad politicization that always seems to cut one way, from the trashy and incoherent Siegfried at the Bayreuth Festival, in which Americans in a trailer park smear each other down with oil, to George Lucas’s insistence that “George Bush is Darth Vader” and “Cheney is the Emperor.” Bad politicization happens when a director imposes his agenda artificially on a work. It’s preachy, obnoxious, and often corrodes the artistic value of the production in question.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as good politicization: attention to the politics inherent in a work. When the commentary is drawn out from a faithful reading of the work, and draws us further into it, there can be nothing to complain about—even if one does not like the message. Verdi provides fertile ground for those searching for such messages. There’s a reason Italian revolutionaries graffitied walls with Viva VERDI, and it wasn’t just because his name could be read as an acronym of Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia. His first major opera provided the unofficial anthem for the Risorgimento (“Va’ Pensiero,” from Nabucco). His work could be anticlerical (Don Carlo) as well as anti-monarchial. Austrian censors initially prohibited performances of Rigoletto, then called La Maledizione, before it was revised, reset in the ducal Mantuan rather than royal French court, and renamed. The composer ended his life as a Senator, and not just for his services to the arts.
One reason to make peace with, or even encourage, good politicization is to be able to take the good with the bad. For instance, almost every comedy—certainly including Verdi’s—is, as critics from the Ancient Greeks down to the present day have noted, inherently conservative. (Among other reasons, comedies tend to convey a strongly pro-marriage message.) But there are higher reasons too. Politics, despite its seediness, is ultimately the managing of human affairs; thus, it is not surprising that an artistic genius who observes humanity would have insights adaptable to political life, or even drawn directly from it. And it’s ultimately the calling of a producer to help us more fully understand and explore great works of art—politics and all.
The Met’s production of Rigoletto is an excellent example of where engagement with the work as a drama, rather than trying to put on a spectacle, would have been the better move. Certain people at the Met — and a good chunk of the commentariat — may well be kicking themselves, if they think of it, that they blew a chance to critique the President with this Rigoletto. Had it been produced faithfully (in terms of spirit, not setting) it would have been read as a veiled shot at 45, regardless of the fact that it was written before his Presidential run. But looking to the past for lessons that will, by virtue of being timeless, apply to the future is not a trait associated with the politics of the President’s most trenchant critics.