The Met Opera Spirits ‘Rigoletto’ at ‘Babylon Berlin’

Bartlett Sher had to walk over a mile inside the Metropolitan Opera to rehearse his staging of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” which took place in spurts one recent morning.

Every time the singers stopped, Sher would sprint. Sometimes at the top of the stairs near the orchestra pit, with notes for the actors. Sometimes up to the auditorium aisle to confer with a team working on consoles and laptops. He had a growing list of things to refine: the paint job of the set, the lighting, the overlaying of the crowded action of a party scene.

“I need another month,” he said, pausing to survey the scene.

Instead, Sher was about two weeks old. His “Rigoletto” opens on December 31, as part of the annual Met New Years Gala, with Daniele Rustioni directing and Quinn Kelsey in the title role. This production, a co-production with the Berlin State Opera, premiered in Germany in June 2019. But transport has changed so much that it has been practically rebuilt from scratch – down to the wire and under threat. of the Omicron variant.

Sher’s new “Rigoletto” – a busy Tony Award-winning director whose work is currently on Broadway (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) and soon at the Lincoln Center Theater (“Intimate clothing”) – is the third to be seen at the Met this century. Piotr Beczala, the tenor playing the role of the predatory Duke of Mantua, jokingly said in an interview that he was “the duke on duty here”: in 2006 he made his company debut with the role in the production by Otto Schenk in 1989, then created Michael Mayer’s Rat Pack “Rigoletto” in 2013.

That’s a lot of turnover for a house where a few staging have lingered for decades. Peter Gelb, chief executive of the Met, said there was no “standard thinking” behind replacing productions. Second, Franco Zeffirelli’s lavishly traditional versions of “La Bohème” and “Turandot” aren’t going anywhere, Gelb said. But he noticed that audiences tend to lose interest more quickly in modern updates – like Mayer’s “Rigoletto,” which is set in 1960s Las Vegas instead of the libretto’s 16th-century Italy.

The decline in interest wasn’t the only problem with Mayer’s production. Its muddled dramaturgy baffled critics, and it developed a reputation as a neon-lit spectacle of little substance. Reviewing the premiere, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times wrote that the concept was “barely daring” and “not even that original”. When it was notable, it was as a vehicle for guest performers – including soprano Rosa Feola, who made a sensational Met debut as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda in 2019 and is returning to that role now.

Like Mayer, Sher transposes the action of opera, but into Weimar-era Berlin – a “pre-fascist world,” he said, of unchecked cruelty, crime and extravagance. He avoided placing the work under Nazi rule, opting instead for the 1920s, the same background as the popular television series “Babylon Berlin”: a society on the verge of upheaval. The period followed with the Dukes and Duchesses of the libretto while allowing Sher to explore “how corrupt leadership infects a culture, infects how wealth and privilege dominate and crush the people below.” “

Sher’s ideas hit a roadblock in Berlin. He had planned for the set to turn on a rotating turntable, for cinematic transitions and fruitful divisions of public and private spaces. He found himself frozen in place, an Art Deco nightclub with murals adapted from works by George Grosz, which caricatured the corruption and complicity of the time.

“It was more static,” Sher recalls, “and harder to release what was in the music.”

Critics in the German press were harsh, and many scorned Sher as an American. I had my own issues with production, writing in The Times that Sher’s treatment of the Weimar Republic presented itself as “more of a context than a concept.”

Sher admitted that his Berlin staging had room to grow, especially in how to communicate the psychological complexity of the work. But he was happy with it.

“I felt it was honest and it was clear,” he said. “A good artist has to accept the limits of each iteration of what he does. And it was like the workshop production of falling in love with the work.

He has now had the opportunity to revise his production as he would at musical premieres, a luxury almost never offered at opera. (An exception, in this case, is “Intimate Apparel.”) His intentions for the Met revival are largely the same, he said, but it will differ crucially from Berlin.

Finally, it has its turntable, and therefore a very different set; indeed, the first sight, during the prelude, is of a grimy brick exterior rather than the explosion of color inside. Gone are the Grosz murals, replaced with scorching red marble – an issue with the artist’s succession, Sher said, though the staging curtain, taken from a Grosz painting, remains.

The cast only recently started rehearsing with the rotating nightclub on stage. Previously, they would prepare in a basement studio with only suggestions – a doorframe, a pillar – and Sher blocking their movement as he recounted how the set would turn. A copy of “Le Roi S’Amuse” (“The King enjoys himself”), the play by Victor Hugo that inspired the opera, was on hand for reference. Rustioni was perched on a stool, waving his staff and singing from memory. (During the breaks he swiveled to the left to study Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”, which he will lead at the Met from January 8)

Beczala, who was days away from the opening of Massenet’s “Werther” when the Met closed in March 2020, was back in rehearsals for the first time since then. And Kelsey, a household staple for over a decade, was gearing up for her biggest role yet – “my first real role,” he said. Most of the instructions Sher gave them during the basement rehearsal was aimed at bringing more transparency to the opera’s intricate opening scene.

Clarity is a hallmark of Sher’s work, whether the production is “Rigoletto” or “South Pacific”. He said it was something he was striving for “to unleash the power and truth of opera and hopefully add to that a layer of meaning of its resonance today.”

After a pause, he added with a laugh, “It’s okay.”

This resonance, Kelsey said, is very present in the production. “It’s so surprising how much this really reflects a lot of how we feel in our country now, no matter which side you find yourself on – just the tension itself,” he added. . More complicated are the dynamics at play between the main characters. Rigoletto believes that the tragic events which led to the death of his daughter were the result of the curse of a dishonored nobleman. But opera is not that simple.

“I like to say the Duke is polyamorous, but he hasn’t determined his ethical non-monogamy,” Sher said. “He just goes to everything and then drops it in a second which is really dangerous.” Yet Gilda, this poor innocent girl, is already being manipulated by her father’s ridiculously exaggerated love, and she is in a washing machine between him and the Duke. The big journey for me is figuring out how to give her some authority over these men who dominate her.

Behind it all hides the score, which opens on the theme of the curse and never really comes out of this obscurity. “Verdi was so proud of the curse,” Rustioni said. “You see it repeated, the sharp rhythm returns when Rigoletto sings. It’s like an obsession.

Among Rustioni’s restorations to opera – such as an often-cut cadenza in an Act I duet for Gilda and the Duke – retains a Rigoletto line as a chain of C notes, rather than ending in an E flat above, to echo the curse motif.

“I think the production is very respectful towards Verdi,” said Rustioni. “Everything is integrated into the music, and this ever-changing rotating element helps convey the mood. “

Sher said the “cinematic movement” of his set was his way of achieving “a staging that echoes through the music and the text.” Ideally, he added, “with enough time you can do it really well. We will see.”

An obstacle could get in its way. About 10 days before opening night, the Omicron variant was spreading rapidly throughout New York City. Queues meandered around blocks of testing sites and panic fueled a race for home testing kits. Broadway shows were in a state of precarious anticipation and sudden cancellations, and the legendary “Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes” prematurely ended its airing due to groundbreaking infections in its cast.

The Met, which has yet to cancel a performance, has taken all possible safety measures – a vaccine mandate without exception, with a recall requirement in January and bi-weekly testing within the company – and Gelb said that until recently he had been “extremely confident”. Now he feels close to the unhappy Rigoletto.

“He’s got his curse that’s ruining his life,” Gelb said. “We’re all under a bigger curse somehow: we have Omicron’s curse.”

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Margarita B. Bittner