[Met Performance] CID:251260
Rigoletto {529} Metropolitan Opera House: 11/4/1977.


Metropolitan Opera House
November 4, 1977

Giuseppe Verdi--Francesco Maria Piave

Rigoletto...............Cornell MacNeil
Gilda...................Ileana Cotrubas
Duke of Mantua..........Plácido Domingo
Maddalena...............Isola Jones
Sparafucile.............Justino Díaz
Monterone...............John Cheek
Borsa...................James Atherton
Marullo.................Robert Goodloe
Count Ceprano...........Philip Booth
Countess Ceprano........Loretta Di Franco
Giovanna................Ariel Bybee
Page....................Alma Jean Smith
Guard...................Peter Sliker

Conductor...............James Levine

Review of Andrew Porter in the New Yorker

What the Composer Wanted

The first new production of the Metropolitan season is a Rigoletto conducted by James Levine and staged by John Dexter, the company's music director and its director of production. Like much of their earlier work, it suggests that Mr. Levine's talents are ill suited to Italian opera, and Mr. Dexter's to nineteenth-century opera. The production is not careless, but it is undramatic and ineffective; the collaborators' approach seems to be at once innocent, ignorant and pretentious. Mr. Levine, talking about the show in an intermission of its relay by Channel 13, spoke of "benefiting from all the previous productions we have seen and maybe achieving greater fidelity to what the composer wanted." Mr. Dexter, talking to the Times, said, "all I can deal with are practical, technical problems. If something aesthetically interesting arises out of the solution, that's wonderful. But you don't go to a piece with an aesthetic approach-you go with a technical approach." He also said "everything I've done is based on economics." The new Rigoletto does not look cheap. In fact, it looks as if it cost more to build than four traditional sets of painted canvas and a reversible two-story structure - one side Gilda's house, the other Sparafucile's - would. But I hope it was cheap, for then it would have at least economy to recommend it.

In this staging, designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch to Mr. Dexter's prescription, all four scenes of the opera are played on or around a tall, conical, disintegrating tower-part garden pagoda, part Brueghelian Babel-with a walkway around it at second-floor level. Between scenes, it revolves. Mr. Levine suggested that its decrepit condition was intended to reflect the decadence of Mantuan society. (The traditional alternation between the glittering court and "a house of modest appearance" or a low tavern seems to me a more potent symbol of the drama) If Mr. Levine's and Mr. Dexter's cogitations had produced something fresh and powerful, I would be the first to applaud. But this was not a potent Rigoletto, like Walter Felsenstein's, in Hamburg, which departed from nineteenth-century stage techniques to make much of the great dramatic moments patent or implicit in Verdi's score. On the contrary, it missed point after point and seemed almost incompetent in the way it tamed what should be a stirring drama.

As in the Met Aida, Mr. Dexter got things wrong from the moment of curtain rise. Verdi began his Aida unconventionally, in mid-conversation. " Yes, it is reported that the Ethiopian dares again to defy us" is the first sentence. In Mr. Dexter's production, the high priest makes a big solo entrance toward a Radamés already onstage, and then says Verdi's start to Rigoletto is even more unconventional-a transformation of the standard introduction of Ottocento opera, which consisted of expository choruses enclosing solo utterances. Verdi suppresses the initial chorus. The curtain rises on an empty stage while bright dance music sounds from the background. After sixteen measures, we glimpse dancing in halls that open out of the one before us. At a clearly defined musical moment - the resumption of the [beginning] strain-just two people, the Duke of Mantua and his confidant Matteo Borsa, advance to the foreground and converse over the dance music. The pit orchestra strikes in only to accompany the Duke's ballata, "Questa o quella," which he sings to Borsa (and to the audience), not to an assembled company. A string band onstage takes over (Verdi's indebtedness to the party scene of Don Giovanni has often been noted) to accompany a minuet danced in the background while in the foreground the Duke pays court to the Countess Ceprano. At last, Rigoletto makes his sudden, dramatic first appearance with an unaccompanied exclamation, and then the full stage band resumes, "brillante." Pit orchestra and stage band join forces only when the whole company has mustered; out of the last chord of their ensemble there rings the voice of Monterone, unaccompanied, thundering his monotone denunciation. And so on. The "dramaturgy" of this scene--rightly described by Julian Budden as "a single organism from first note to last" and one without a formal precedent in the whole Italian opera - is set out clearly in the score; and it is all confusion in the Met production.

After this introduction comes the direction "N.B. - The curtain falls for a moment to allow the scenery to be changed." In Verdi's day, scene changes were generally effected on an open stage. Here he wanted something different. The curtain fall indicates the passing of a day. As the composer said, the party and the abduction of Gilda "could not take place all in one night, because if the party ends toward dawn Triboletto [as Rigoletto was originally called] could not meet the bravo toward evening, and moreover it is unlikely that Bianca [Gilda] would have stayed up all night." Therefore, Piave, his librettist, was instructed to write lines making it clear that the courtiers' assignation to gather and take revenge on Rigoletto is for the following evening. But in the Met staging Verdi's "N.B." is ignored. An open-stage scene change is made. Rigoletto does not even leave the set. Crushed by Monterone s curse, he sinks down on the palace floor-and then rises to converse with the street-corner assassin outside the house where he has installed his daughter. On the surface, it may sound like a clever idea. In that Times interview, Mr. Dexter described it thus:

  We can't stop the momentum [after the first scene]. What I want is this: After Monterone curses Rigoletto, the jester collapses in a heap on the floor, and
  the chorus rushes off, leaving him alone. Then this great, decaying Renaissance tower turns slowly, a giant silhouette in the darkness. Suddenly we're
  in front of Rigoletto's house. As he gets up with the curse still ringing in his ears, he bitterly wipes off his court jester's makeup, and the stage is set for his
  sinister meeting with the assassin Sparafucile. It should be very effective-if it works for the audience. You never can know.

It didn't work. And I think you can know that this is not the kind of effect that Verdi needs-not when he has specifically prescribed a curtain fall. The curtain not only masks the passage of hours. It gives Rigoletto time for a quick change into mufti. Verdi wrote of a change of costume, and Gilda has no idea what her father's profession is. At the Met, Rigoletto peels colored patches off his face at the start of the second scene, and he doffs his jester's tunic, bundling it into the gutter after the first phrase of his monologue "Pari siamo." It clearly divides Rigoletto's two lives-as a jester, jeering at other fathers' misfortunes, and as a tender, loving father. Mr. Dexter hath rid his prologue like a rough colt; he knows not the stop. All the same, better no punctuation than the once common full-length intermission after the twenty-minute introduction. That does stop the momentum.

Miss Moiseiwitsch has taken the trouble to provide, in Act II, the full length portraits of the Duke and his Duchess, flanking the entrance door, that are called for by the libretto- Monterone should address his bitter "Felice pur anco, o duca, vivrai" to the Duke's portrait, but Mr. Dexter stations him up on the top deck, whence he cannot see it. In Act III, Rigoletto, confronted with a body in a sack, identifies it by the spurs he can feel; but here neither the Duke in his soldier disguise nor Gilda in her riding outfit had been wearing spurs. Those are small points. Another small textual point is that the Duke's Act III order to Sparafucile is "Two things, at once. A room and some wine," whereas it later becomes evident that the inn has no rooms. I imagine that Victor Hugo's original line, "Deux chosen, sur-le-champ, ta soeur, et mon verse," was simply toned down for Venetian censorship. Larger points are the ludicrous handling of Gilda's abduction, which suggests village-hall theatricals, and the tableau at the very end, which dispels concern for Rigoletto amid a melodramatic lighting display.

I attended the second performance. At the first, the rehearsed Cornell MacNeil, was ill, and Sherrill Milnes stepped in. The lighting was absurd. In a bright, full blaze, Rigoletto remarked, during the second scene of Act I, "In such darkness one can see nothing"; in another, during Act III, he called for a light to see by. But the lighting designer, Gil Wechsler, was not responsible. Although this was a performance to a paying audience, it served also as a rehearsal for the television relay, and what Mr. Dexter described as the "soft Giorgionesque light" of his show had been sacrificed to the needs of the cameras. Since Mr. MacNeil had risen from a sickbed to sing it would be unkind to review his performance (though perhaps not unfair, for it was a public occasion and he had sent no messenger before the curtain to crave our indulgence). As heard over WQXR and seen over Channel 13, three days later, he was still uneven, and scarcely more interesting than in the past. Once again, there were good notes and evidence of serious thought and study, once again, there were passages-important ones, such as "Ah veglia, o donna," "Miei signori, perdono," "Piangi, fanciulla," and "Non morir - where the tone became dead and heavy and he failed to be moving He does not command the timbre of passionate tenderness. It was surprising, however, that so forceful an Amonasro should have brought so little ferocity to the utterance of "Cortigiani, vii razza dannata." Mr. Levine must take some of the blame: no boiling string attacks there but an almost light, rapid, and even accompaniment; and a bland cello line in "Miei signori. perdono."

Placido Domingo, a handsome Duke, sang a fast, stiff "Questa o quella," without the rhythmic and tonal inflections that provide the elegance Verdi asks for- His address to the Countess Ceprano was similarly unwinning. But when he reached "E il sol dell'anima," he and Mr. Levine became different people, adept at the unwritten rubato that gives life to the phrases, and responsive to the written dynamic marks, which range from ppp to ff and on through a further crescendo up to the climactic B-flat. The Act II aria was also sung with freedom and expression. Mr. Domingo reduced the cabaletta to a single verse, and it went unapplauded. "La donna è mobile" was hard and bright, rather than charming, but it had some bounce, and until the interpolated high B Mr. Domingo's voice stayed purely in focus. Earlier, his tone had sometimes been impure. In a talk transmitted during an intermission of the television performance, he owned to being taxed by both the high tessitura and the high spirits of the Duke, saying that he preferred, when on stage, to be a suffering character. The delicacy he also found difficult; he scamped the little notes-the turns in "E il sof " the passing notes up to "amore" and "tuoi" in the quartet. "La donna e mobile" was not improved by having its second verse sung at Maddalena or by the intrusion of an extra note, almost, consequent on Mr. Domingo's failure to elide "na" and "è." Verdi's portamento slurs between the third and fourth notes of the famous tune went unobserved, and this also destroyed some of its essential character. (The "e," in fact, gets taken up in the slur when it is properly made-) During the quartet, in the climb to the B-flat on "consolar" just before the reprise of "Bella figlia." Mr. Domingo produced four marvelous notes, generous, open, and free. which shone like the sun.

Ileana Cotrubas's Gilda was delicate, winning, and strong in its portrayal of a girl who, like Juliet, moves from innocence and unthinking obedience to passion. willfulness, and tragedy. She looked enchanting; that piquant face is made for mischief -- she is a born Susanna, Adina, Norina -but in distress it can become wonderfully touching. A few years ago, her Tatyana, sitting forlorn in the garden after Onegin's chilly response to the letter, was unforgettable; so were the expression of her Gilda as at the start of Act Ill she sang "lo l'amo.... Ma pur m'adora" and then "Ah padre mio" and her whole demeanor as she entered the inn to go to her death. Her first dress, described by Miss Moiseiwitch as "roughly sixteenth-century with strong leanings to the Victorian age," was voluminous and unbecoming; the others were better. She wore all of them well. She sang making much of the words, giving syllables their full value and joining them into eloquent lines. Her voice was limpid and beautiful, and surprisingly large in the climaxes of the "Si, vendetta" duet, the quartet, and the storm trio. It poured out effortlessly. Elsewhere there were some disturbing moments when its steadiness failed, when there was a small but noticeable beat accompanied by a slight flickering of the jaw; then the tone seemed to be pushed out instead of flowing naturally. She must beware of any temptation to force in the huge Met. Her voice is a rare and precious instrument.

Verdi said that Monterone should be entrusted to "the best baritone in the company"-by which he presumably meant the best house baritone, since he designated the role secondo baritone. Basses usually sing the part today, and at the Met John Cheek was not imposing enough. (I suppose some ingenious director has already thought of doubling a bass as Monterone and Sparafucile, to be twin manifestations of Rigoletto's nemesis.) Justino Diaz was a smooth and sinister Sparafucile, the more impressive in that he did not bluster. But Mr. Levine held the Sparaftucile-Rigoletto duet to so rapid and rigid a pace that it slipped by without making its full effect. (In performances by singers who were coached by Verdi himself, one hears that his metronome marks are only a starting point, not a straitjacket.) Isola Jones was a luscious and almost topless Maddalena-in appearance, not voice. The other roles, Verdi said, scarcely matter; among them, James Atherton's Borsa was animated, lively, and elegant-a Duke in the making, perhaps.

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