NEW YORK -- The Metropolitan Opera is putting the ring-a-ding-ding in “Rigoletto.”
Since its premiere in 1851, Verdi’s opera set in 16th century Mantua has been updated to countless locales, from Victorian England to the Planet of the Apes; but this week when the curtain rises on “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera, the action will take place in a Las Vegas casino circa 1960 under the guidance of stage director Michael Mayer. (The opera will screen in movie theaters nationwide on Feb. 16.)
While the Met has only recently taken to these types of directorial concepts, Los Angeles Opera audiences are no strangers to old world operas transplanted to newer, Western settings. Thirteen years ago, Bruce Beresford, the Australian director of the films “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Double Jeopardy,” set “Rigoletto” in 1990s Hollywood, with Rigoletto as a talent agent in an Armani suit.
“Rigoletto has so much emotion that is so accessible,” says Beresford, who’s in Los Angeles directing a new version of “Bonnie and Clyde” for television, “you can easily put it in another setting, and it will usually work well.”
Indeed, the “Rigoletto” directed by Jonathan Miller for English National Opera in 1982, which moved the action to New York’s mafia-run Little Italy, helped bring the practice of updating operas into the mainstream during the 1980s.
Reached by phone in London, Miller says updating an opera is natural given that so few operas take place in the time they are written: “Operas from the 19th century were backdated to time periods of which the composer or librettist often knew nothing.”
For Miller, who was a doctor before becoming a director, updating an opera can make it better but only “if you are very discriminating and cautious to find ‘homology,’ a scientific term meaning ‘a particular deep similarity.’”
When asked why what happened in Mantua didn’t stay in Mantua, Mayer (who’s making his operatic debut) replies: “Las Vegas seemed like a perfect contemporary equivalent to the decadent world of the Duke of Mantua in the original conception of the opera.”
At the Met, the title role of the hunchback court jester is now a gruff Vegas comedian and the libertine Duke of Mantua is now a Sinatra-like headliner.
For this production, Mayer is working with many of his past collaborators from Broadway (“Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot”), including Tony-winning set designer Christine Jones. For her, the trick has not just been to create an atmosphere (what she calls “a hallucination of Vegas.…A sea of neon, a cacophony of neon”) but also using the milieu to show the timelessness of the drama.
“The end now takes place outside of Vegas at a sex club, so when they talk about getting rid of the body in the libretto, they throw the body in the back of the car, not in the river,” she explains, “It may seem odd to have a car in Rigoletto, but that’s what a hit man would do in the 1960s.”
Steering clear of Miller’s well-known production, she admits, has also been a challenge. “With Monterone, the first instinct is to make him a mafia boss, but that’s territory that’s been explored,” says Jones. “Michael researched the period, and it turns out that’s when Arab money starting coming to Vegas. So instead Monterone is a Saudi prince.”
Zeljko Lucic, the baritone who’s playing Rigoletto (a role he sang at the Hollywood Bowl last summer) grew up in communist Yugoslavia and knew very little about the capitalist playland that is Vegas; but he says that when Michael Mayer used the word “Rat Pack,” “I knew that that meant guys with cigarettes, drinking whiskey, with ladies around.”
The test of how far Vegas’ cocktail culture has spread around the world will be when “Rigoletto” is broadcast to cinemas in 64 countries.
“The director told me I was ‘somebody.’ His name was Runnicles? Or Barnacles? Something like that,” Lucic recounts, trying to identify his character’s real-life equivalent. “Don Rickles! That’s who it is. I didn’t know him. ‘Very funny guy,’ Michael told me, ‘but very mean.’ OK, I say, ‘Sounds like Rigoletto to me.’”