The MET gambles on Las Vegas

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Željko Lucic stars as the title character in the Metropolitan Opera’s Las Vegas version of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” during a rehearsal in New York City.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

Don Juan’s back, and he will be holding court in Las Vegas on Saturday.

That’s the way the Metropolitan Opera sees it in a new production of “Rigoletto,” conceived by the sinister imagination of Michael Mayer.

Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” could have been titled “Don Giovanni,” but that was taken. Still, at the center of this tragedy there is a handsome, womanizing lech who brags about seducing the wives, daughters and cousins of pitiable male acquaintances, all in the name of sport.

In the Verdi/Francesco Maria Piave version of the tale, the Duke of Mantua plays the Don Juan role. Verdi’s opera, however, is named after the Duke’s court jester, the hunchback Rigoletto. To say he is complicit in the Duke’s corrupt behavior is an understatement.

But that’s back-story, as they say, and it is worth looking into.

In 1850, at the height of his career, Verdi cast about for a new subject to meet a commission from La Fenice, the famous Venetian opera house. Verdi more or less stumbled upon a play by Victor Hugo about male privilege: “Le roi s’amusé,” or “The King’s Amusement.”

Verdi’s librettist, Piave, liked the play, and the two worked on an opera they first titled “La Maledizione,” or “The Curse.” It became one of three versions that finally passed the censors and gained international fame as “Rigoletto.”

The opera closely follows Hugo’s 1832 play, which centers on the corrupt court of Francis I, the 16th century king of France. Known for his womanizing and general misuse of power, Francis I was the Don Juan character Hugo mocked as a stand-in for his own dissolute king, Louis-Philippe.

The play’s jester, a sardonic hunchback named Triboulet, is an enabler, luring the king into naughty schemes and sexual exploits. But Triboulet has a daughter, Blanche, whom he sequesters from the evil world he inhabits and shapes.

It’s only a matter of time before Francis I discovers and seduces Blanche. In a fury, Triboulet plots to murder the king, but the plan goes amiss. Instead, Blanche is killed, and Hugo’s play ends as the grieving father slumps over his daughter’s body knowing he was complicit. Powerful stuff.

Because Hugo’s tragedy barely disguised disdain for his own ruler, the playwright immediately ran into trouble. After one performance, the censors shut down the play and the ban lasted for 50 years.

Oddly, Verdi’s operatic version of Hugo’s play opened in France not long after its triumph in Italy. “Rigoletto” ran for more than 100 performances in Paris – during the ban on Hugo’s play – same story, different artistic form.

Verdi and Piave faced the censors, too. Amid the Risorgimento, the 19th-century Italian movement against tyrannical foreign rule, an opera about a corrupt king didn’t sit well. It was seen as subversive – general disrespect for authority not to mention rape and attempted regicide.

That’s why Verdi/Piave changed “The Curse” to “Il Duca di Vendôme,” then changed the French setting to a 16th-century Italian duchy, and invented new names for all the characters. Triboulet became Rigoletto, and so forth.

The opera finally passed the censors and opened on March 11, 1851. A huge success, it played all over Europe including, ironically, France.

It’s known that Hugo saw a performance of “Rigoletto” in Paris. Irritated that his play was still banned in 1882, the great French writer apparently said he admired Verdi’s opera.

And now the Metropolitan will stage yet another version of “Rigoletto,” transposing time and place to America’s sin city in 2013, Las Vegas.

Don Juan, aka the Duke of Mantua, couldn’t find a better home for his gambling and philandering.

jreynolds@durangoherald.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

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