The Met’s Las Vegas ‘Rigoletto’: on stage and on screen

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Whenever general manager Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera tries to breathe new life into old material it always stirs up the traditionalists in his audience.

The fact that he has reached out to film directors such as the late Anthony Minghella and Broadway veterans like Bartlett Sher to rethink has caused some critics to imply that he is pandering in order to draw in a new and younger audience.

The old guard in the audience doesn’t have to fill seats in the mammoth venue, but Gelb faces the same concerns of other performing arts leaders who have seen their patrons die off and age out of attending without sufficient numbers of younger newcomers replacing them.

A divided buzz has greeted the new production of “Rigoletto” directed by Michael Mayer, whose Broadway credits include “American Idiot,” “Spring Awakening” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Mayer has proven himself a master of being able to bring new stage life to pre-existing musical material — particularly in “American Idiot” — so choosing him to take a shot at “Rigoletto” seemed like great idea to me.

The director certainly opened himself up to charges of gimmicky when it was announced that he had moved Verdi’s 1851 classic to Las Vegas in the early 1960s, but the tale of the catastrophe that befalls the title character because of his over-protection of his daughter works like a charm in the new time and place.

With its hired killers and power struggles between criminal and political factions, “Rigoletto” doesn’t feel out of place in the mob-dominated Nevada of 50 years ago.

Whether or not you like Mayer’s concept, however, he has built the production on spectacular singing and acting by Diana Damrau as Rigoletto’s cloistered daughter, Gilda; Piotr Beczala as the sexually voracious “Duke”; and Zeljko Lucic as the tragically protective Rigoletto who is here transformed into a nightclub court jester (playing a role not dissimilar to the one comedian Joey Bishop did for Frank Sinatra and his cronies in the early 1960s).

Mayer and his brilliant set designer Christine Jones (who did the dazzling scenic work on “American Idiot”) announce their intentions in the garish opening scene set in a Vegas showroom (it brought back a terrible weekend I spent in the old school Vegas-tacky Riviera a decade ago).

The stage is filled with showgirls and gamblers and entertainers, but as soon as Mayer gets into the heart of the story and the stage pictures become more intimate, Verdi’s music and the fantastic performers dominate the action (so even if you hate the Vegas concept, you can put it in the back of your mind for the subsequent two-and-a-half hours).

You don’t have to go to New York City to judge Mayer’s concept for yourself. The Met Live in HD series will be broadcasting “Rigoletto” from Manhattan tomorrow at 1 p.m. at the hundreds venues around the country that participate, including several in Connecticut.

The current cast will do the opera again on Feb. 19 and 23 at the Met and then a new company will appear in a series of performances in April.

For complete HD transmission and live performance information, visit www.metoperafamily.org

Joe Meyers

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