Some classic 19th-century operas lend themselves to time-bending better than others.
Take “Rigoletto,” for instance.
The era and setting of Giuseppe Verdi’s often-performed, exquisitely scored masterwork, centering on a court jester and the lecherous Italian nobleman he serves, have been reinvented boldly in recent times — most recently by Michael Mayer, in his much-publicized 2013 staging for the Metropolitan Opera. In that production, the story was transplanted to a Las Vegas casino during the Rat Pack era, and the ruthless Duke of Mantua became the Chairman of the Board — a Frank Sinatra stand-in.
And nearly a decade ago, in 2004, a successful “Rigoletto” at the Seattle Opera transported audiences to fascist Italy during the 1930s, as engineered by director Linda Brovsky. A remounting of the production (which has also been restaged in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) opens at McCaw Hall on Saturday.
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Paternal and romantic love, unbridled lust, coldblooded murder for hire and, above all, lethal social and individual power dynamics are at the core of Verdi’s 1851 work. These potent themes are also embedded in the controversial French play, “Le roi s’amuse” by Victor Hugo, which Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave freely adapted into “Rigoletto.”
The literal details of the melodramatic plot about the hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto, who loses his lovely young daughter Gilda to the count’s seduction, a kidnapping and finally an assassin’s knife, are somewhat far-fetched — particularly vis-à-vis the supernatural curse that triggers tragic events.
But Brovsky is one of the modern opera directors who has found a more immediate relevancy as well as a timelessness in the work.
“ ‘Rigoletto’ is really about the wealthy and the politically well-connected using their power in a very corrupt way, and also the sense of danger that exists when you allow horrendous abuses of power, money and influence,” says Brovsky.
“We are repeating this in our own time, when a small group of people can gain control because they’re the most vocal, outrageous and well-funded. With that you can shut down a government.”
But rather than move the opera to 21st-century America, Brovsky considers Italy during the reign of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini the ideal setting for her interpretation.
“I see Rigoletto as a major-domo in the entourage of a powerful Mussolini type. Rigoletto is kind of a head servant, like Carson from ‘Downton Abbey.’ He’s funny and amuses the duke, and he’s extremely smart. But when the duke is out of the room, he is really a marginalized member of society with no voice.”
The sexual ethos of 1930s Italy, suggests Brovsky, is also congruent with the travails of young Gilda. “Sex was a commodity there. It was used quite a bit, in terms of spying, and Mussolini had numerous mistresses who were very high-placed. They heard government secrets and could make deals.
“But regular Italian women of the middle and lower classes, they were sheltered and guarded within an inch of their lives — just like in Renaissance Italy. The black shirts, the bullying paramilitary force in Italy, could easily take your daughter. They’d have no compunction about taking her away and just using her.”
With its melodic riches (including the duke’s signature aria and the score’s most famous tune, “La donna è mobile”), and an action-filled, erotically charged scenario, “Rigoletto” was a smashing success following its premiere in Venice, at La Fenice Opera House. It has since been staged and performed countless times, and still ranks as one of the top 10 most-produced operas, according to Operabase, which tracks such data.
Though it is still often presented with an Italian Renaissance ambience, recent departures from that period have been most intriguing. Before Mayer’s Vegas take for the Met, Jonathan Miller transferred “Rigoletto” to a 1950s mobster milieu in New York’s Little Italy.
More curious was film director Doris Dörrie’s more recent mounting for the Bavarian State Opera, influenced by the work of primate researcher Jane Goodall and inspired by “Planet of the Apes.” Less bizarre: a Welsh National Opera production, in which Rigoletto was a political aide in the White House of President Kennedy.
Brovsky’s initial “Rigoletto” for Seattle Opera drew positive reviews, and was personally selected by Speight Jenkins for a spot in his final season as general manager. Seattle Times classical music critic Melinda Bargreen praised it in 2004 as a “concept production” that “works admirably, with a flamboyant theatricality and solid musical value.”
Brovsky says little has changed in the show, apart from the singers — which in the gold cast includes Marco Vratogna in the title role, Nadine Sierra as Gilda, and Francesco Demuro as the Duke of Mantua. “The production concept has proved quite durable, and usually casts love doing it,” remarks Brovsky. “The women get to slink around in fabulous, bias-cut ’30s gowns, and the men look hot and sexy instead of wearing those enormous [Renaissance] skirts. It’s much different to be a seducer who is wearing a tuxedo, smoking a cigarette and holding a martini glass.”
Brovsky hopes people who saw the original staging will return to check it out with a new cast, among them “several Italians who bring their own history to it, from the ways their parents and grandparents lived.”
But she also suggests that for a person new to opera, seeing this “Rigoletto” would be a good introduction to the art form. “It has a tight libretto, with no fluff. And the whole idea of being powerless, of political corruption, of a teenage girl facing hard choices — it’s something everyone understands.”
Verdi himself, notes Brovsky, wanted to set the piece in his own age, “but the Italian states were just recovering from the European revolutions, and anything that smacked of a liberal idea made the government afraid. Verdi was a man who really wanted to expose what was going on in his own society, but he couldn’t always do it.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org