The abuse of power, a theme that lies at the heart of Verdi’s Rigoletto, is unfortunately and uncomfortably relevant in every period of human history. In Bartlett Sher’s new Met staging, opening on New Year’s Eve, the director has moved the action to Germany during the Weimar Republic, a time and place in which he finds many parallels with the opera’s corrupt court of Mantua—and with the world we live in today. By Gavin Plumley
In March 1851, Verdi’s Rigoletto wowed an unsuspecting crowd at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. The surprise was twofold. Not only was the composer following one of his worst flops, Stiffelio, but he was also adapting a highly controversial text: Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’Amuse, which had been banned far and wide for its combination of brutal violence and biting criticism of the ruling class. Successfully dodging the local censors’ worst demands, Rigoletto, a fast-paced thriller in which Verdi freed himself from the formal shackles of his predecessors and which features some of his most beautiful and compelling music, was a triumph.
Exactly 170 years on, Tony Award–winning director Bartlett Sher’s new production—his ninth at the Met— rekindles the moving and often shocking power of this breakthrough masterpiece by exploring the dark drama with cinematic sweep and an unflinching gaze. Adding to the sense of occasion is the long-awaited Met role debut of baritone Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto, a portrayal hailed elsewhere as “glamorous and persuasive” (The New York Times), “with a voice rich and secure from bottom to top ... incomparable” (The Guardian).
For Sher, Rigoletto represents “a skewering of the structure of power.” The politically incisive Hugo set his play in 16th-century France, though its story was equally intriguing to Verdi, an avid supporter of the Risorgimento, when the various states on the Italian peninsula sought independence from occupying powers and unity under one flag. And since the pursuit—and abuse—of power depicted in the opera is a perennial force, it remains intriguing a century and a half later.
Sher’s production began life in Germany in the summer of 2019, when it premiered at the Staatsoper Berlin, right in the heart of that seismically historic city. But the staging’s origins also lie in that country in another way: Sher has moved the opera’s action to the Germany of the illfated Weimar Republic, a vibrant yet troubled era following the First World War that was marked by furious political ferment and the boiling resentment of the defeated, and which ended in the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933. Sher explains that his choice of setting was suggested by what he calls the “pre-fascist conditions” on display in Rigoletto, as well as its contemporary resonance. The director sees the Duke of Mantua—sung this season by tenor Piotr Beczała, acclaimed for his previous Met performances of the role—as an autocratic, controlling figure. “He abuses his power and marshals force to act without any restrictions,” the director says. “It’s not meant to have a direct relationship to now, but it does feel like a situation where you’re teetering on whether democracy, or just a kind of honest leadership, is in power versus one which is corrupt.”
Aside from the era’s political turmoil, the Weimar Republic was also characterized by decadent parties and the sound of manic laughter, not unlike the jester Rigoletto himself. It was a time when the arts flourished, with the paintings of George Grosz, the legs of Marlene Dietrich, and the caustic dramas of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, as well as the newly emergent art form of cinema. Ironically, moviemaking thrived in Germany thanks to post-war hyperinflation; impeding the import of foreign movies, it fostered a native culture.
Placing Rigoletto in such a period, a sense of the silver screen emerges naturally, linked to so many of the era’s own films by the disparity between rich and poor. At one end, with the Duke, life is glamorous, perhaps too much so; at the other, there is marked poverty. “So you have a contrast between the two worlds,” says Sher, who describes that juxtaposition as “the muscle of the piece.” With his design team, including set designer Michael Yeargan and costume designer Catherine Zuber, he set out to create a stage vision that shifts seamlessly between those two poles of society. “The two worlds move, revolve, come and go, with a cinematic quality” Sher says. Since the production’s premiere in Berlin, the team has expanded the staging’s conception “to match the height and power of the Met,” where it opens on New Year’s Eve, conducted by Daniele Rustioni.
But the production’s attachment to film also reflects more recent events. During the pandemic, Sher, like many theater professionals, was forced to turn away from his most immediate métier. Instead, he adapted J.T. Rogers’s 2017 hit Broadway play Oslo—which he also directed—as a feature film for HBO. He says his work in the film medium, with its subtlety and close-ups, is now transferring into his approach to Verdi. “Suddenly, you’re in a dark street and Rigoletto’s face in his role as the jester drops, and you see the other parts of who he is as a human being,” Sher says, explaining that such small, understated touches can have great significance.
Working for the Duke, Rigoletto is forced to align himself with the culture around him and its warped moral code, but, as Sher points out, “he’s still a human being.” Verdi himself described the character as “grossly deformed and absurd, but inwardly passionate and full of love.” And indeed, it is Rigoletto’s egregious betrayal of his own human decency when he cruelly laughs at Monterone—whose daughter has been raped by the Duke—that triggers the tragic repercussions in his own life over the course of the opera, as he eventually suffers exactly the same pain. The complexity of the character and its wide range of intense emotions, from cruel mockery to white-hot rage to heart-melting despair, make the title role one of the pinnacles of the baritone repertory.
In Sher’s staging, as the turntable revolves and the stage images snap like a camera shutter, the core of the drama becomes how, and for how long, Rigoletto can maintain his façade. And what happens when the two sides of his world collide, when his decadent, depraved courtly life invades the innocence and simplicity of his home life, and the thing he most cherishes, his sheltered daughter Gilda—sung by soprano Rosa Feola—is suddenly up for grabs? The joke becomes terrifying reality.
For Sher, forming his interpretation of an opera is the result of a deep analysis of the text, both in itself and by listening to countless performances. “What happens in opera,” he says, “is a relationship between musical structure and dramatic structure—how the music releases something deep in the intention of the story.” For Verdi, the tale of Rigoletto demanded pace and a specific sound-world. Disposing of long-established conventions, such as entrance arias and grand ensembles, he favored a more realistic dramaturgy and underlined the feeling of toxic masculinity through the use of an all-male chorus of courtiers, who provide the musical backdrop for the Duke’s machinations. He also captures the false veneer of nobility that hides the rottenness within the Duke by giving him beautiful music to sing, but setting it grotesquely against the brutality of the world he has created—as when the returns of his all-too-catchy aria “La donna è mobile” haunt the violent and tragic events of Act III.
To Verdi and Victor Hugo, living in their own changing worlds, the Duke’s brazen sense of entitlement was deeply problematic, requiring intense scrutiny. The move to Weimar Germany in Sher’s new production adds another layer to the work’s significance. “If I’ve achieved anything,” the director says, “the audience should be able to see the decadence in the world we’ve made on stage and apply it to dangers in their own life.” Indeed, the resonance, the shock, of Verdi’s masterpiece endures because, as with Rigoletto himself, the questions are not just about an individual. They also point to the revolving and often revolting world in which we live.
Gavin Plumley is a freelance writer and broadcaster on music.