Just when we thought we’d heard the last on the vastly overplayed theme of whether or not Peter Brook had destroyed Carmen, the English National Opera appeared in Los Angeles, Austin, New Orleans and New York with Jonathan Miller’s production of Rigoletto. Opera aficionados had raged at Brook’s rearrangement of text and, most of all, of Bizet’s glorious music. Now Italian Americans were protesting Miller’s transfer of Verdi’s tragedy from a rather generalized Italian dukedom in the purple velvet past (his librettist Francesco Maria Piave called it Mantua in the 16th century) to a Mafia hangout in New York during the 1950s. The cry from organizations founded to cry about such things was against a perceived defamation of national character, which might lead people to believe that all Italians are gangsters. A far fainter chorus of opera conservatives feared that the transposition trivialized a great masterpiece of irony and passion. A basic issue in the case of both productions is who “owns” the original and what may be done with, or to, it—in the case of Carmen artistically, in that of Rigoletto politically.
That the flap over Carmen was a matter of artistic turf has been often pointed out. While the proprietors of opera decried the mauling of a classic, the theatre faction celebrated the liberated energy of a great piece of drama. It is revelatory that Donal Henahan, music critic for The New York Times, hated the Brook production but gave grudging approval to the Rigoletto. He pronounced it “still Verdi,” though he loathed it when the Duke put a nickel in a jukebox and out came “la donna è mobile.” By remaining Verdi, it remained opera, he seemed to say; but Carmen was no longer Bizet or anything else worthwhile.
Theatre people could smile patronizingly at this critical horn-locking. Brook, after all, had “liberated” a new classic, which still sounded more or less like an old one, right into their fold. He had also restored to them a new old theatre—the Vivian Beaumont. It was nice, too, to hear Rigoletto discussed as musical theatre instead of just an excuse for voices to congregate. But, if the works in question had been strictly theatre property—if Hedda Gabler, say, had been distilled and reconstructed, or King Lear reset as the “Little Italy story”—then the indulgent smiles could quickly fade.
Rigoletto has been a part of the standard repertory for so long that it has become all but paved-over by its own history and popularity. What Miller chose to do to and with it is instructive both to those who support and practice reinterpretation and those whose knees jerk in protest at the very mention of the word. Before beginning the discussion, let me point out that the production is by no means the radical reinvention Brook’s was. The score is absolutely intact, the plot unchanged. Only a few external points have been stretched in order to update and relocate. The mostly conservative opera public can enjoy it in good conscience as Rigoletto. The even more conservative critics can tolerate it; Henahan can still recognize it as the composer’s legitimate, though slightly eccentric, offspring.
As director, Miller has done what any good critic should do. To steal a quote from John Guare, he doesn’t say what the work is, he asks what it is. When confronted with any sort of adaptation of a classic—indeed, of any play whose author happens to be inviolably old, venerably foreign or infallibly dead—the critic, reviewer or just interested bystander often assumes the real or imagined mantle of an expert able to hand down prescriptions about what the work means or what the original production was like. This procedure is almost always to the detriment of the interloping adapter. Miller seems to know that to return to the original is to go back to an unruly collection of contradictory data that reveals no absolutes. This data may be tremendously useful both to director and critic—but an even more difficult, yet creatively energizing, research is to try to reimagine the flux of uncertainty, of artistic, social and political forces that surrounded the making of the original and to translate something of that immediate and unruly energy for the contemporary audience.
Resetting is part of the history of Rigoletto. Its source, Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse, had to be relocated and revised several times just to become an opera. The play lasted one performance when it premiered in Paris in 1832. It opened only a few days after an assassination attempt on Louis Philippe and was closed by the censors who considered its unrelenting picture of a debauched French king (Francis I) and corrupt court too inflammatory. When Verdi chose to adapt it to fulfill an 1851 commission for Venice’s La Fenice, it was another tumultuous time. Ironically for latterday Italian anti-defamation societies, to become acceptable the opera’s setting had to be changed from royal France to provincial Italy (the seat of vice for more than one author, most notably Verdi’s beloved Shakespeare). Even after its great success in Venice, it had to go under the pseudonyms of Viscardello in Bologna and Rome, and Clara di Perth, allegedly from a trumped up novel by Sir Walter Scott, in Naples (no word from the Scottish anti-defamation league).
When Miller changed the setting to New York, he surely had no political reasons and was probably surprised when he was given some by one of this country’s strongest ethnic voices. He was attempting to invest the work with new aesthetic immediacy and specificity by making its circumstances more accessible. Like Verdi, he realized that the story, mythic in its depiction of innocence, evil and revenge, could withstand almost any change. To accomplish his aim, he drew from another great medium, one perhaps even more popular than opera was in Verdi’s day and equally capable of depicting the struggle of good and bad. That medium is the movies.
From the moment the curtain rises on the wood paneling and frosted glass of the bar designed by Patrick Robertson and Rosemary Vercoe, from the moment we see the large chorus of “types”—the men in their sharkskin suits, the women with their balloon coiffures, all clutching their highballs, making a tremendous din of conversation under a gray nicotine cloud—we know where we are. The Godfather is not directly quoted, the dialogue in James Fenton’s fluid translation is not in Cagney or Robinson dialect, but the ambiance is all there. Film noir becomes opera noir and the moral landscape is as apparent as the visual one: corruption floats like the cigarette smoke, breathed in by everyone, making them accomplices, willing or not, to whatever violence is necessary to survive.
To update a work is not so much to bring it into the present, as to bring the present into some kind of dynamic relationship with the past that the work represents. It is both our familiarity with Miller’s new setting for Rigoletto, fed by years of watching movies and television, and the strangeness of this well-known terrain applied to a classic that pull us closer to the production. Even the incongruities, such as the much-commented-upon jukebox scene, at once throw us out of the scene with a bit of hilarity which frankly does not belong and draw us in to listen more closely. The effect is, in a broad sense, Brechtian, inviting us to savor with renewed attention the abundant ironies of sections of the work that have become rote with familiarity.
The other major influence on this production comes from another great popular tradition. Verdi’s adoration of the works of Shakespeare is axiomatic. His version of Macbeth, done early in his career, and Otello and Falstaff, his two sublime final works, are monuments to this deep love. It was always his plan to do a King Lear also, but because he, like his English master, worked for specific theatres and specific performers, he never found the right circumstances to make his dream come true. Thoughts of the distraught old king come naturally when watching that superb singer John Rawnsley go from concealed dread to insane rage to pitiful pleading as he searches for his abducted daughter in Act II of the opera, or when we grieve with him as he holds his brutally, senselessly murdered child in the final scene. Somehow—perhaps because in English translation one can experience the humor, pathos and unbearable irony of the piece more immediately, or perhaps because Shakespeare naturally seeps out of Miller’s pores—the director tapped the Shakespearean roots of the work. Curiously, it took a “modernized” version to make me realize that Rigoletto is Verdi’s Lear. Not only are the themes the same—evil and innocence, the corruption of power, man unaccomodated in a careless universe—the vitality and scope with which they are presented is the same as well.
Two postscripts: Miller, and Brook before him, have shown us afresh the theatre that is in all opera—a blinding glimpse of the obvious which may be reinforced at two theatres in coming months. The New York Shakespeare Festival will present a version of Puccini’s La Boheme this season and New Haven’s Long Wharf will be tackling Benjamin Britten’s rarely seen chamber work Albert Herring. It would be unconscionable, finally, to discuss a production of the English National Opera and neglect mentioning the fresh, detailed ensemble work of the chorus. They are disciplined actors all, not the ambling cliches we’ve become used to. If American theatres need further evidence of the virtues of the permanent company, here it is.
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