Okay, usually I rant on about the idiocy of trying to re-stage classic operas and outdo the creative vision of the composer. This has been a particular gripe of mine regarding Wagner operas. On the other hand I would concede that it really does depend on the opera: if the particular location is of real significance, if the location is supposedly set 'outside of space and time', then it is pretty important to stick to the orignal script, so to speak. An opera based on a particularly significant historical event or period that tries to update for a modern audience by dressing up the characters as, for example nazis, is both patronizing to the audience in its assumption that they will have no understanding of the historical period originally conveyed by the opera, and it also serves to make a nonsense of the script (libretto) for the most part. A Wagner opera, on the other hand, that turns the Gods into mafiosi gangsters breaks our ability to suspend disbelief by placing our thoughts back into the real world. So, the point? you ask, well this Rigoletto production quite cuts with tradition and this has been cited as a fault by some. It is, however, an opera based on a less than successful play by Victor Hugo - Le Roi s'amuse. The play was cut after less than two full showings due to its unpopularity and it was only Verdi and Piave that resurrected widespread interest in the themes in the play. The opera was originally set in Paris as a means of portraying the hypocritical and malignant rule of the French leaders in power at the time but this was censored and ultimately modified via placing the characters in an effective fictional world - the state of Mantua. On this basis, we can say that the world being portrayed in this opera is not of great historical significance; it is certainly not as important as, for example, sticking to the script when adapting the English history plays of Shakespeare - modernizing Richard 2nd to transform the characters into modern day politicians being a particularly irritating example of patronizing the audience in the manner I mentioned above. I think that it is quite reasonable, therefore, to say that modernizing Rigoletto is artistically justified, at least if it is done in the right way. Again, it makes no sense to make the characters of Rigoletto mafia hitmen since this conflicts with out ability to suspend disbelief. On the other hand if the world is set, as in this production, in a somewhat nebulous domain, then we can focus rather on the situation as opposed to the place. This is what makes this production of Rigoletto seem credible to me. Furthermore, McVicar - as he points out in the documentary that accompanies the dvd of this production - has adapted this production to make it more shocking, in essence to manifest in a watching audience a sense of shock and horror in our desensitized age that might be comparable to that of the more polite epoch that was apparent in Verdi's day. I think this is quite legitimate although it is arguable as to the extent to which such a precise effect can be re-created by focusing on so narrow a dimension as 'shock value'. Nevertheless, the sense of Rigoletto's isolation and distress seemed more acute to me that in any other production I have seen precisely because the production and staging is so gritty and raw: in a word 'modern'. As McVicar mentions, the sweet music outer layer of 'Rigoletto' is neatly juxtaposed by the sinister psychological interior of the court aptly reflecting the central theme of the opera of the reality of exterior beauty often belying or perhaps concealing inner ugliness while outward ugliness may conceal depth and splendour. I have seen a criticism of this production that the explicit opening scene serves to unravel the inner ugliness of the state and of the Duke all at once rather than allowing it to be gradually unpealed over the course of the opera. Perhaps this is a just criticism although I would suggest that making the brutality of the state immediately apparent helps us understand Rigoletto as a being who must play evil at the court in order to be accepted and survive and that only outside the court - the next scene - do we see that ultimately he has that within which passes show, his suit of woe being alleviated only in the presence of his daughter Gilda. This is all perfectly consistent with the vision that McVicar has of the opera and I think that it comes over more clearly here than in other productions I have seen.
Some other points regarding actual performances in this production. Paolo Gavanelli is truly outstanding! As good an acting-singing performance as you can get I think. Not only does he throw everything into his acting that he really does look genuinely upset at the end of the opera, but he sings Rigoletto with a sort of refined beauty. Rigoletto is often sung overly harshly but Gavanelli maintains the harshness of Rigoletto - the exterior ugliness - while allowing for moments of beauty to break out from within when he sings of his dead wife in the 'Dei non parlar di misero' piece and in other moments with Gilda. This really does add extra dimensionality to Rigoletto and again I think is consistent with the overall vision of the work as put forth by McVicar. Other performances are not as strong by comparison: I am not overly keen on Schaefer as Gilda whose voice lacks sweetness during Gilda's 'innocent stage' but she has the strength to be heard clearly during the important quartet 'bella figlia del amore' which actually serves all the singers well; Alvarez as the Duke is good but I had hoped for more - the power of the voice is there but he just doesn't seem to be on top form - he certainly lacks the clarity of tone that, for example, Domingo has in the Levine/New York Met dvd production.
Still, it is Gavanelli and McVicar's production that are really key to this production and make it an essential purchase. These are two artists that between them produce, I think, a really important updated interpretation of Rigoletto that resonates with meaning in the modern world.