‘‘Rigoletto’’ has long been portable. Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave maintained a French setting when they adapted the Victor Hugo play ‘‘Le roi s'amuse (The King Amuses Himself),’’ about a licentious King Francis I, his rape of the young girl, Blanche, and the quest for revenge by her father, the court jester, Triboulet.
Some perceived it as criticism of the reigning king, Louis-Philippe I; the morning after Hugo’s play opened at Paris’ Comedie-Francaise on Nov. 22, 1832, the French government imposed a ban that lasted a half-century.
When the Austrian government ruling Venice refused to give Verdi permission to stage what the composer then called ‘‘La Maledizione (The Curse)’’ for the 1851 carnival season at Teatro La Fenice, negotiations led to the plot being kept and the names and location changing.
Francesco — the Italianized version of the king — transformed into the Duke, Bianca was changed to Gilda and the jester was adjusted from Triboletto to Rigoletto after ‘‘Rigoletti ou le dernier des fous (Rigoletti, or the last of the fools),’’ a parody of Hugo’s play. Renamed ‘‘Rigoletto,’’ the opera opened on March 11, 1851, to reviews praising the music and deploring the subject.
British director Jonathan Miller famously reinvented ‘‘Rigoletto’’ for his 1982 staging at the English National Opera, moving it to Little Italy in the 1950s. Inspired by ‘‘The Godfather’’ movies and the film ‘‘Some Like it Hot,’’ Miller turned the Duke into a mafia boss and Rigoletto into a waiter at a mob hangout. His decision sparked protests when the production toured the U.S. in 1984, which included a stop at the Met.
‘‘I know perfectly well there are those killjoys whom orthodoxy, or what they like to call orthodoxy, invariably takes precedence over pleasure,’’ Miller said in the introduction to the video, available on Kultur. ‘‘I think you'll agree that doing the opera this way renews and somehow revitalizes the work.’’
Elijah Moshinsky’s 1991 production for Opera Australia was inspired by the immoral Rome of Fellini’s 1960 film, ‘‘La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life),’’ and Bruce Beresford’s 2000 Armani-costumed staging for the Los Angeles Opera switched the tenor into Duke Mantua, a Hollywood producer with Rigoletto as his agent.
James McDonald’s 2002 Welsh National Opera production transferred the action to the 1960s Kennedy White House. Then came Doris Doerrie’s 2005 production for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Germany. Gilda was Princess Leia, stuck with a Rigoletto akin to Charlton Heston in ‘‘The Planet of the Apes.’’
Damrau was Gilda when that production opened and Beczala the Duke during its 2007 revival. Damrau said the audience was distracted trying ‘‘to figure out which character came from which science-fiction movie,’’ calling it ‘‘really unnecessary.’’
Gelb attended a Munich rehearsal and took a swipe, saying in his January program note: ‘‘I am no more interested in watching the Duke in an ape suit ... than the next member of the Met audience.’’ Beczala, however, said ‘‘the proportions between characters are there. It’s not really something completely stupid.’’
‘‘I took the libretto literally: what Rigoletto says about the Duke, the Duke is like an animal. Lovers of your teenage daughter usually are,’’ Doerrie said in a telephone interview from Germany. ‘‘I was quite surprised about the reaction at the premiere, because people were throwing bananas at me and there was literally howling — they turned into literally animals.’’
Mayer’s excitement about his version has filtered down to the cast. Whether the audience likes it, that’s another matter.
‘‘I'm not looking forward to the boos, but I'm not worried about it,’’ the 52-year-old American said. ‘‘If they’re going to boo me, that’s how it goes.’’