11/12/2013 06:40 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Met Opera: "Rigoletto" Returns to Las Vegas With Hvorostovsky

The Metropolitan Opera doubled its bet on its Las Vegas Rigoletto, returning the hottest production of last season to the stage as a vehicle for a pair of debuts and a chance for Met audiences to hear Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role for the first time.

Michael Mayer's transformation of Verdi's tragic opera from the ducal palace in Mantua, circa 1600, to a Las Vegas casino, circa 1960, is no less spectacular (or eye-rolling, depending on one's tolerance for the unorthodox) than when it premiered in January.

But now, as then, once one adjusts to the myriad flashing neon signs in the opening act, including a bare-bottomed stripper and a bubbling champagne glass, the music of one of Verdi's most popular operas takes over and the rest of the production begins to follow a certain logic. That first act, however, is quite a scene.

Apart from the cheesy bar and gambling tables, the entire chorus -- women in fishnet stockings and men in loud, patterned dinner jackets -- looks like a casting call for the old TV comedy show Laugh-In. The opening arias are delivered like they are part of an open-mike night at a seedy club, and the Countess Ceprano could be a model for Warhol's portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Monterone has morphed into an Arab sheikh.

Rigoletto himself is almost lost in the crowd. Sporting a comb-over that makes him look like Don Rickles on a bad night and wearing a large checkered cardigan amid all the green, gold, and maroon evening attire, he could be a down-on-his-luck gambler looking for the quarter slots. But if 1960's Vegas is something less than inspiring for some opera buffs, the cast the Met has put together for this revival makes up for it.

Hvorostovsky, singing his first Rigoletto at the Met, brings all the hostility of the cursed court jester as well as the anguish of a betrayed father to the role. A fine actor as well as a commanding baritone with extraordinary breath control, his "Cortigiani, vil razza dannato" is one of the revival's highlights, and his duets with Irini Lungu are tender and moving.

Lungu, a Russian soprano making her Met debut as Gilda, has a lovely lyrical voice that effortlessly soared into the upper register. Her "Caro nome" was crystalline, pure and fresh, and filled with schoolgirl innocence. Lungu will alternate the role with Sonya Yoncheva, another Russian soprano also making her Met debut, starting Nov. 21.

Matthew Polenzani, the stalwart Met tenor from Illinois, delivers a solid performance as the cocaine-snorting Duke (remember it's the 1960's), though the very top of the high notes were slightly strained.

The Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, also making his Met debut in the pit, led the always-splendid Met orchestra, often at a breakneck tempo that occasionally got ahead of his singers. Stefan Kocan, the impressive Slovakian bass, and Oksana Volkova, the sultry Belarus mezzo, ably reprised their roles as the assassin Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena from the original staging in January.

The question remains whether Met audiences will embrace its new production once the novelty of Mayer's staging has worn off. Rigoletto is a perennial favorite among opera lovers, and the house for the first performance of the season was respectable but not a sellout. If future revivals continue to draw crowds, then Viva, Las Vegas. If not, the Met may have to return to Mantua.