01/29/2013 02:30 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Met Opera: The Met Rolls The Dice With A 'Rigoletto' Set In Las Vegas

If the fleshpots of Las Vegas remind you of the ducal palace in Mantua, or vice versa, then the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Rigoletto was made for you. If not, there is always the emotive music of one of Verdi's most beloved operas in a daring and controversial staging the merits of which are certain to be hotly debated.

In his effort to hoist opera out of its traditional settings and propel it into the 21st century, Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, has turned to directors from stage, screen, and even TV to create productions that will shock and hopefully awe contemporary audiences. The Met's new Rigoletto definitely scores on the first part.

Opera lovers around the world will get a chance to see what the fuss is all about and decide for themselves on Feb. 16 when the Met's Live in HD series offers its Las Vegas Rigoletto in a simulcast to some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries.

The new staging by Michael Mayer, a Tony Award-winner on Broadway, and his design team draws gasps as soon as the curtain rises. The setting has moved from the Duke's palace in Mantua during the Renaissance to the Duke's casino in Las Vegas, circa 1960. On the last chord of the overture the entire stage explodes in a flash of neon light, gaudy signs blinking on and off like the entire Vegas Strip crammed into one room.

The courtiers and ladies of old Mantua are now crap shooters and call girls. The men are all in green, gold, or maroon brocade dinner jackets of the sort boys wore to high school proms in the 1950's. The women are in net stockings and skimpy chorus-girl outfits. When the Duke breaks into "Questo o quello," he is surrounded by chorines waving huge feather fans in his face. One hardly notices him. Rigoletto, minus his humpback, has morphed from court jester into the casino's stand-up comic, and Monterone has transformed into an Arab sheik.

The surprises don't end with the sets and costumes. A new translation for Met Titles provides a comic book version of 1960's jargon for the Italian libretto. As the Duke makes his move on Count Ceprano's wife, she retorts, "Take it easy, fella." Sparafucile approaches Rigoletto with a "Hey, pal." And when Rigoletto begins his famous aria "Cortigiani, vil razza dannato," it becomes "You and your pals are a lousy pack of rats."

At a certain point, one's initial resistance to such excesses fades and there is a sense that the production is working in spite of itself. Verdi's opera exposes a culture dominated by sex, greed, and violence, and Las Vegas represents the epitome of just such a culture in our present time.

And once the shock wears off, the opera itself returns to center stage. The second scene of the first act and most of the second act are sung downstage with the sets behind darkened. For those who go to opera mainly for the singing, perhaps the best news about the new production is the presence of the sublime Diana Damrau as Gilda and Zeljko Lucic in the title role.

Damrau's Gilda is a portrait of a young girl so infatuated with a boy she just met at church that she might write his name over and over in her schoolbook. Her delicate phrasing in "Caro nome" stamps a personal imprint on that famous aria. Her vibrato is like ice cubes falling into a glass in the Duke's casino, and she tosses her high notes into the air as though they were feathers in that fan dance.

Lucic is a study of the worried parent, pensive in "Pari siamo" and pitiable in "Cortigiani, vil razza dannato," and the conductor Michele Mariotti slows the tempo a notch for dramatic effect. The duets between Lucic and Damrau are achingly tender. Piotr Beczala is mostly effective as the Duke, though he is a bit shaky in some passages, and Stefan Kocan's deep basso is suitably frightening as Sparafucile.

Mayer saves one more jolt for the third act, turning Sparafucile's den into a strip joint with a topless pole dancer slithering onstage as the curtain comes up. There is also a vintage Cadillac with huge tail fins at one side and Gilda, of course, ends up singing her final notes hanging out of the trunk of the car.