Updating - a critical issue facing opera today

When Jonathan Miller's updated production of Verdi's ''Rigobetto'' opened at the English National Opera in London in 1982, it made worldwide news for its switching of locale from 16th-century Mantua to New York's Little Italy in the early '50s.

The evening has been heralded as a bold rethinking of this opera and of opera production style in general. It was shown for the first time in New York last Wednesday when the English National Opera made its New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera House. It told a good deal about how sturdy production values are in London and how standard in essence even an updated ''Rigoletto'' can be.

The question of updating is one of the critical issues in opera today. In Germany, everything is relocated as a matter of course. In the past few years, ''Norma'' has taken place in a Polish concentration camp, ''Madama Butterfly'' has been pushed into a time slot just before the bomb was dropped, and Wagner's ''Ring'' has been moved to outer space. In most cases, the updating is utterly gratuitous, done to create sensations, not to elucidate the work in question.

Mr. Miller's ''Rigoletto'' can hardly be dismissed as something done to garner headlines. There is a good deal in this production that is serious and interesting, though rarely startling. But ultimately, the updating trivializes the characters because the real reasons they behave the way they dohave little to do with the power struggle, class warfare, and other social issues so dear to Verdi. When a bartender tries to have his boss assassinated, the scene lacks the poltico-social danger of a jester trying to do in a powerful duke.

Miller has not given us sufficient details in his setup to make us believe that Rigoletto could fear a curse from a man soon to be eliminated for offending the duke. In this world of thugs and gangsters, there is little social diversity to animate these people. When Rigoletto is supposed to grovel to his enemies and beg for his kidnapped daughter, there is no real sense of a proud man debasing himself. And while his daughter is dying of a stab wound, Rigoletto is merely distressed, with no sense that his ghastly plot has destroyed the one thing he really cares about in life.

Understanding what was being sung was an additionalproblem. At least the Rigoletto, John Rawnsley, managed clearly to project a fair amount of James Fenton's English version of the text. Tenor Dennis O'Neill might just as well have been singing in Italian for all one could glean of his words, and few of his colleagues fared much better. The chorus, however, was especially adept at making itself understood, and it also happens to be a very good singing and acting chorus by any standards.

The orchestra is a proficient ensemble. Under the baton of Mark Elder, this proved to be a satisfying evening of Verdi musically. Elder understands the nature of Verdi's dramatics, how to build scenes and shape phrases, and he deftly stays with his singers when they run into problems.

This brings us to the least remarkable component of national opera - the singers. Mr. Rawnsley made the strongest impression. His baritone rings freely and smoothly throughout the range, and he made quite a vocal impact in the big second-act aria. But when he sings, the charcterization slips away, and one is suddenly in a dramatic never-never land. Mr. O'Neill had trouble sticking to a tempo as the duke. While the voice often rang freely up top, he was less-than-tidy musically. Ellen Field was deputizing for an indisposed Valerie Masterson, and she found the role of Gilda a problem in terms of pitch and the sustaining of long phrases.

''Rigoletto'' will be performed June 30 at the Met. Also in repertory during the 10-day English National Opera run are its acclaimed productions of Prokofiev's ''War and Peace'' and of Britten's ''Gloriana,'' both of which can be seen through this weekend.

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