Tito Capobianco became prominent in the world of opera in 1957 when he directed a modern-dress Tosca in Buenos Aires in which the villain resembled Argentina’s dictator, Juan Perón. Now age 85, Capobianco limits his work to a handful of productions each year, one of them the Academy of Vocal Arts’s (AVA) Rigoletto. This production, therefore, attracted international attention.
A radical return
Capobianco's work is known for its innovation, and his radical idea this time was to return to the text and the score of the original. I am not opposed to re-interpretations such as the Met’s Rigoletto, which was set in Las Vegas in the 1960s, or the Frank Corsaro/New York City Opera production set in Manhattan’s Little Italy. But it’s salutary to see this masterpiece as Verdi intended.
The title character is an outsider — a hunchbacked jester — who is a procurer for the womanizing Duke of Mantua and mocks the cuckolded husbands of the duke’s victims. A widower, his only joy in life is his teenage daughter, Gilda. When the duke abducts and rapes Gilda, Rigoletto seeks revenge and hires an assassin to murder the duke.
Being traditional does not preclude imaginative touches. For example, after the abductors carry Gilda out of her home, Capobianco has them rip off her dress and leave it on the doorstep as extra humiliation for Rigoletto.
Also, did you ever wonder why the tenor sings “La donna e mobile” (Women are fickle)? Normally, he stands alone and proclaims it, without any dramatic motivation. In this production, the duke sits down with the pimp owner of a tavern who pours him a drink, then toasts his host with the song. It’s both a simple and effective choice.
AVA’s music director, Christofer Macatsoris, also hews to Verdian tradition and leads the music without distracting exaggerations. Where other conductors allow singers to take extra breaths for their convenience, Macatsoris insists on the long, unbroken, arching melodies Verdi wrote, especially in the closing duet for Rigoletto and his daughter. The orchestra digs in, producing rich sounds and dramatic climaxes.
The sets, by Peter Harrison, based on Capobianco’s sketches, and costumes by Val Starr capture the look of Mantua, even in the narrow confines of the Helen Corning Warden Theater on Spruce Street. They look their best on the wider stages of AVA’s suburban performances, providing contrast to the dark action that pervades the opera. A wind machine and thunder and lightning flashes terrify.
Jared Bybee and Ethan Simpson are both mature and powerful Rigolettos who project the character’s pain. Vanessa Vasquez and Karen Barraza are fuller voiced and more dramatic than typical fragile Gildas. The character, after all, as created by Hugo and Verdi, is a strong figure who defies her father.
As the duke, Marco Cammarota seems most comfortable with the stentorian part of his voice while Roy Hage emphasizes the lyric side of his. The mezzos Alejandra Gomez and Hannah Ludwig give two of the best interpretations I’ve seen as Maddalena, the assassin’s sister. Anthony Schneider and Nathan Milholin are equally good as the chilling killer Sparafucile.
I saw and heard two of AVA’s alternating casts, and all the singing is of high professional quality. Although the AVA is a school, some of its resident artists already sing in major opera houses, and many become regulars at the Met shortly after graduation.