Academy of Vocal Arts explores evil heart of Rigoletto

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The Countess Ceprano (Alejandra Gomez) in the arms of the Duke of Mantua (Marco Cammarota) with Rigoletto (Jared Bybee) behind him in Academy of Vocal Arts’ production of Verdi’s Rigoletto Credit: AVA/Paul Sirochman.

Even in the most timeworn opera librettos, there's a line that says it all. In Rigoletto, the title character proclaims he's spent weeks "weeping tears of blood." And if you believe that when it comes out of the singer's mouth, you've got a good Rigoletto.

Time and again in Saturday's opening night of Rigoletto at Academy of Vocal Arts, the performance went beyond the opera's morality tale about a vicious court jester whose daughter is seduced and abandoned by the Duke of Mantua, and moved into something bigger, like crimes against humanity.

The outward trappings weren't all that promising. The traditional production - set in some operatic netherworld where people wear fancy antique costumes and are bathed in shades of red that are reserved for evil places - made the best of the small Helen Corning Warden Theater stage. Not subtle, but neither is the opera.

In the first big aria, tenor Marco Cammarota seemed like a baritone voice in the midst of converting to tenor. But in this opening-night cast (which will change later) important character work had been accomplished: The lines between singers and their character often disappeared, Cammarota included.

Most sopranos cast as Rigoletto's daughter Gilda make the coloratura writing of the famous "Caro Nome" aria their first priority and secondarily project the emotional specifics behind the broad strokes. Vanessa Vasquez reversed that equation. Her coloratura feels so natural you don't really hear the mechanics behind it. What often sounds merely decorative is the character speaking to you - and with exceptionally rich tone quality. She is not some teakettle soprano.

Jared Bybee had the necessary weight for Rigoletto, though his scaled-back moments showed you who his character truly was. Only in the final scene did he seem to be merely singing loud, so specifically expressive was his portrayal everywhere else. Physically contorted throughout, he made a powerful impression suggesting a huge soul trapped inside a gnarled body. As the assassin Sparafucile, Anthony Schneider was promisingly stentorian.

Such virtues weren't just luck. Stage director Tito Capobianco had translated Verdi's characterization into sure stage action, adding a few of his own touches: Gilda's kidnappers leave behind her discarded dress just to torment Rigoletto further.

Conductor Christofer Macatsoris was both demonic and strategic. Where he once used sheer instrumental force, his slower tempos built moments more powerfully (the opening prelude, for example) with often-ignored orchestration details contributing greatly to the total effect. In the final act, his keen attention to sound suggested the world was coming to an end. And it was. You could say it was only an opera - but Capobianco and Macatsoris made it something that explores the dark heart of humanity in ways that are true in any age.

dstearns@phillynews.com.

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