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REVIEW: Fascinating, Striking Rigoletto (Capri Theater/Really Spicy Opera)

Making fun of period operas in modern settings is like shooting fish in a barrel. There are so many clunkers out there that it’s tempting to dismiss the proposition entirely and say, “That’s a thing” – but sometimes a staging comes along where the new setting truly enhances the material. Really Spicy Opera’s new production of Rigoletto, now playing at the Capri Theater in Minneapolis, is one such adaptation.

This Rigoletto is set in New York City, 1962. The Duke of Mantua in the original becomes the scion of Mantua & Son, whose employees party hard…a perfectly natural reaction when you (the Count Ceprano, played by Joseph Kastner) find your wife (the Countess Ceprano, played by Nicole Korbisch) being hit on by your boss at your very own in-office birthday party.

The best opera updates use their new settings to highlight some aspect of the material or to make it more resonant (not relatable – those are different) to modern audiences. Amidst the glamour of Mad Men is an undercurrent of “lots of terrible behavior went unpunished then…and some of it still isn’t.” Sexual harassment is unfortunately very still alive and well in the United States and it doesn’t detract from enjoying opera at all to point out that many of its characters are terrible people. This staging – the brainchild of stage director Amanda Weis and Really Spicy Opera’s artistic director Basil Considine –highlights these aspects and uses some of them for some excellent visual and contextual humor along the way.

For such a well-known opera, Rigoletto isn’t performed in its entirety nearly as much as you’d think. Yes, “La donna è mobile” and “Caro nome” are seemingly everywhere in vocal recitals and concert selections. If you live in the Upper Midwest, though, the last time anyone did this was back in 2003, when Minnesota Opera staged it. That production featured Chen-Ye Yuan’s inimitable vocal talents (he’s made something of a specialty of playing Rigoletto). Visually, however, the opera was about as hodrum as you can get – being set, like just about every other Rigoletto, in Renaissance Italy with the same puffy-sleeved tunics as everyone else. (Thinking about this also makes me wish that Evelyn Pollock, that production’s Gilda, was still working around here. Also, it brings back bad memories of the Metropolitan Opera’s Rat Pack Rigoletto, about which I’d rather not say more.)

The success of this staging is matched by the quality of the singers; with the exception of Gilda (Jennifer Zabelsky), all of the cast and team are local, which is entirely too uncommon these days. The Duke (Joshua Diaz) is stellar, with a heart-melting and stirring “Parmi vedere le lagrime” to start Act 2. While everyone else is shrinking and Rigoletto trembling, Diaz’s Duke fires Monterone (Rodolfo Nieto) with a rippling, mocking laugh that is the perfect cherry on top of the musical sundae. Nieto’s stage present is something to behold, especially up close in the Capri – he projects a menacing air striding down the aisle, and when he opens his mouth, his dark bass-baritone sends shivers up your spine. Feeling the Curse so close to the stage is completely different from hearing it 20 rows back in the Ordway.

One of my favorite moments in this production is “Zitti, zitti” – a piece that I admit to hitting skip on when it comes up in my playlist. Recast as a goofy, almost cops-and-robbers abduction piece, it’s just hilarious to watch as the men from the office dance around Rigoletto (Jeehoon Kim). Kim has a great dynamic range in his voice and his acting – the grief and shock at finding that Gilda was kidnapped is imbued with pathos and paternal consternation. Kim and Diaz are very much voices to keep an eye on (both are studying for their doctorates at the University of Minnesota, and will hopefully be around for many years to come).

Another favorite moment was “Caro nome.” It’s a staple song, done almost to death, but really quite impressive when done right. The staging here added a lot, with flower petals flying into the sky as Zabelsky charged through the coloratura, vibrato blazing. It’s little touches like that which make a good performance turn into a great one.

Rigoletto is not Rigoletto without its Act IV quartet and trio, which did not disappoint. Kim and Zabelsky were joined for this musical succession by William Esch (Sparafucile) and Megan O’Leary (Maddalena), who it turns out run a seedy motel in New Jersey. A fine quartet of voices indeed, and enough to make you yearn for a good old Italian reprise at the end.

Really Spicy Opera’s production of Rigoletto closes on Sunday, June 5 after a 2 PM matinee performance.

Hanne Appelbaum