Small-scale opera productions, when well executed, are some of the underrated joys for audiences lucky enough to catch them—while their appeal of lavish design and big-budget spectacle seem synonymous with the art form, opera in a pared-down, more intimate setting is a great way to foreground fresh talent and focus on the individual performances. Really Spicy Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Capri Theater was a delight, incorporating thoughtful, inventive staging showing technical and artistic prowess.
While stage director Amanda Weis’s Mad Men-style 1960s office setting shifted the action from the 16th to the 20th century, it is the waves of sound created by the large voices in the small space under the musical direction of Basil Considine that made that action feel truly immediate to the audience. Rather than being confined to the stage, singers spilled out past the proscenium, into the aisles, even behind the audience, immersing the whole space in Verdi’s music. The singers were accompanied by a chamber orchestration centered around Roderick Phipps-Kettlewell at the piano and supplemented by multi-instrumentalists, creating an impressive variety of color and nuance to complement the talented cast.
Jeehoon Kim was Rigoletto, a mischievous buffoon/janitor-turned rageful father, thwarted in his attempts to maintain his family and his daughter’s honor in the face of another father’s curse. Kim’s soaring baritone saturated the Capri’s 300-seat space, an intimate setting that allowed all of the subtleties of his performance to come through. As the office fool, Kim’s voice was bright and bombastic, yet as the devoted father his tone was richer and more subdued, contrasting still with the heights of anger and despair as Rigoletto lost both his family honor and ultimately his daughter’s life.
Joshua Diaz appeared as the terminally charismatic Duke of Mantua, with a rich and agile voice and sensitive interpretation that allowed his character to believably bridge lascivious womanizer and lovesick youth. Diaz’s Duke seems to believe every word he says to Gilda, even if it was clear he would turn around and believe it all again when he declared the same devotion to someone else… This almost guileless lack of self- awareness in this interpretation of the Duke made the irony of “La donna è mobile” shine through all the more clearly.
Performing the tragically love-struck Gilda was Jennifer Zabelsky, whose clear and expressive soprano voice seemed to grow as her character came into her own. When she first appeared, Zabelsky’s Gilda was delicate and girlish, almost in danger of getting sung right off the stage by her scene partners—as the action unfolded, however, it became clear this characterization was by design. As Gilda experienced the rush of first love, Zabelsky offered an artful and exuberant rendition of “Cara nome,” and the power in her voice only grew from there. As Gilda went from abduction to ruination to resignation to sacrifice, Zabelsky’s voice rang out over the others as a plea for mercy over revenge.
The rest of the cast was neither idle nor wasted in all the moments they were onstage. Justin Spenner was a standout as Marullo, the Pete Campbell-style ringleader of Rigoletto’s office tormentors, as was Rodolfo Nieto as Monterone, the righteously angry father whose curse assures Rigoletto’s fate. Nieto was a sharp and powerful presence both times he appeared, utterly changing the temperature of the room with his voice and demeanor. As Sparafucile, bass Will Esch had a dry delivery and matter-of-fact approach to his murderous endeavors reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ better villains, assiduously following a code of his own design regardless of collateral damage.
In the last act, a thunderstorm looms over the action and rumbles through the score as the characters wind their way to various tragic ends. As the afternoon reached its climax, the musical elements spilled across the whole theater – the instrumentalists upstage center, the quartet centerstage, and the chorus singing from the back of the house, a few feet from the last row of seats. In the Capri’s intimate acoustic, the result was to surround the audience with a suffusion of music as the action came to its dramatic peak. This was an encapsulation of what worked so well about this production in this space—the distance between the performers and the audience was erased, and rather than being overpowered by all that big sound, people could feel the notes as well as listen. This is one of the things that made this Rigoletto feel so personal, and what makes this type of production such a treat.
Really Spicy Opera is a company with 10 years of history behind it, the last 2.5 years of which have been in Minnesota. Staging Rigoletto–much less pulling it off so capably, and in an unusual setting–shows an ambition and ingenuity not often associated with opera anymore. It’s a wake-up call about some of the reasons that opera used to be so effective and encompassing an entertainment in the first place. Next up on their slate is a return to the Minnesota Fringe Festival in August with Game of Thrones: The Musical!—I’m sold on the title alone. If Rigoletto is any indication, their adaption/parody of the Song of Ice and Fire should be fun and engrossing. I for one will be looking forward to see what local singers they will be exhibiting, too.