Bel Canto at Caramoor is something that I’ve always wanted to attend but never have because … well because frankly I’m just too lazy during the summers, and I’m also a big baby about outdoor performances. What if it’s torrential downpour? What if it’s 100 degrees? What if it’s a five hour opera and it sucks and there’s no way of peacing out? What if the cast sucks? I’d rather focus on the three big B’s during the summer: Ballet, Beach, and Big Brother.

Yesterday I popped my Caramoor cherry. The whole experience was fairly pleasant, although the air was quite chilly by the end of the performance. The bus ride was shorter than expected, the concession stand food wasn’t a total ripoff, and most of all, the performance was well worth attending.

Rigoletto is unusual fare for Caramoor—Will Crutchfield usually likes to present more esoteric works or works where there’s confusion about performance editions and practices. The previous night the Festival had presented Lucrezia Borgia. There aren’t many opportunities for Crutchfield to do his usual scholarly research about critical editions and performing traditions in Rigoletto—as Ken Benson said in his pre-performance talk, Rigoletto has been pretty much sung as written since the opera premiered. Some singers will interpolate a high note here or there, or alter a cadenza, but that’s about it. And indeed, this performance of Rigoletto didn’t differ much from a typical Rigoletto. Some typical cuts (like the second half of the Duke/Gilda duet) were opened, “Caro nome” got a new cadenza, and the Duke interpolated some high notes, but that’s it. In fact, I sort of wondered why Crutchfield would even present Rigoletto.

Well, one note out of Stephen Powell‘s (Rigoletto) mouth, and you quickly understood why Crutchfield scheduled this performance. Powell was absolutely amazing—this is the Rigoletto voice we all hear in our heads as the “ideal” Rigoletto, but never actually encounter in live performance. Powell’s baritone was rich, booming, powerful from top to bottom. He had no problems with the extreme demands of the role—he could interpolate all the traditional high notes (at the end of “Pari siamo,” “Si vendetta,” and the final “Maledzione”) but his lower register had a rich, organ-like resonance.

He could make his voice do anything—he could turn it into a nasty snarl when he was at court, or he could sound tender and heartbroken. He could even trill. He was wonderfully expressive, and really gave us a completely towering, three dimensional portrayal. Bravo to Stephen Powell for proving that yes, there are still baritones who can really sing Rigoletto.

His supporting cast was generally fine, if not on his level. Georgia Jarman (Gilda) is technically very accomplished. She negotiated the tricky cadenza that Crutchfield wrote for “Caro nome” with aplomb. (The cadenza, by the way, I didn’t like at all. It was a rapid alteration a high and low note, and didn’t sound like an organic part of the aria because it didn’t really match the aria’s gentle upward and downward scaling melody.) She could trill. Her upper register was fairly secure. Her timbre, however, was overly bright and on the hard side. And her diction was not that great—she needs to work on her vowels. “Gualtier Malde” came out as “Gualtyearrrr Maldeee.”

This was my first time hearing John Osborn live. He took some time to warm up, but when he finally did warm up I thought the Duke was an odd choice for him. Osborn has a very bright, metallic voice with a lot of squillo and an astonishing upper register. His D at the end of “Possente amor” was held until the orchestra stopped playing. But the Duke is not just about ringing top notes—most of the famous Dukes have had a sweet, ingratiating timbre that makes his seduction of young girls more believable. Osborn’s voice might be just fabulous for the 19 high C’s in William Tell, but as the Duke his approach was a bit like a bull in china shop. Still, it was a good chance to hear this tenor, who really does have a freak upper extension.

Jeffrey Beruan (Sparafucile) was quite impressive—it was a joy to hear a rich, booming basso. Nicole Piccolomini was also excellent as Maddalena, and André Courville made the most out of the brief role of Monterone.

Crutchfield took a more chamber-like approach to the orchestra than one usually hears in international opera houses. This was great in the more lyrical moments of the score—for instance, when Rigoletto sings “Piangi, piangi” to his daughter, the weeping in the strings was so well-articulated. However in the more thunderous, dramatic sections of the opera the approach felt a little lacking.

Still, all in all, it was a fine performance of an opera that’s so over-performed (and often with such underwhelming baritones) that people tend to take it for granted, like “oh, not another Rigoletto.” Stephen Powell’s portrayal alone was worth the price of admission.

Photo: Gabe Palacio