Q & A: Leonardo Capalbo Talks ‘Rigoletto,’ ‘La Rondine & His Role Debut As ‘Don Carlo’

By Francisco Salazar

Over the past years Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo has garnered international acclaim for performing in some of the leading theaters such as The Royal Opera Covent Garden, Teatro Real Madrid, La Monnaie, Berlin State Opera, the Glyndebourne Festival, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, L’Opéra de Lyon, Teatro Regio di Torino, the Canadian Opera Company, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, among others. He has also worked with some of the leading singers, conductors, and directors and he has also performed a wide array of repertoire.

His work in “Gloriana” at the Teatro Real Madrid earned him this notice from OperaWire: “In the role of Essex, tenor Leonardo Capalbo made a major case for himself as a tenor on the rise. He’s no newbie in Europe, as his resumé shows. But still young, the Italian American tenor is very much a star in the making.”

This season Capalbo is set to make a number of role and company debuts and star in new productions. As his status grows in the opera world, OperaWire had a chance to speak with him about his upcoming season, Verdi, and balancing his repertoire.

OperaWire: You begin your 2018-19 season with “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” and “La Rondine” at the Minnesota Opera. Do you have any favorite moments in the pieces and what are some of the vocal challenges?

Leonardo Capalbo: I will begin the season earlier than I had expected by returning to a familiar friend, Hoffmann. I am very much looking forward to performing this opera with Maestro Marc Minkowski for the Bremen Musikfest. Hoffmann is one of my favorite characters. The surreal, dark and magical universe that Offenbach composed is incredibly special. And my favorite moments Of “La Rondine” are the Act three scenes with Magda, especially the final duet. The struggle for both characters is very moving and it is beautifully written. Magda’s departure is a complete and total shock to Ruggero and he is left shattered. The role encompasses bel canto qualities packaged inside a veristic musical environment. As with all Puccini, one must observe his detailed musical markings and vocal indications in order to successfully bring his music to life.

OW: “La Rondine” is often considered a mix between Operetta and Opera. How does it compare to other Puccini roles you have sung vocally and as a performer? Do you feel that because it is so light throughout the piece, the dramatic moments are more powerful? 

LC: Puccini’s vocal writing and orchestration in “La Rondine” definitely vacillates between a lighter and heavier world. Since the piece was originally envisioned as a Viennese Operetta, there are certainly elements of that style and convention, though it eventually seems to have morphed into something more than that. I have always found that the impact of Magda and Ruggero as a pair of lovers is indeed heightened by the fact that they are in a way trapped in a somewhat superficial setting and maybe are themselves simply archetypes. The denouement is impactful because the convention of opera itself is broken. The other Puccini roles I have sung thus far include Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, Rinuccio, and Luigi. The demands of each role have changed for me and I am sure will continue to as I develop. My voice has grown in power but I find that maintaining sweetness is key to longevity, stamina and interestingly more ringing tonal quality.

OW: What excites you about performing the work at the Minnesota Opera?

LC: This will be the first time “La Rondine” is presented in Minnesota. I am excited to be a part of this production. I most recently performed Cavaradossi for them and it feels good to bring more Puccini their way. Originally, Dale Johnson invited me to the Twin Cities as Nemorino and immediately after that I created the role of Captain Ben Marco in the Putts/Campbell “The Manchurian Candidate.” This kind of variety fuels me. The company and the audience in Minneapolis and St. Paul have a big appetite for a broad range of repertoire from bel canto and Verdi to new and rare pieces. It is not surprising that I immediately felt at home.

OW: Why do you feel this work should be performed more often and why do you think it isn’t as popular as other Puccini operas?

LC: There are two reasons I think the opera hasn’t been that popular. Firstly, there are obvious musical and structural similarities with “La Bohème” and when compared side by side, most will prefer “Bohème.” Secondly, Puccini’s publisher Ricordi refused to take the piece. So without the promotional forces of Casa Ricordi, the piece faded quickly. I do think it deserves to be known because there is a lot to like. The arias for Magda and Ruggero are beautiful and the final duet is just as good as the best of Puccini’s heartbreaking finales. While the very often presented hits of the great composers are justifiably popular, we should expose the public to more.

OW: You will be performing “Rigoletto” at the Royal Swedish Opera and Calgary Opera. How has the role developed in your voice throughout the years?

LC: Duca has been with me since almost the beginning of my career and it is among my most frequently performed roles. As I have matured, I have been able to incorporate bolder colors. It is important for me to stay fresh and vibrant. I don’t think of repeating a role so much as I come back to them and find them all over again. I am sure I will sing with more power today than I did many years ago but I will concentrate on delivering more of the details in the score. A true singing actor is bound by the material they are given and thankfully for me, it is infinitely rewarding.

OW: How has your view on the Duke evolved throughout the years you have been singing? Do you find any redeeming qualities to him?

LC: My view of the Duke as a character has not changed much since I first encountered the opera; he is a deliciously twisted villain! To sugar coat him and his story would be painfully dull and irresponsible to Verdi and audiences alike. Verdi fought vehemently with censors to bring this and other stories to the stage so we should respect his work. I am not afraid to show him as a monster. The Duke is an abusive and entitled psychopath and yet it would be ridiculous to pander to current social mores and refashion him as something else or to refuse to show his despicable behavior. In theatre, a depiction should never be interpreted as an endorsement.

However, I am an actor as much as I am a singer. I would be remiss to not bring him to life both musically and dramatically. It is fascinating to play this grandiose character. He does not feel the same pain, love, and remorse that a psychologically stable person does. He does not see himself as unlikeable or inappropriate and he definitely does not consider his behavior abusive. If the worse part of humanity is not clearly represented then we don’t honor the victims. Art is a reflection of humanity. The Duke and his music appeals to people because we know this man in our own lives whether it be from truly personal experience or from a more distant but relevant real-life experience. The most devilish amongst us can indeed be charming, convincing, and manipulative.

OW: Vocally, what are some of the biggest challenges and how does the character compare to the other Verdi roles?

LC: The role is challenging because it requires dexterity, power, and range. To that end, I keep the voice liquid. The fractured personality of the Duke is evident in his music. He is a sort of shapeshifter who adapts to what is around him or perhaps causes the change around him. I find him utterly riveting. There is nothing else like him in any of Verdi’s operas, and he’s extremely rare in the entire operatic canon.

OW: The title character in “Don Carlo” will be a role debut. How does it compare for you vocally to “Rigoletto?” 

LC: I am preparing Don Carlo at the moment and having a blast. I have adored this music for so long and I am thrilled with this assignment. I will debut the Four-Act Italian and the Five-Act French versions consecutively. I begin my 2019-2010 season with the French version just one month after I finish the 2018-2019 season with the Italian version. I am finding that the vocal writing of Duca is much more rooted in a Bel Canto tradition with a more congruous vocal writing from beginning to end where Don Carlo demands a broader range that progresses from lyricism to dramatic as the story unfolds. The Fontainebleau scene, for example, benefits greatly from a secure and anchored voice that can elegantly access the upper range. As the role progresses Don Carlo dissolves before our eyes and ears. Verdi asks that his trauma, pain, and yearning become more apparent. As Carlo’s turmoil increases, his vocal lines require more thrust. It’s a similar arch and vocal development that Don José experiences in “Carmen.”

OW: You’ve done early and late Verdi. How do you feel that he developed his vocal writing and what is more comfortable for you to sing? 

LC: We know that Verdi himself was not as fond of the tenor voice in his younger days as he was in the later part of his life and I think that is visible in the writing. I have found that the early Verdi tenor roles are based more on explosive gestures rather than lyric phrases. For that, I prefer the middle and later Verdi roles, but not just for the vocal writing. As Verdi matured he became increasingly involved in the crafting of the libretti and very stubborn with his casting choices. This allowed him to truly create the roles of his later works to his liking. The Verdi tenor roles suit my own temperament, stylistic sensibility, and instrument. My voice has strength, stamina, and flexibility. So the demanding Verdi roles that most shy away from, I take on with pleasure.

OW: With so many roles in one season, how do you find balance? 

LC: Some of my favorite historical singers like Lauri-Volpi and Gigli were quite versatile and able to sing with extreme contrast. I definitely find it beneficial to sing a mix of lighter and heavier roles. It allows me to keep a balance in my voice. I make a point of maintaining vocal dexterity even as I add more intrinsically dramatic music into my repertoire. Last season, I was alternating performances of Rodolfo with Nemorino and Don José. This season, I will be singing Duca as I prepare and perform Don Carlos and Pollione alongside Candide and Hoffmann. The challenges that I face and conquer in one role help me to succeed in the other. My concept of the flexibility needed to sing well is both a technical one and a figurative one. The technical aspect is obvious but it is the ability and willingness to embrace change in a positive direction that facilitates genuine growth. My exploration of a role does not end once I’ve sung it. For example, I just debuted the title role in Massenet’s rarely performed “Le Cid.” I found the music thoroughly engrossing and while a great challenge, incredibly fun to sing. I was still singing the music in my dressing room after each performance. Earlier today, I began reworking sections of “Le Cid” while I was singing through “Hoffmann.” This type of constant self-examination
is a big part of my process. It keeps me fresh, fluid and willing to embrace new experiences.

I tend to relish the sort of roles that people say are too difficult or require too many different things from one artist. If the music speaks to me, I go for it. I refuse to allow fear to limit my growth. It is exciting and stimulating to undertake so much music with my voice. It is personal, freeing and empowering to discover what else you can do because it is asked of you.

OW: Finally, what are you most excited about the season? 

LC: I love being in the theater and sharing music. Its impossible to say which piece I am most excited about because I become obsessively into all the pieces I undertake. The music drives me. Opera runs through my veins. I am excited to work with other musicians and share my voice with both familiar and new audiences.


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