Looking over the landscape of operatic roles he has performed, baritone Constantinos Yiannoudes singles out Rigoletto as particularly demanding physically, emotionally, and musically. “If you’re singing Figaro in ‘The Barber of Seville,’ you walk in and sing your big aria,” Yiannoudes says in a telephone interview from his New York City home. “Once that’s done, you can enjoy yourself. Or take Scarpia in ‘Tosca.’ It’s a great role but Scarpia gets killed at the end of the second act. Rigoletto is a test of stamina. It’s a long role and a lot of singing. Rigoletto’s on stage a great percentage of the time. He has to keep going and sing a high A-flat at the end of the opera.”
Yiannoudes sings the title role in Boheme Opera’s presentation of Guiseppe Verdi’s opera on Friday, April 20, and Sunday, April 22, at the Patriot Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton. The performance is in Italian, with English supertitles. “It’s my first Rigoletto so it’s a double challenge,” Yiannoudes says. Followers of Boheme Opera may remember him as Figaro in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” in 2004 and as Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in 2005.
“The sudden emotional changes are the greatest challenge when you sing Rigoletto,” Yiannoudes says. “You have to show them physically and interpret them vocally. For instance, Rigoletto sings a loving duet with his daughter, Gilda, that shows his sorrow, pain, and anxiety about trying to protect the innocent girl from danger. In the aria immediately after, he has to switch to anger and vengeance.” Mozart’s unrepentant Don Giovanni requires no such emotional range.
In addition, there are technical musical challenges in “Rigoletto.” “Verdi takes the baritone voice to a high register,” Yiannoudes says. “In a high register you want to sing loud. But Verdi writes pianos (a musical notation indicating a soft sound) and decrescendos. Besides that, he makes you sing gradually louder and softer on a single note.”
Soprano Cheryl Evans portrays Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter; she appeared as Donna Elvira with Boheme Opera in 2005. Tenor Mark Schowalter, currently in his ninth season with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, sings the Duke of Mantua.
Joseph Pucciatti, Boheme’s artistic director, conducts. Debuting as stage director, Pucciatti has chosen to transfer the setting of the opera from the original 16th century Mantua to fascist Italy in the 1930s. He says: “For a long while, I’ve wanted to bring a fresh interpretation of Verdi’s timeless ‘Rigoletto’ to our audiences, and to do so with my directorial debut. Timeless is the key word as I’ve set our new production of the work in that turbulent decade when a dictator ruled and the world sadly turned a blind eye to oppression.
“In the style of film noir, our Rigoletto lurks in the shadows, seeking his revenge on a black-hearted Duke, only to have the vendetta ruin his family and future. This production will sharply identify characters as Verdi intended — each and every one tainted in the soul — though with a contemporary relevance that is readily accessible.”
Modelled after a drama by Victor Hugo originally called “La Maledizione” (The Curse), the opera opens as Rigoletto, the sharp-tongued, hunch-backed court jester, taunts courtiers whose family members have been pursued by the licentious Duke. Count Monterone, whose daughter has been seduced by the Duke, curses Rigoletto and Rigoletto is unnerved.
Rigoletto is protective of his beautiful daughter, Gilda. When he learns that the Duke has seduced his beloved child, Rigoletto seeks revenge. He engages Sparafucile, a professional assassin, to murder the Duke. By chance, Sparafucile murders Gilda instead of the Duke. He turns over the sack with Gilda’s body to Rigoletto, who believes that it contains the body of the Duke. As Rigoletto is about to throw the sack into the river, he hears the Duke singing. He opens the sack and finds Gilda, who dies in his arms. Monterone’s curse has been fulfilled.
Baritone Yiannoudes is satisfied with director Pucciatti’s shift of venue. “When you update an opera you can go wild,” he says. “There is a danger that the singers, using the original text, will sing, for instance, ‘There is a green color here,’ while they point to a white color. But Joe doesn’t go wild. He doesn’t use the excuse of updating the opera to move away from the story. He’s giving the message without altering the basics.
“The Duke becomes like Mussolini and Rigoletto is a kind of assistant to the head of state. He’s a jack of all trades. He sells the courtiers drugs. Rigoletto is lower class in Joe’s production, just as he is in the original setting. When Monterone curses Rigoletto, we see the effect of a curse by a respected member of the community.”
Yiannoudes has devoted much consideration to Rigoletto’s appearance and movement. “I’ve watched movies and DVDs. The singer and director must decide how to make Rigoletto deformed. Right now, I have a preference for the hump on the right side of my back. I’ve been working with it on the right for some years. To me, it feels more comfortable having gravity take me down on my left. That might change.
“I’ve had so many thoughts about the walk,” Yiannoudes says. “Was one leg longer than the other? Was Rigoletto limping? Because the opera is updated I’m wearing tails and white tie at the opening. Rigoletto would look a little out of place if he had a very deformed look with the traditional limp.
“There won’t be a limp, but it won’t be a youthful, healthy walk. The walk will be a little labored. I’ll lean to the left, and keep my right shoulder a little higher than the left. It puts stress on my back, but I haven’t had to go to the chiropractor yet. I’ll hold my right arm close to my body, and I’ll keep my left arm free.”
He continues: “I decided that Rigoletto’s in his late 40s. I’m in my late 30s. And portraying Rigoletto in his mid-60s seemed like too much of a stretch. I also decided to grow a beard. In the next years, I’m sure the role will evolve into something different.”
Yiannoudes was born in Limmasol, Cyprus, in the Greek portion of the politically-divided island. “We singers don’t like to reveal our ages,” he says. “You’re never the right age. If you’re 35, you’re too young for Rigoletto, and too old for Figaro.”
He was raised in Kyrenia, in the northern part of the island, which is now under Turkish domination. “Let’s not get into politics,” he says, testifying to the tangle of problems in the eastern Mediterranean. “The house where my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my mother, and I lived was taken over by the Turks in 1974. How could I say to a Turkish kid playing under the tree where I grew up, that it’s my tree?”
Yiannoudes’ parents are retired professors. His father’s field is mathematics; his mother’s philology. Along with the baritone’s three siblings, they live In Cyprus. Yiannoudes’ two brothers are computer experts; his sister teaches English. “I miss them a lot,” he says. Yiannoudes’ wife, Kathleen, is head of the instrumental and vocal department at Manhattan’s Diller Quaile School of Music.
Attempting to improve the economic condition of his family, father Yiannoudes worked in Australia for five years. A record collector, he was a particular fan of the Italian baritone Gino Bechi. When he returned to Cyprus, he played his records for his four children. Son Constantinos remembers the “Toreador Song” from Carmen as one of his favorites.
‘My father pushed me to study piano when I was six,” Yiannoudes says. “Piano was my first love. When I finished my military service, I dreamed of becoming a musician. The TV show ‘Fame’ was a great success in Cyprus. I admired Bruno playing piano and studying classical music.”
Following his dream, Yiannoudes moved to New York, where his older brother was studying computers at City College. “I had a place to stay and someone to help me out,” he says. Simultaneously, he attended Hunter College and the Juilliard School, where he won a piano scholarship. While a member of countertenor Russell Oberlin’s performance class in vocal literature, a co-student introduced Yiannoudes to voice teacher Helen Trezlie. “She is now my best friend and mentor,” he says. He changed his major from piano to voice. “I still play piano and use it for studying my roles, but I no longer play piano literature.”
After earning a master’s degree in voice from New York’s Mannes School, Yiannoudes earned a doctorate from the Graduate Center of New York’s City University. His dissertation, finished in 2006, is “Russell Oberlin: His Life and His Voice,” which he hopes to publish.
In October, six months after his Boheme Opera debut in the role, Yiannoudes will sing Rigoletto for Syracuse Opera. With time to rethink the role, and with the necessity of working out details with a new director, Yiannoudes’ second Rigoletto will be different from the first. “Every time I do a role I find new nuances,” he says. “Every director has a different idea.”
Rigoletto, Friday, April 20, 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 22, 3 p.m., Boheme Opera, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Trenton. Verdi opera based on a play by Victor Hugo is set in Italy circa 1930. In Italian with supertitles. Pre-curtain talk presented by Joseph Pucciati at 6:45 p.m. on Friday and at 1:45 p.m. on Sunday. $28 to $68. 609-581-7200.