José Carbó on conquering Verdi’s “Everest” – the title character in Rigoletto.
José Carbó has been preparing one role all of his life. As he rose to prominence singing Mozart and Rossini, as he sang his first Verdi role in A Masked Ball and as he won audience hearts as Germont in La Traviata last year, he was preparing to sing “the Everest of Verdi baritone roles” – the deformed, conflicted title character in Rigoletto.
“I never guessed I would come to it before 50,” he says, “but five years ago with the birth of my youngest son, I realised I was finally ready to consider an attempt at performing this role.”
He had the music, he had the technique – “you’re either born with Verdian chords or you develop them through good technique. Mine was the latter!” – but he was missing something.
“To play Rigoletto, you have to understand the nightmare of losing a child. You cannot appreciate that nightmare until you’ve had a child. Once I started having those nightmares, I began to realize I had the final piece in the puzzle to play this character. I can’t even imagine playing him without that.”
Rigoletto is a daunting role: both for Verdi’s music – “he leaves you so exposed, there’s so little orchestra underneath” – and for the complex character the singer must portray.
“Rigoletto is affected,” Carbó says, with deliberate emphasis. “It’s his schizophrenia. He’s made many wrong life decisions because of what he suffers, and you have to put that into the balance as you unfold his story. How much would his deformity have affected his decisions?”
“Which is why it’s so interesting, because in this drama, everything comes to head. I don’t know if Verdi’s intended message was karma, in this opera, but God! It seems to be. It’s a masterclass in karma.”
Singing Renato in A Masked Ball was a good introduction to singing Verdi, Carbó reflects. “It introduced me to the sheer emotional scope that Verdi offers his singers. It is extreme, and I love that, because I am extreme. I can’t live life on the fence.”
Germont, in La Traviata taught the accomplished baritone about vocal control. “There are so many different shades in Germont’s voice, which directly refer to his multi-faceted personality. You require those colours to bring Germont to life,” Carbó says.
Both roles served as fantastic preparation for singing Rigoletto. “I’m realising more and more that humility is an absolute must for Verdi, because he leaves you no room. He writes character so well that he leaves no room for you. So without a totally focussed humility, you can’t play Verdi roles.”
The singer is utterly exposed, Carbó explains. “With Mozart, you can hide behind the social conventions of the period he was writing in. With Verdi, you can’t. He strips you emotionally bare. He demands you present an emotionally bare palette to sing his characters from, and you realise all you have to fall back on is his music, and the painstakingly crafted libretto.”
Every night in the theatre is a daunting one, with this role, he says. “It’s something that will take me the next 20 years to perfect, as an actor. With every performance, I try to focus more and more on the character that needs to come through. There’s always an aspect that you can improve in performance and I choose different nights to polish different aspects.”
Vocally, Carbó is aware of the traps of the score. “It’s written to be sung at the top of your tilt for most of the night. You can get carried away with the emotion of the role. If you let the emotion, hatred and intensity of a character get to your voice, you’ll never get through.”
The costume, makeup and hump he wears to sing Rigoletto are just embroidery, the baritone argues. “I don’t feel the costume, I can’t feel the hump. It’s all internal. I can’t rely on what I’m wearing to portray the character. It has to be true.”
Riding the tumultuous wave of Rigoletto’s many emotions in Verdi’s masterpiece is a terrifying and rewarding journey for any baritone, and for Carbó, it’s the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.
When I ask how it feels to have finally sung it, Carbó chuckles.
“I now know how Hilary and Tenzing felt when they first scaled Everest.”