Mark Rucker to bring a true Verdi baritone to Palm Beach Opera’s “Nabucco”

By David Fleshler

Mark Rucker as Amonasro in Verdi's "Aida" in Verona

As a varsity halfback at Kenwood Academy High School on Chicago’s South Side, Mark Rucker had an outstanding baritone voice— and no interest whatsoever in doing anything with it.

But he caught the eye of Lena McLin, the no-nonsense, opera-loving head of the school’s music department, who was determined to make him develop his talent. She hunted him down when he attempted to call in sick the day he was to sing Il cavallo scalpita from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at a school assembly.

“He didn’t want to sing a classical song in front of the students,” she said. “He thought they were going to make fun of him.”

When he attempted to get out of singing in the chorus, she threatened to fail him in music theory, which would have cost him his spot on the football team. “This is blackmail,” he told her. She said, “Look, singing is in your future. You’re going to sing at the Met.”

Rucker made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2004, singing Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida. Seated in the audience was Lena McLin. “It felt terrific,” she said. “He was just so great. I was so proud.”

Starting Friday night, Rucker sings the title role in Verdi’s Nabucco at Palm Beach Opera, which he will repeat Sunday afternoon (Sebastian Catana sings the role Dec. 11 and 13).

The opera, Verdi’s third, tells the story of the capture of the Hebrews by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, and explores issues of the obligations of love, country and family that would foreshadow the themes of Aida. It is performed much less frequently than the composer’s later works, but it is the one with which he established his reputation. And it contains an early example of what would come to be known as the Verdi baritone, a term for complex, often fatherly roles, streaked with good and evil, with far-ranging vocal demands on the performer.

Tenors and sopranos enjoy the most glory in opera, taking the largest number of leading roles and earning the biggest paychecks. But Rucker said he relishes the darker characters that tend to be assigned to the baritone. As Scarpia he torments Tosca and presides over her lover’s torture. As Iago he seeds Otello’s mind with doubt. As Germont he talks Violetta into leaving the love of her life. And in his favorite role, as the bitter court jester Rigoletto, he plots a murder that goes horribly wrong (when you click on, you’ll hear the solemn brass tones that open Rigoletto.)

“The characters that a baritone gets to play are much more complicated,” he said. “It’s just more fun to play them. Name another character that could come close to the complications of Rigoletto. People say, ‘Well you do a lot of bad guys.’ But I don’t think any one of those characters believes that they’re bad.

“See, Otello’s a great part, but you know Iago is such a complicated character that I would rather play that than play Otello. We just get to do more stuff.”

As Nabucco, Rucker plays a monarch who is so consumed by power that he claims to be God, gets zapped by lightning, goes mad, regains his senses and tries to rescue his daughter from a death sentence. It contains one of Verdi’s most famous melodies, the chorus Va, pensiero, sung by the Hebrews in captivity.

“Dramatically Nabucco is not what I would call one of Verdi’s greatest operas,” Rucker said. “But musically it’s an exceptional opera. It’s not so vocally challenging for me because I’ve done it so often, but you have to be careful with it. You have to be physically prepared for it. It can be a physical role, a demanding part.”

Robert Lyall, artistic director of the New Orleans Opera, where Rucker sang Rigoletto, Cavalleria Rusticana, Aida and Tosca, described him as “a true Verdi baritone.”

“He has that lyricism in the baritone, carrying the weight and darkness of that particular color, lyricism being the singular component,” he said. “He’s a very fine actor, so doing roles like Tonio with him are really a lot of fun.

“There are lots of cavalier baritones out, particularly younger singers who are doing Figaro, and that agility and particular color of the voice is a unique and beautiful sound. And then you get into these heavier, darker pieces, like Rigoletto and Macbeth and Nabucco, and again it’s a special color, a special sound, and Mark Rucker has it.”

Despite his teacher’s prodding, Rucker came late to opera. He majored in psychology at a small college in Wisconsin, but then went on to study voice at Drake University, partly because that’s where Sherrill Milnes went. He lives in Lake Hiawatha, N.J., with his wife Sadie, a pianist who he met at Drake and who goes with him to rehearsals and concerts.

At a recent rehearsal at the Kravis Center, Rucker, wearing a red and black track suit, sang the Fourth Act, where Nabucco regains his faculties, rescues his daughter and pledges to follow the Hebrew God. As he sang and waved a sword, Sadie followed along in the score, prompting him occasionally with gestures to remind him what stage action he was to take.

“I know his voice better than anyone,” she said. “And I watch his dramatizations to see if he’s communicating.”

Rucker said he had looked forward to working again with Bruno Aprea, the Palm Beach Opera’s highly regarded artistic director, who Rucker called “a fantastic conductor.”

The mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti sang with him a concert performance of La Forza del Destino at Carnegie Hall, Macbeth in Liege, Belgium and Aida in Verona. “His voice is unbelievably beautiful, with beautiful squillo. He’s so committed as an artist. He really takes his voice and throws himself into the role. He’s such a committed artist. We don’t have that many true Verdi baritones anymore.”

Palm Beach Opera’s production of Nabucco runs Dec. 10-13 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.; 561-833-7888.

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One Response to “Mark Rucker to bring a true Verdi baritone to Palm Beach Opera’s “Nabucco””

  1. Posted Mar 14, 2013 at 8:53 pm by Hugh-Anthony Moses

    I too have been deemed a Verdi Baritone. This is now my 4th voice teacher who have died. I would like to know, with whom did Mark Study and where. I’m seeking another teacher. A teacher that is good with Baritones ph.# is 917-941-6474 hope to hear from someone soon. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

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Tue Dec 7, 2010
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