The Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani is in demand the world over for his compelling performances of a wide repertoire from Verdi to Tchaikovsky. New York audiences are especially lucky in being able to witness Giordani's strong relationship with James Levine and the Met, where he opened last season as Captain Pinkerton in Anthony Minghella's ENO production of Madama Butterfly and where he'll also open the 2007-08 season in Lucia di Lammermoor. British operagoers have been less fortunate: since his sensational appearances in Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden in 1997 (which were the last complete operas to be conducted by Georg Solti before his death), Giordani has only occasionally appeared on these shores, though many will treasure the memory of his concert performances of La Gioconda with Violeta Urmana under Pappano in 2004.
But the good news is that Giordani is appearing at the BBC Proms on 6 September in Berlioz's La damnation de Faust with Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It's part of a worldwide tour that opens in Tanglewood on 18 August and also takes in the Lucerne Festival, the Salle Pleyel in Paris, and Essen. I chatted to Giordani in advance of the tour to ask him about his approach to the role of Faust and his future plans - and he turns out to be a most intelligent and thoughtful interviewee, discussing the work in detail in excellent English.
Faust is one of the most iconic characters in literature and art. Does Giordani find him sympathetic? 'Particularly in Berlioz's version, very much so. I have great compassion for Berlioz's Faust, who is much more human than Gounod's Faust. You can hear it in the music - there's a melancholic nostalgia about the way Berlioz depicts him. Sometimes I find myself hating Gounod's Faust, but I cannot be judgemental about Berlioz's Faust. He is very sincere in everything he sings.'
Giordani is a huge admirer of Berlioz's vocal writing in La damnation de Faust. 'This is the third time I've sung Berlioz's Faust, and I've also done Benvenuto Cellini before. I admire the simplicity of the melodic line, which is almost like Bellini. It becomes more intense, and as ever, Berlioz's orchestrations are beautiful. It proves that sometimes, the more simple music is, the more beautiful it becomes.'
These performances are a great opportunity to witness Giordani performing with one of his preferred collaborators, James Levine, who is the Boston Symphony's Music Director. 'In my opinion, after Solti, Levine is the maestro assoluto. He is the kind of artist who cares about who's sharing the stage with him. He says to me, 'Baby, don't worry - I'm with you. Let's have fun together!' It's a very special and unique artistic relationship. He uses his enormous knowledge to lead the musicians, but he's not a dictator. He doesn't show any arrogance - he's with us all the time. Particularly in this music, Berlioz, I feel blessed at having him as my guide.'
Singing at the Proms can be a daunting experience, given the size of the arena and the presence of the Promenaders! Does the size of the arena excite him or does it make him slightly nervous? 'I've never sung at the Proms before, so I don't know what it's like. But I've seen DVDs of the concerts, and I'm looking forward to it a lot. I've sung in large outdoor arenas quite frequently, so I expect it will be a little like that, except that indoors is even better. The Proms are a special event for the UK and the world, so I feel honoured to be appearing.'
When I ask him how he would describe himself as a singer, Giordani is keen to broaden the term. 'If I may say so, I'm not just a singer but an artist. I try to be versatile, eclectic, a complete artist. I'm not just a specialist in Italian music. People say, "Oh well, if you're an Italian singer you must always sing Italian opera", but I think that would be rather limiting and a little boring! I want to be a complete performer, singing different kinds of music equally well. There are two singers who have this quality and who have inspired me in this respect: Domingo, but particularly Nicolai Gedda. Gedda is equally at home in different styles of music and different languages.'
Marcello Giordani has sung most of the roles in the standard repertoire, but does anything new lie ahead for him? 'I'm very lucky, because everything I wanted to do I've already done. But having done Benvenuto Cellini and now Faust, I am looking forward to completing the Berlioz cycle by singing Les troyens, with Maestro Levine, my conductor of preference for this. I also have in mind La fanciulla del West, and I'd like to sing Hoffmann again. But I'm very fortunate in that many opera houses, like the Met, ask me what I'd like to sing and try to accommodate me. That's wonderful.'
It's clear from talking to him that singing was the only profession for Giordani - nothing else would do. 'This is a very easy question to answer: it is the only thing I know how to do! No, seriously, I worked as a banker when I was very young, but with all due respect to bank workers worldwide, I found it very boring. Singing is the only thing I liked. Sometimes I joke with people and say, it's better to do this than working! The other side of it is that there is lots of responsibility in the job. Thousands of people have paid lots of money to come and hear you sing, so there's a huge pressure. But I try to do the best I can.'
Maestro Giordani evidently loves singing in the UK and his only regret is that he doesn't have more engagements here. 'I'm coming back in June 2009 to sing Cavaradossi in Tosca at Covent Garden. I don't come often to England - not nearly as often as I'd like, though I did a Rosenblatt recital earlier in the year. I absolutely adore England and the people, and in particular the enthusiasm that so many people have for music in the country.'
The tenor is also very clear about what music means to him. 'Well I don't like to be too prosaic, but music is a universal language that expresses hate, love, passion, happiness, and it's one of the most important things in my life. It's such a fundamental and universal element. You don't need a translation or an interpretation - even if an opera was being sung in Chinese and you didn't understand the words, you would still understand the emotions. In my opinion, it is the greatest thing we have in the world - a true blessing.'
Rather than name a proudest achievement, Giordani prefers to define what makes him feel proud as a performer. 'The thing I love the most is going home after a performance and knowing that I've done the very best I could do. It may be a drop in the ocean, but I like to know that I've made a difference in people's lives, even if it's only for two hours - the audience felt different for those two hours. I'm like a trade union for this feeling! Every day we are losing emotion in our world, but people come to the opera for the emotions and feelings, which is why this job is so important. At the end of the show people come backstage and say to me, "Thanks, I forgot all my problems during the opera".'
As we say goodbye, Giordani reiterates his enthusiasm for the forthcoming Faust performances. 'I'm really looking forward to coming to London and singing at the Proms. Everyone says it's so special, so I'm already scared!'