The Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon is, in my opinion, amongst the most special singers on the planet. I've never seen her give anything less than a world-class performance, and she's capable of singing a vast repertoire that includes Handel, Rossini, Verdi, Bizet, Wagner and even Saariaho. Having said that, she sticks to what she's good at and never attempts unrealistic projects out of vanity. Her instinctive musicianship is married to a strong dramatic urgency, and although she doesn't have a major record contract or a familiar face beyond the world of opera, she's without doubt one of the most reliable singers currently in the profession.
Next week, she's back at Covent Garden to reprise the role of Baba the Turk in The Rake's Progress, in Robert Lepage's production which was first seen in Britain in July 2008. Although the show received a rocky critical reception on its first outing, Bardon emerged triumphant as always, and she's joined by what looks like a much stronger line-up this time: Toby Spence, Rosemary Joshua and Kyle Ketelsen are heading the cast and promise a completely new experience.
Bardon herself rather enjoyed the production the first time around, even though the modernisation of the setting didn't suit every taste. 'This production was my first outing with The Rake's Progress,' she says, 'so I've nothing to compare it to – in fact, I'd never even seen the piece before. But I'm certainly having fun with Baba, and in this production I think she's a riot! I've been given as much liberty to go as far as I want with it, so it's great. I'm having a good time.'
She describes Lepage's take on the opera as 'visually stunning, and there are wonderful effects in this show. Initially it's set in Texas, against a beautiful landscape. All the settings are really effective. Baba the Turk, my character, is a movie star who is towards the end of her career, one might say. Tom Rakewell has basically sold his soul to the Devil and hooks up with all sorts of bad influences, myself included. He marries me, and my scene takes place in Leicester Square, where I'm attending a movie premiere. All good stuff!'
The mezzo admits that it's not the biggest role in her repertoire. 'The character is more gratifying than the singing when it comes down to it – she's great fun. But vocally, there's not a massive amount to do. It's not much of a challenge on one level, but having said that, it's a tricky score so you have to keep on your toes.'
In fact, it's quite a challenge, she says, to come on for just a short time and have the requisite impact and energy. 'There has to be a high level of concentration for a short amount of time, and because the music is complex you have to be completely on the ball. You can't let your concentration wane for a second or you'll be out of synch with the orchestra. It's tricky. I'd rather be on the stage the whole night – you're in your groove, instead of waiting in your dressing room for ages to go on and do your bits every hour.'
What's so difficult about the score? 'Rhythmically, it's very tricky. Stravinsky has a way of doing things whereby you think you're coasting along very nicely, and then suddenly he'll stick in a strange rhythm that doesn't quite follow with the text. It's quite abrupt and doesn't feel very natural. And my part is written in a very angular way: it's high and low, and every bar is all over the place. That means you have to pitch it very carefully. It's great fun though!'
I ask her if she enjoys working at Covent Garden, and she replies: 'Sure! It's great to work at home, apart from everything else. I spend so much time alone, away from Britain, but I'm based in London with my family, so it's almost like having a proper job to work in London – half an hour on the train at night and I'm home for tea at six!' she jokes.
'So that's great. But I love this house. It's practically where I started my career. I did lots of covering and doing small roles – Maddalena in Rigoletto, roles in Mose in Egitto, William Tell, Mefistofele. There's no better education than being able to share the stage with great singers. To see how they conduct themselves in rehearsals is a great way of learning the ropes. It was invaluable.'
As noted above, Bardon's repertoire is noticeably wide, including both dramatic and bel canto roles. 'I've experienced a fair old bit of pigeon-holing in the baroque world,' she says, 'but thankfully that's all changing now. In fact, I have very little baroque work on at the moment. My repertoire is becoming more varied all the time, and that suits me better. I don't enjoy just doing the one thing all the time. Variety keeps me interested and excited. It gives me challenges, which you need in every walk of life. I enjoy the contrast, and every time you do a role, you learn something. And if it's new repertoire you have to find a way of doing it. Doing Verdi for the first time, for instance, was an enormous challenge. It was Azucena, and I thought "Crikey, how am I going to do this?" But you learn how to do it, and it's helpful in all kinds of ways.'
What's especially striking about Bardon's voice is how she maintains a rich tone with such flexibility. She confesses this has been drummed into her from the beginning: 'My teacher many years ago was somebody who was a big fan of coloratura and felt it was a facility that every singer should have, irrespective of voice type. It keeps the voice healthy, buoyant and flexible. So from a very young age I was doing coloratura with my voice, and it just wasn't an issue. It's a facility – you can do it or you can't – so I've just to be very grateful to her, because I can do it!'
I ask her about her favourite roles. 'So much depends on the experience you have with a particular role in a particular production. If you're doing a fantastic role in a lousy production, it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth for that role, and vice versa. A favourite would have to be Carmen; it's not like work at all, it's fantastic. It's a gift of a role. I'm starting it in a fortnight at WNO. But what I want more and more is variety.'
Although she's now a professional singer, Bardon wasn't always destined for a career in opera. 'I wish I could say I had a musical background, but I had zero exposure to music apart from at school. There was none at home. I'd never been to an opera until I was eighteen, and I was in it!' she laughs. 'I was brought up on Elvis. But at school, my music teacher insisted I went to have my voice trained, and it went on from there.'
So there was no feeling that she desperately wanted to do it? 'Oh God, yes,' she replies. I wanted to be Tina Turner! But it went terribly wrong, and I became an opera singer. I must say, when I went to have my voice trained, it was just for that, and I had no view to having a career in opera. I'd had no experience of it. I loved jazz, and I loved singing with bands as a kid.' Would you like to do that even now? 'Oh yes, I'd love to! That's what I do at home.'
She trained in her hometown of Dublin, and the experience was seminal to her career. 'I studied with a wonderful lady called Veronica Dunne. She was a contemporary of Joan Sutherland's, back in the 1950s, and she was a contract singer here at Covent Garden. She was a very fine Mimi in her day. She was a wonderful, charismatic lady who had me singing operas at a young age. That's what made me want to do it. It's thanks to her passion and energy that I'm here.'
I'm interested to know whether Bardon has always sung in the mezzo Fach, since previous famous mezzo interviewees Sally Burgess, Felicity Palmer and Rosalind Plowright all told me that they initially sang as sopranos. But Bardon simply says 'I've always been down there. It's where I'm comfortable. I like going high and low, but I don't like sitting up there.' And she's happy to be a mezzo. 'We all want to sing Tosca, of course, but I think a person's voice suits their personality. The sound and timbre they make is so related to their character. Being a mezzo suits me.'
One of Bardon's claims to fame is that she was the youngest-ever prize winner at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. She came second in the very first competition. But, she says, 'It was a double-edged sword. I was eighteen when I came second. It's stupid really. So things started happening when I was very young, but I wasn't in a position to take advantage of the opportunities as much as I'd liked. In that respect, I had a bit of a false start. But that was a long time ago, and I've always been in work. In the last decade or so, though, the work has been on a different level, and I've been able to be where I want to be.'
What was Cardiff like as an experience? 'I had no business there because I was just really starting to sing. It was the very first competition, so it was a big outing for everybody, and there weren't as many competitors as there are now. The exposure wasn't quite as great as it is now – it can be the making or breaking of careers, which is scary.' Was she not scared, then? 'Of course. If it were now, I wouldn't be able to go through with it. I'd be out of my mind with fear! It's like an audition – that dreadful artificial situation. I've always hatred auditions because you never do your best. A competition's the same deal: it's very artificial.'
From Cardiff, Bardon's career took off. 'WNO helped create the competition originally, and it was basically a Welsh National Opera deal. They gave me nice roles. Flosshilde in the Ring was my first professional engagement, with long green hair. They also had me at Opera North and Scottish Opera, too, as well as here. They weren't massive things, but they were great starter roles. You have to learn your trade. I wouldn't have been ready to do big things, and big roles did come my way but I had to turn them down. I wasn't singing well enough then anyway. I was too young and had zero confidence in myself. I wasn't in a position to take on anything too hefty. But I've been very lucky to be in work all the way through.
I'm curious to know what it was that ultimately gave her that confidence. 'For me it was figuring out how much to give in terms of acting onstage, and finding a balance between the voice and acting so that one or the other wouldn't suffer. Finding that balance took a long time. And finding out how to relax and not be tense on stage. Learning how to enjoy yourself is also vital: it might seem like a silly thing to say, but until the components come together you can't actually enjoy it. And I do!'
I ask her about her highlights so far, and she replies: 'They probably differ greatly from what other people might think. A couple of years ago in Paris, I did a new piece by Kaija Saariaho Adriana Mater. That was a really tough piece: it was tough musically, but the character was even more so. She was a rape victim in Chechnya. A barrel of laughs! The production was tough, the sets were tough, the emotions were tough. The set was made from fibreglass, so we were all cut to shreds. And it was January in Paris, so it was freezing. So I was very proud of the job I did there – that's what jumps out at me. I try to do a good job on everything.'
Bardon has typically varied future plans. 'I'm going to Santa Fe to do a Rossini piece. I'm doing Erda in the new Robert Lepage production at the Met. I'm going to Barcelona to do Dukas's Ariane et Barbe-Bleu. I do Rinaldo in Cologne. I've also got Poppea in Oslo and Azucena with WNO. I have no plans to come back here yet, but we're talking about it.'
Is there anything she'd like to do that she's not done yet? 'I'd love to do Eboli in Don Carlo. I love Azucena, but I think this would be an even better role for me. I was offered it a couple of years ago but couldn't fit it into my schedule. I'm game for anything, really, as long as I have a good time.'
Surprisingly, the world of the recording studio is not one that attracts her. 'I have Ermione coming out on Opera Rara, but nothing else planned. To be honest, I hate recording. I don't feel I have a recording voice: I think I'm a better live singer. And again, I hate how artificial it is: the red light goes on and you do your thing. I find that quite stressful, and I don't think I do the best I can. Let's just say it's not my favourite format – though I don't want to talk myself out of work!'
And any ambitions? 'Career-wise, I'd love to sing Samson and Dalila. If I was pressed, that's what I'd choose to do. And Eboli.
'This career is so all-consuming. There are lots of things that I'm interested in, and I wish it were possible to combine this career with other things, but it's absolutely not. I'm interested in interior design and antiques, and would love to be involved. I'd love to have an interior design business and an antique shop, but I don't have time!'
Patricia Bardon appears in The Rake's Progress at Covent Garden from 22 January.
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