Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi is a beloved singer in her homeland, but British audiences haven't seen nearly enough of her. She last appeared at Covent Garden in 2002 as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto, and now she's back to reprise a role at which she excels. I caught up with her to discuss her approach to the opera, and her plans for the future.
Ciofi has an unclouded vision of what her character represents in the drama. 'Gilda is a young girl who hasn't seen the real world because she's been confined in this one room all her life, because her father doesn't want her to go out. So she's not able to see anything and doesn't know anything of the world. Of course the only time she can get out of the house is to go to Mass, and she gets fired up by the first young man she meets - the Duca. That's the little girl at the beginning of the opera, who's starting to learn the ways of the world. In Rigoletto, Gilda is probably the character who develops the most, because you see in her the little girl who grows over the course of the opera as she meets the person she falls in love with and at the end, she has lost everything that she loves and gives up because she is so desperate. She is the one who makes the big journey.'
Rigoletto is, of course, the most famous of Verdi's operas about a strong father-daughter relationship - arguably, but probably fancifully, inspired by the death of his own daughter at an early age. Ciofi feels it's the very essence of the piece. 'Of course there are many relationships in the opera, but that between Rigoletto and Gilda is definitely the most important one because the story revolves around those two people. As Gilda develops over the course of the opera, so too does the relationship between father and daughter develop. They start very close together, but she keeps distancing herself from him because she wants to live for the Duke. When she takes the final decision of killing herself to save the Duke, that's the point at which she is most apart from her father. Then of course there's the prostitute Maddalena, the assassin Sparafucile, the Duke, who is a Don Giovanni figure, and they all have interesting relationships with one another. But definitely, the relationship of the opera is the one between Rigoletto and Gilda.'
Gilda's music is immensely difficult and demanding, containing numerous duets and ensembles, as well as the showcase aria 'Caro nome'. Does Ciofi relish the challenge of the character? 'I was very young when I started singing this role and I've been doing it for many, many years, so it's the staple of my repertoire. It's probably the role I've sung the most. Of course it's a very difficult and challenging part, but it feels very comfortable for my voice - it works for me. A large element of the task is interpreting the character. It's very often been played as a silly little girl who doesn't know anything who gets carried away by love and is out of control. Instead, I'd like to portray her as a very deep, very powerful character. She does what she does because she believes in herself, and she has a very strong personality - she doesn't just bend to what other people think she should do. I always thought it was important to link the vocal interpretation to the acting. There is no superficiality in Gilda. There are lots of notes, lots of decorations, lots of fioriture - but every note has got a meaning, a depth that goes beyond the notes and is part of drawing the character. It's a very rounded character. I love singing Gilda.'
Ciofi memorably played the role of Gilda in David McVicar's production in 2002. What does she like about playing the role in this staging? 'I like the truthfulness of the portrayal of Gilda by Verdi, and that's what David brings out of it also. It's very realistic. Her character is full of many different aspects. That's what really comes out from this production. The two characters of Gilda and Rigoletto are so destructive, so full of raw emotion; Gilda loves her father, yet she hates him at the same time, and that comes out very clearly in this production. She hates him because he doesn't let her lead her life as she would like. She doesn't like his suffocating protection. But she loves him, too.'
This is the first time Ciofi has sung the role of Gilda opposite German baritone Franz Grundheber, but she is full of admiration for his performance. 'I admire him a lot. He's got so much experience as a singer. He may be mature, but he's a great singer. And even though he's done this role many, many times around the world, he's still working very hard in rehearsals. This production is very physical, and he doesn't hold back on anything. David has asked him to push in many directions and he's never said 'No, I can't do this' or 'Well actually, can we do something else?'. He's really worked very hard to do what the director wanted, even though other people of his kind of experience might have gone into it with lots of preconceived ideas. He's still vocally very powerful and fresh. And he's a very big presence on the stage, especially next to me!'
A young South Korean tenor called Wookyung Kim, who won Plácido Domingo's Operalia competition in 2004, is playing the Duke of Mantua in this revival, and Ciofi is similarly complimentary about him. 'He's fantastic - very young, and he doesn't look too Korean to be the Duca! His voice is very Italianate.'
Ciofi is a regular collaborator with conductor Renato Palumbo, clearly a favourite of hers. 'I've worked with Renato many, many times and I know him quite well. He knows the work so well, and that helps a lot. He's always ready to listen to suggestions, both from the singers and from the director as well. And he simply loves singing and does everything he can to help the singers to perform confidently. It's a Rigoletto full of contrasting tempi - raw energy mixed with gentle speeds for the slower pieces. That helps to underline different emotional and expressive areas of the piece.'
The singer loves working at the Royal Opera House, but she says she always gets lost around the labyrinthine corridors - and, she says, 'I don't like the rain but London is a fantastic city.' Next year, she returns to Covent Garden to perform Donna Anna in a revival of Don Giovanni, though she says that she hasn't really started thinking about it yet because she's got so many other engagements in between.
She also returns to London in November of this year to sing the lead role in a concert performance of Bellini's La straniera, following a recording in October with Opera Rara. 'I haven't started work on that yet, either, but I'm going to devote my August holidays to learning it! Of course, I've looked at the score and I've listened to the wonderful recording with Renata Scotto. It's a very difficult opera and a hard role! The challenge is that it's a very dramatic character in places, and very lyric and ecstatic in others. I'm a lyric coloratura soprano, so I'll find the lighter colours easier to get than the dramatic parts. I'll try to underline certain words and moments to bring out the drama, while bringing out the lyric parts. I have the same approach to Donna Anna. And of course, this is a concert performance. If it had been a staged performance, I would probably have turned it down because it's very challenging for me with my capabilities. But for this one-off performance, I am absolutely relishing the challenge!'
When I ask her why she became a singer, she responds by saying 'It's a strange question! I've always sung since being very little. I had my first singing competition when I was three years old. But I didn't like opera at all for a very long time - I thought it was only for fat people standing on stage shouting at each other, rather than something I'd like to do. But I was always interested in singing and I even conducted the choir in my village. And I love the theatre. So by accident, a teacher told me to start singing in a conservatoire, and I decided to do it almost as a game. But when I met my real teacher, I started thinking that I could make a career out of opera, which brought together my passions for acting, the theatre, and singing.'
Ciofi already has a large number of roles in her repertoire, but she has some interesting ideas for the future. 'I've sung many roles, so I really can't ask for more. I've done lots of the parts I wanted to, so I'm not sure what else there is. However, I'd like to sing more French roles, because I love the French repertoire and French is almost my second language. There are three operas I'd particularly like to do: Massenet's Manon, Thomas' Hamlet and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. I would also love to sing some more dramatic roles such as La straniera and Donizetti's Maria Stuarda - some heavier things. Some baroque operas like Handel's Giulio Cesare would be great. And at the very, very end, when I'm really going to stop singing, the one opera I would like to sing is Madama Butterfly! I am crazy, but why not?!'