'Mezzo of the moment' is how one might describe Sarah Connolly.
With a solid raft of achievement at ENO behind her, in a succession of Handel operas from Ariodante and Xerxes in 2002 to Agrippina in 2007, she has more recently scored notable successes at Glyndebourne, in David McVicar's gloriously theatrical Giulio Cesare of 2005 and in Katie Mitchell's much more controversial St Matthew Passion of 2007.
And earlier this year she sang Octavian in English for the first time, again at ENO and again in a David McVicar production (although it came to London direct from Scottish Opera, where it had been sung in the original German).
Now Connolly is about to make her debut with Opera North, singing Romeo in Bellini's 1830 opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi. We caught up with her during a lunch break at the Grand Theatre in Leeds.
Connolly has sung Bellini's Romeo twice before, at New York City Opera in 2001 and at ENO in 2003. What is different about this production? 'Gosh, that's a really difficult question for me to answer because I haven't really been able to look at it yet from the theatre – I am onstage practically all the time. The overture is staged and then Romeo takes over, at the heart of things throughout. But if I try to characterise the mood, the setting of this production, I would use the words 'grim reality'. There are two power blocs at work in this piece, the Montagues and the Capulets, and their attempts to dominate and to suffocate their enemies never cease. In the midst of this constant power struggle, expressed very physically at times, there is Romeo who believes – against all odds – that he can make the best of it, that he can overcome all the negativity that surrounds him'.
Opera North has entrusted this production to the young Irish director, Orpha Phelan, who has a pronounced interest in Japanese Noh theatre. Does she bring any of these elements to the piece? 'I think she does really. There's a single set, a bare stage with a rather austere feeling that is very beautiful – no props or ornaments to get in the way, just this rather timeless setting. The people who inhabit this space are rather tough, working types however, and as they become more belligerent and adopt an almost war-like pose with each other, you have this great cataclysm at the end of Act One and even the stage setting is destroyed. In Act Two we are in a sort of aftermath of war, the characters are surrounded by the physical debris of their own conflict. I would love to see what it all looks like from the front, but I can't!'
It sounds like concept opera but as Connolly describes it to me with enthusiasm and lucidity, I definitely feel I want to see it. But what about Bellini, the master of bel canto, in all this? 'Of course Bellini is bel canto and that is how I learned the role, when my singing teacher Gerald Martin Moore taught me the part in 1999. But singing Bellini is for me something more than bel canto. I would say in terms of the simplicity and purity of his melodic line, he is almost like Chopin. As a pianist I played a lot of Chopin, and singing Bellini reminds me irresistibly of that same experience – very short melodic phrases, almost arioso-like. That is how I like to sing it'. What about decorating those simple, expressive phrases – Rossini, after all, embellished Bellini all over the place! 'I have an aversion to florid decoration for its own sake. For me, decoration has to be allied to character – Romeo's music is his essence, what he speaks, breathes and feels. So a little decoration may be in order, but it has to be real, it has to mean something.' I ask her how she sings 'La tremenda ultrice spada', Romeo's aria towards the end of Act One as he prepares to brandish his avenging sword, and Connolly instantly sings me the passage, not quite Bellini-pure but with subtle inserted decorations at key moments. It sounds utterly thrilling – another reason to see the show! So Rossini went too far? 'Purely personally, I'm not great on all that Rossini show-stopping stuff. Cenerentola is definitely not me!' And I get a glimpse of the serious, quite intense Sarah Connolly whose interest is in the expression of true character through singing.
Connolly is clearly enjoying the Opera North experience. Earlier this year I saw the company do three Shakespeare operas, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet, and the sense of a committed ensemble, happy in its own skin and performing some great repertoire, was palpable. 'Opera North gave me a fantastic welcome. Standards are high and the chorus is wonderful. And Marie Arnet as Juliet will be fantastic – she looks terrific and is great to act with'. Arnet of course stepped in to the role to replace Sarah Tynan, who sang a notable Sophie in ENO's Rosenkavalier earlier this year. It sounds as if the substitution will be a success. But Connolly makes no rash predictions. 'This is the way I see Bellini and the role, and all I can do is give it my best shot and hope that people like it'. The chances are good.
What lies ahead? Her schedule lists a concert performance of Act Two of Tristan und Isolde at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on 10 December (repeated on 13 December at the Festival Hall in London). Is she going to become a Wagner singer? Connolly laughs. 'No. I'm just dipping my toe into Wagnerian waters here. The point is that Brangaene is a lyric mezzo role, and all the big orchestral noise comes when I am singing at the top of my voice, where it is strongest. Besides, Vladimir Jurowski (who will conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra) is extremely considerate and flexible and I know that it will be wonderful singing for him. But I am not looking at any Wagner roles – I do not want to push my voice and I don't believe that volume, or noise, is the thing anyway. Beauty of sound and expression of character is what is important to me'. Which brings us back, of course, to bel canto.
Next year sees a Glyndebourne revival – the third – of the McVicar Giulio Cesare, with Connolly reprising the role of Caesar (which can be seen in its full glory on an Opus Arte DVD) opposite Danielle de Niese once again. I compliment her both on the 2005 performances (two of which I saw) and the DVD. Connolly is modestly reticent. 'I think they actually wanted to DVD the revival performances with David Daniels, but there were some technical reasons why they could not, so reluctantly they went with me'. Is there a hesitancy here, a reluctance almost to believe in her own success? Does it stem from that long, tough battle (referred to on her own website) to progress from the ranks of the chorus to star soloist in her own right? Whatever the cause, my own feeling is that as an artist she is well-grounded: there is something in her northern background, her career to date and her artistic outlook that keeps her in touch with the ordinary in life and makes her into that magical being onstage – the artist who communicates.
I asked her about her more recent Glyndebourne experience, singing the part described as 'Alto soloist' in Katie Mitchell's 2007 version of the St Matthew Passion, a production (although not her performance) disliked by most of the critics. Did she and the cast feel slightly beleagured as the run progressed? 'I had seen Katie's work before and loved it. Doing that production was an amazing experience. We all became so deeply involved, and Katie used us not only as artists but as people. So as people, we brought our own ideas to the show, and in the course of the run there were subtle changes all along. Katie had one mantra – no coasting! And she wanted us to make our characters real, the whole time. I loved it. I also really enjoyed singing for Richard Egarr, who brought so much solidity and experience to the music. And apart from being a fine musician, he's a really nice person'.
So what about Octavian, Connolly's most recent role for ENO? 'I had made a vow to myself, which was that the first time I ever sang the role of Octavian, it would be in German. Those words, and sounds, in Hofmannsthal's language, are so wonderful to sing. So having done that in my role debut with the Scottish Opera production, I worked really hard on adapting the Kalisch translation, which ENO used, to sing Octavian in English. It's very different of course but in some ways it worked extremely well. In Act Three for example, when Octavian (as Mariandel) goes into Viennese German dialect, very few members of the audience really get it, whereas in the English I was able to do a northern dialect and audiences really loved it – the jokes came alive and people understood what was going on. And it is such an intelligent production, every motivation, every piece of action thought through and in sympathy with the music. It was great'.
Look forward a couple of years. What are your dream roles? 'I should love to do Charlotte (in Massenet's Werther) in French. I sang it early on for ETO in English, but I want to do the part justice. And I want to sing Dido in The Trojans in French'. Mention of Dido's name prompts the fact that Connolly will next year make her Royal Opera House debut, singing Dido indeed but in the Purcell Dido and Aeneas under Christopher Hogwood. It's a big moment. 'Of course, but I'm really looking forward to it. People sometimes ask me if I get nervous in that opera as the big moment approaches to sing Dido's lament. But actually I don't – I'm in the part, and I'm working. It feels right and natural that that's what I sing just then, so I do it'. Connolly sang the role at La Scala in 2006, to critical acclaim. It will be a must-have ticket at Covent Garden.
I notice however that Connolly is also scheduled to sing the European premiere of Peter Lieberson's 'Neruda Songs' at the Spitalfields Festival in October 2009. I ask her about this. 'This is a huge honour. It was Jill Graham, the publisher at Chappell's, who suggested to Peter Lieberson that I might be the person to sing them. I've had a look at the music and I have listened to the songs on CD, and they lie well for my voice. Of course, there is this terrible poignancy over Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's death, and I had very mixed feelings to start with about singing 'her' part in the Matthew Passion– I felt it shouldn't be me at all, it was supposed to be Lorraine. But Peter Lieberson came back and said I should do them, so I am going to. Go for it. Be brave. That has to be my attitude'.
Connolly certainly is going for it. She is an English mezzo of distinctive timbre, versatile range and wonderfully secure technique. She also has musical and dramatic intelligence. Her Romeo – five years on from her ENO assumption of the role – should be a real coup for Opera North.
Sarah Connolly stars in I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Leeds Grand Theatre from 21 October 2008, then touring to other cities around the country.
Pictures 2 and 3 show Sarah Connolly in rehearsal with Edgaras Montvidas as Tebaldo and Marie Arnet (purple shirt) for I Capuleti with Opera North. Credit: Brian Slater. All other pictures from Askonas Holt, showing Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne and Rosenkavalier at ENO.
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