A favourite with British audiences, baritone Alessandro Corbelli has appeared to great acclaim in recent seasons as Gianni Schicchi at Glyndebourne and in Il turco in Italia, Don Pasquale, La fille du régiment and La Cenerentola at Covent Garden. The latter opera brings him back to London this month but in a different role: having previously appeared as Dandini, he's now going to play Don Magnifico, Cinderella's father, in the celebrated production. I caught up with him to discuss his career to date, his love of bel canto music, and his dream to sing Beckmesser, Wolfram and Iago.
La Cenerentola is an opera which Corbelli knows back to front and he has a lucid vision of how he wants to portray Don Magnifico. 'I can say that I see him as a victim', he begins. 'It sounds very strange, I know. The principal characteristic of Don Magnifico is flattery. He is a nobleman who has come down in the world; he's spent all his money and lost his status. So now he tries to reach that social level again by being servile towards the prince, who is really Dandini, the prince's servant, in disguise. Then when he discovers the identity of the real prince, he becomes servile towards him. His development is very interesting. He dreams about money all the time - he needs it because he's wasted all of Cinderella's patrimony - and he's not very nice in this respect.'
Corbelli has sung both Dandini and Magnifico in La Cenerentola, but says he doesn't prefer one to the other. 'They are both wonderful characters. Dandini comes from the servant commedia dell'arte tradition, like Figaro. He's the descendent of Arlecchino [Harlequin], Pulchinella, Brighella. Vocally, it's a very different part from Magnifico because of the coloratura writing - Dandini is a coloratura virtuoso. Magnifico is also a virtuoso, but in his case it's the fast syllabication.'
Unlike many Italian baritones who prefer to sing the big lyric Verdi roles, Corbelli has devoted most of his career (especially the latter part of it) to the bel canto repertoire. But, he says, 'it was only partly by choice - in other ways, it just happened. Without wanting to sound immodest, my gifts suit this repertoire. I like comedy. I started very easily with Mozart and Rossini and also all the Neapolitan operas. But I really started as a lyric baritone, and even now I still sometimes do lyrical things like La traviata, Les pêcheurs de perles and more recently Falstaff.'
Corbelli felt it was the right time to move onto this role, which has clearly been an enormous undertaking for him. He jokes that the reason he's doing it now is that 'they finally called me!', but there's more to it than that. 'It's a huge role. I have to work mainly on the text and on the colours of the music in Falstaff. Falstaff doesn't move very much or run around. He has to think and speak with the right colours and spirit, and he's very humorous. Even if he's in disgrace like Don Magnifico, Falstaff remains ironic and humorous in a way that Magnifico doesn't.'
For all its popularity, bel canto music is often derided as being inferior to that of the later romantics like Wagner or the earlier classical composers like Mozart. Yet Corbelli doesn't think it is necessary to condemn it in such terms. 'It's very different. We Italians have a melodic tradition. We invented the melody, especially with Bellini, then Donizetti and Verdi. It's another world. The orchestra has to play well, but they're in an accompanying role. Wagner, Weber and in some ways even Mozart write in a more vertical way. We are more melodic and they are more harmonic. But all this music is fantastic - I love Wagner, I love Verdi, I love Mozart.
'I don't know why people have a bad attitude about this music. We invented the art form - 'opera' is an Italian word and an Italian concept. Of course, opera has developed in different directions and different nations have taken it in different directions. But why is this great music despised?'
Part of the reason might be connected with the negative attitude towards comedy. The comedies of Rossini and Donizetti tend to be more popular with the public, even though both composers wrote many tragedies, which then fuels the critical reaction towards the repertoire as being 'frivolous'. 'But that is another misunderstanding', insists Corbelli. 'It isn't easy to write comedy at all. Goethe once described comedy as 'a tragedy which has been avoided at the last moment'. And it's true: we have to treat comedies as serious pieces, even if the end of the story is happy for some of the characters. It doesn't end entirely happily for Don Magnifico in La Cenerentola, but on another level Cinderella has forgiven him, which is happy.' But is Magnifico reformed at the end of the opera? 'At the very, very end, maybe. He weeps when Cinderella forgives him. He is not as Bartolo in Il barbiere di Siviglia - Magnifico is a little dark, but Bartolo is the worst. I understand and can forgive the situation of Magnifico.'
Alessandro Corbelli has previously sung Dandini in the Patrice Courier-Moshe Leiser production of La Cenerentola at Covent Garden, which updates the action to the twentieth century. 'That doesn't disturb me at all', he tells me. 'It means we can treat the comedy more realistically. The fairytale becomes a real piece, but it's still hilarious. The magical element with Alidoro is also beautifully done.' He describes his co-stars Magdalena Kozena (Angelina/Cenerentola) and Toby Spence (Prince Ramiro, whom we interviewed about the role here) as 'very nice people, very professional. They're very gifted and talented - perhaps in different ways from one another - and wonderful to work with'. The production also reunited Corbelli with conductor Evelino Pidò. 'I have known him since he played the bassoon in the La Scala orchestra, before he became a conductor', explains Corbelli. 'We did a tour to Edinburgh in about 1983, in which he played the bassoon. And suddenly he became an opera conductor!'
Talking to Corbelli, it's clear that music has always been his life. 'I love music and it's been like that since I was one or two', he says. 'I sang and danced and played with puppets. My father loved music very much; he was a painter but he played the piano and was very fond of both opera and symphonic music, as am I.' It also seems that Corbelli wanted to be a singer from an early age. 'I tried to sing when I was ten or eleven. I was very lucky because when I was twelve I met Giuseppe Valdengo, who died a few months ago at the age of ninety-three. He sang Falstaff, Iago and Amonasro with Toscanini. We were neighbours and he became my first vocal teacher. Later I met another who worked with me on technical things. I worked consistently from the age of twelve; I had to be very careful and take it slowly because the voice changes at about sixteen. But I never had a 'white voice' like children often have, though it was small and it took a long time to build it up. I studied privately throughout - piano, music theory and singing.'
It was a relatively smooth transition for the young Corbelli, from private tuition to the operatic stage. 'My debut was in 1973 as Monterone in Rigoletto at a small theatre in Italy. Then my first main role was Marcello, one year later in Bergamo, and I won an international competition.
'I really didn't struggle to get established. There were some difficulties, of course - everyone has some problems. For nine years I worked without an agent, then somebody called me and I've had one since.'
Corbelli's repertoire was enormously wide and varied back then, especially compared to the fairly small number of comic roles he tends to be called upon to sing today. 'In those days, I sang a wide range of things from Monteverdi to Stravinsky. It was mostly Mozart and Rossini, but also Verdi, Bellini, Puccini, Donizetti, the Neapolitan School, Paisiello, French music like Carmen and Manon, German things like Mozart's Papageno, and two English things: Nick Shadow in The Rake's Progress and Britten's War Requiem. I did that many years ago with Felicity Palmer and Philip Langridge in Italy.'
But, he says, 'there hasn't been a specific highlight. In the last few years I've reached my vocal prime, so I'm living a happy moment. Technically, I've had some sort of confirmation of what I can do and I can enjoy it, though it's still not easy. But one of the top moments for me is when I've done Falstaff. It's an incredible, huge role - vocally, psychologically and dramatically. I feel mature, technically sure of myself. I know what I'm doing.'
Now at the height of his career, there aren't many more roles which Corbelli would like to add to his repertoire, but four come to mind. 'I used to say that I would like to do Iago, Wolfram and William Tell. Maybe they will come; I don't know. I am so specialised in comic roles that I think many theatres do not think about me as a William Tell, for instance. But perhaps they might do for Iago, because he's a comic villain in some senses. Wolfram is a very melodic role, very cantabile, very lyrical - not your usual Wagner part. So I'd like to do that. Or Beckmesser, but that would take a lot of work - at least two years. Tell me three years in advance and I'll make some time! I remember Thomas Allen doing it here a few years ago. He was an incredible Beckmesser.
'In the next year or so, it's more of the same: Dulcamara, my third Falstaff at the Champs-Elysees Theatre in Paris. Here, I'm doing Bartolo in Barbiere, Don Geronio again in the extraordinary production of Il turco in Italia, and La fille du régiment here and in New York.'
Teaching is something Corbelli would like to focus on more. 'I've started to do masterclasses, and they asked me to help out on the Young Artists Programme here at Covent Garden. I love working with young people; I love voices and new talent, and it's great to give them the benefit of some of my experience. It's very interesting - I think that they expect a lot from me so it's a good experience for me, too.'
When we talk about the media's doom-ridden stories about opera audiences getting older and there being no hope for it in coming years, Corbelli's reaction is typically down to earth. 'Of course there's a future for opera', he says. 'People will always want to go and see it and enjoy it. But for example in Italy, the political and financial situation is difficult, and the government doesn't take as much care over it as they should. Politicians don't show enough interest in opera. There have been petitions to try and raise more interest in it, but it's difficult. Another problem is that there are certain directors who try to impose concepts on the text or interpret them in too much of a psychoanalytic way; it's important to read the text more closely. You have to make the audience understand that there's a heritage and a tradition which must be respected. Opera is not written nowadays very much, but it's an important artistic inheritance. However, as long as good operas continue to be performed well, it won't die.
'Opera is our lives - it reproduces real life as we experience it, that's why it's interesting. So I don't see any reason to throw it away. It's a very strange kind of theatre because we sing instead of speaking; that's the convention. It's also very collaborative, bringing lots of elements together - a bit like a musical in that respect. I also love musicals!'
Also typical of him is the modesty with which he greets my final question, regarding what he would like to be remembered for. 'Oh goodness! For my work and my singing, I suppose. What can I say? I'd like to be remembered as somebody who brought opera to the people, because that's my passion. We are not composers; we're not geniuses. Toscanini used to say, 'I am not a handsome man. I am not a genius. I am not a composer. But I am a conductor!'. My life is not like that of Pavarotti who, with all the respect in the world to him, managed his career in a very different way to me. He took care of his image as well as taking care of his voice. I'm not interested in my image in that way and would never do that. It's not part of my personality. But those were the last words of Pavarotti: that he wanted to be remembered as a singer, nothing else. I'm not a celebrity in that sense. Pavarotti played to the media, but I wouldn't be able to deal with that because of the way I am. Look at Mirella Freni: she's remembered as a phenomenal singer but didn't take care of her image in the same way as Domingo or Pavarotti. It's important to be honest in what you do and of course Domingo and Pavarotti are honest as singers, but I couldn't be like them in that sense.'
Also read our interview with Toby Spence on singing Don Ramiro for the first time in these performances of La Cenerentola here.
Alessandro Corbelli appears as Don Magnifico in Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 17 December 2007. The production continues well into January 2008 and some tickets remain over the holiday period.
Read other recent interviews with singers such as Rosalind Plowright, Claire Rutter, John Hudson, Susan Graham, Sally Burgess and Marcello Giordani here.