When Sonia Ganassi had to back out of The Royal Opera's revival of Verdi's Don Carlo due to pregnancy, it can't have been easy to find a replacement that would suit such a high-profile cast. Jonas Kaufmann as Carlo, Simon Keenlyside as Posa and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Filippo are arguably unsurpassable on the current opera scene in their roles, and the luxury casting continues right down to Sir John Tomlinson's Grand Inquisitor and Robert Lloyd's Monk.
But in the end, no less an artist than Marianne Cornetti has stepped into the breach as Princess Eboli. The American mezzo has conquered all the world's major houses in recent years, with appearances in the big Verdi roles at the Met, La Scala and Vienna, and her Covent Garden debut as Eboli is timely to say the least. Her repertoire encompasses roles such as Lady Macbeth, Azucena, Amneris and Ulrica from the Verdi canon, whilst recent forays in different directions have found her singing Ortrud from Wagner's Lohengrin, Giovanna Seymour from Anna Bolena and the Principessa di Bouillon from Adriana Lecouvreur.
When we meet, Cornetti is enthusiastic about working at Covent Garden for the first time. 'It's very productive here,' she says. 'And I'm sort of the new kid on the block, because everybody else has been here, so they rehearsed me first. It's a good atmosphere with wonderful singers – what more could you ask for?'
She admits that this is an important step in her career. 'It's the same as making my Met debut, because this is such a fantastic theatre. I think of it as the leading European house. It's a theatre that's so well run, and the quality is so high. What's so wonderful on top of it all is that whereas some places like this can turn into a factory, they're very personal and human here. On the first day, finding your way around here's a little difficult, but people literally take you by the hand for the first two or three days. That makes me feel much more comfortable.
'This is one of the last European theatres for me to make my debut in, so it's a big moment for me.'
The character of Eboli is one that fascinates Cornetti, not least because she's full of so many contrasts. 'She's very sympathetic at the end,' the mezzo explains. 'She knows that she has ruined the Queen's life – she's destroyed her marriage. She's a woman who is fiery, and full of life. Imagine the heat of the Spanish summer, with the clothes that they wore back then – and no men, none! So she has this "hotness" about her, that she's one of the special ones, who's having an affair with the King. And yet, to connect that with "O don fatale", she's probably one of those women who says yes to every man and then really regrets it.
'I think she's very vain, and very narcissistic. In the first trio, Rodrigo is begging the Queen to speak to Carlo, who wants to come back, and all of a sudden Eboli thinks "Oh my God, that day when I was with the Queen, I saw Carlo trembling a little bit. He must be in love with me!" Who thinks that way? Only somebody very narcissistic, who's driven by sex.
'So from the onset, you have to see the whole character. You have to see all of the layers: the first, flirtatious scene; then she falls in love with Carlo; then she becomes a vengeful bitch; and then she realises what she has done to the Queen by taking the casket of jewels, and she's remorseful. I think she's devastated by what she's done. That's Eboli in a nutshell!'
Though Don Carlo is notoriously an ensemble piece, demanding high-level performers in five or six roles, Cornetti doesn't see it as a competition. 'Eboli herself is such a great, strong character,' she explains. 'It's like the roles of Azucena, Amneris and Lady Macbeth: they're all the drivers of the drama. Without Eboli, what do we have? Nothing. There are big chunks of Eboli in Don Carlo, and in the Italian version there are lots of holes in it that we don't see. But I have to say, Nick Hytner is a genius: he establishes her connection with Carlo even in the Veil Song. All Eboli's scenes are tremendously dramatic, so she herself has no competition, and I don't compete against anybody because you want to lean on your colleagues for support. It's probably the most difficult role I've done. It's more treacherous even than Lady Macbeth, because of the Veil Song. In this production especially, every inch of the song is choreographed. It makes sense, but it's so hard.'
I ask her about the different versions of the opera, which Verdi continued to amend throughout his life. 'I've never sung the French version, but I'm doing it next year in Bilbao. That version really fills in the holes in Eboli's character. It makes so much more sense. But I'm much more at home with the Italian language.
'And people just accept the ins and outs of her, and know what she's done. For instance, we never see her write her letter, but all of a sudden she's in the garden with Carlo.'
Of Nicholas Hytner, the opera's director, Cornetti simply says 'I adore him. And the difference is simply that he's a theatre man. He's not just a traffic cop like so many stage directors are. He digs into the emotions and psychology. We were doing "O don fatale" and he said to me, "Marianne, this is the moment when she hates every time she's said yes to the King". It's about hating herself for what she gave up all the time. I think that's so true. He gets into the nitty-gritty of the text, and it's wonderful. He doesn't stick to what happened last year, either: there's certain basic bits of blocking, but the rule is that what works for you, works for you, as long as it's understandable. He's all about raw emotions.'
And the mezzo clearly admires conductor Semyon Bychkov, too. 'He's one of the most musical maestros I've worked with. He's very detailed about what's in the score. I like him, because he tells you what to do, gives you ideas, leaves you alone, and then comes back to you if something's not working. I was very impressed by the amount of detail he brought out during the first music rehearsal. In a piece like this, you really need the details. He said "I promise you that if you sing pianissimo, I'll make the orchestra play pianississimo". In a lot of these big pieces, you're constantly having to sing loud, so being able to do Eboli with those kinds of contrasts makes it so much more interesting.
'I like him, and in fact all my colleagues are wonderful. I've worked with Ferrucio [Furlanetto] many times. Marina [Poplavskaya] is a sweetheart and very willing to do whatever's needed. Simon, Jonas – everyone's working together.'
The majority of Cornetti's repertoire has been Verdi, for several reasons. 'First and foremost, it's a vocal thing: I'm capable of singing Verdi. But it's also because I love these characters – the witches and the bitches and the queens. They're the ones who drive the operas. Ulrica, Azucena, Amneris, Lady Macbeth, Eboli: there's no drama without these women. I love that temperament of character. I'm half-Italian, half-Irish, and I've got that kind of temperamento. I love that kind of fire inside the belly of the characters I play. And the other roles I do are the same. I do Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana; I do Ortrud in Lohengrin.'
Is there going to be more Wagner? 'We'll see. Ortrud has been great. I did Brangaene; she was alright, but she was too passive for me. It's a very hard sing, and it went fine, but it's not my character. I like to get into the meat of things. Wagner could open up more for me – we'll have to see. Maybe I'd like to do something like Die Frau ohne Schatten too. But the reason Lohengrin has worked so well for me is that it's early Wagner and it's more Italian in style.
'What I am going to start doing is Abigaille in Nabucco. It wasn't my idea! My manager called and said that Brussels wanted to hire me to do it. I couldn't believe it, but I said OK. And within two weeks, Napoli called and said "We think Marianne could do Abigaille". Within another three months, Palermo was looking for a second Abigaille for their run of Nabucco, and my manager suggested my name because I was keen to try it out. So I'm doing three runs of it! It's in Palermo in February, in Napoli the following year, and then in Brussels.'
So Cornetti is going down the more dramatic route rather than looking at more bel canto, but she remembers that 'I did Anna Bolena a couple of times, and I wouldn't mind doing something like that every once in a while. It caresses the vocal cords. If you sing it right, you just touch the cords; you don't get into the thickness of them as you do with Verdi. But I do fifty or sixty shows of this stuff!'
The schedule of an international opera singer is gruelling, and when I ask Cornetti about balancing her life with her job, she admits that 'It's very hard. I'm not married, and it's impossible. Way back in my early twenties, someone bought me a visit to a palm reader for my birthday. The person immediately saw that I was some sort of entertainer. I asked at what age he thought I would be married, and he answered that he thought it would happen when I'm fifty-eight. It's funny, but that's about the time that I'd like to stop singing because I have another dream. I want to be the director of an opera company. It's a huge passion of mine, and I've always wanted to do it. In fact, I've always wanted to parallel my career with that of Beverley Sills – of course, she ran New York City Opera – if I last that long, of course!
'I'm assuming that if someone came along, that would be wonderful, but being on the road for eleven months of the year, I never get the chance to meet anybody. My nieces and nephews said to me this year, "Next year, you're coming with us!" Because you don't stop: if you're not singing, you're learning a new role or travelling. At some point, I guess you have to realise that the next production's only going to put more money in the bank, and stop working so much.
'But I'm very fortunate in having close friends: Nelly Miricioiu and her family are like my second family, and that's such a gift. Whenever I'm in Europe, I can come home to them here for the weekend, and it's my bed.'
Cornetti's early years were full of music. 'I came from a very musically-loving family,' she says warmly. 'It was all from my Irish mum's side. My mother played the piano, and she raised us as loving music. It was part of our lives. In the sixth grade, I was given the opportunity to sing a solo, and I did "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing". My brother said, "My God, Marianne has such a loud voice!" From there, it was the hand of God. In the eighth grade, I got a wonderful teacher with whom I studied for four years before going to the Manhattan School of Music. So there's always somebody there at every turn.
'Not that it wasn't difficult: I went to Manhattan for a year and then left because the experience was so terrible. I went to Cincinnati Conservatory for a couple of years, and then came down with a dreadful thyroid problem. That meant I was out of school for a year. I re-registered to go back, but when I was thirty miles away I lost my nerve and turned round and went home.
'My parents looked at me and said "What are you doing?" and I replied "I don't think I want to be a singer any more". They said that was fine, but that I had to go back to school and find out what I could do. I took a test to see what my strengths were. The first was music; the second was human services – because I love people; and the third was outdoor work, because I loved to be outside helping my dad in the garden. So I put the first two together, and started to study speech pathology at Penn State.
'And I hated it! It was all clinical, and wasn't part of my soul. I kept at it though, and transferred to Dusquesne University in Pittsburgh. The administrator there told me that since I had so many credits in Music, I should finish my Music degree there. I wasn't keen, but he said I could do a double major. But I was later told that I had to choose between Speech Pathology and Music, and I decided just to finish the Music. I started to sing again, got a voice teacher, and it bit me. I loved my voice teacher, and after two months she said "If you don't sing, it will haunt you for the rest of your life". And I've never looked back.
'I finished my degree, did three years at the Pittsburgh Opera's Young Artist programme, and then went to the Met to sing all the small roles for five years. And little by little, I started to sing Azucena. I did it like the old-time singers such as Simionato did it: little by little. She was well into her career before she sang a big role. You can't do these big roles as a young girl – it would eat you up. It's too demanding vocally.'
What have been the highlights so far? 'My debut as a professional at Pittsburgh Opera was a big deal for me – I sang one of the Maids in Elektra. Then I made my debut at the Met in Death in Venice. I sang the Russian Nanny – it's just a teeny little role, but when I took my bow I thought the whole world was looking at me! From there, I did my first Azucena in 1995 in Atlanta. They had hired me to do Fenena in Nabucco but they decided to postpone it for a year and asked me to do Trovatore instead. I flew to New York and sang it with my teacher, and she said "Marianne, this is like a glove to you".
'I started at the Met in 1993 and left in 1998. During those years I gradually picked up Azucena and Amneris in other houses, and after Mamma Lucia at the Met in 1998 I said "No more small roles". And they looked at me and said "Oh really?". I replied, "I'll be back, just you wait and see!" And four years later, I was back there doing Amneris. That to me was beyond description. In places like that, they put you in a box: if you do small roles, you're going to stay doing them forever, regardless of what you were doing outside. I had to prove that I can do this, and although I've now been back to do Ballo and Trovatore I still feel I always have something to prove.
'In 2000 I had my La Scala debut in Il trovatore, and that was unbelievable. Singing my first Lady Macbeth, last year, was a huge vocal challenge, because it's always a hard role for a mezzo. And this Eboli is a huge moment for me. Again, I feel I have something to prove, and Eboli is the role I've done least – only ten performances compared to 250 for Azucena. It's very important for me to do well here.'
I ask her about her ambitions for the future, and she says that 'I really want to run a company. I think that putting together the puzzle is fascinating: the correct singers, the right director, the right voicings, the chemistry of singers, the right maestro.'
Finally, I ask Cornetti what she would like to be remembered for, and she answers: 'It's such an interesting question, because I've often said it to myself. It's the person. I was always taught that I had a tremendous gift from God. My mum taught me: "It's your gift, but don't ever forget who you are." One day, it will all come to an end, and I will still have to be Marianne Cornetti. If I were to die, and people were talking about me, of course I'd want people to remember what I'd brought to the public. But more than that, I want to be remembered for the human Marianne. I'm a giver; I want to make the world better.'
Marianne Cornetti appears in Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 15 September. For more information, visit http://www.roh.org.uk/.
News: Marianne Cornetti takes over in ROH Don Carlo
Opera Review: Verdi's Don Carlo with Rolando Villazon - ROH 2008
Opera Review: Verdi's Don Carlo at La Scala
Opera Review: Verdi's Don Carlo at Opera North
Interview: An interview with Simon Keenlyside, who plays Posa in this production
Interview: An interview with Jonas Kaufmann, who plays Carlo in this production
Interview: An interview with Marina Poplavskaya, who plays Elisabetta in this production
Interview: An interview with Sir John Tomlinson, who plays Grand Inquisitor in this production
Interview: An interview with Robert Lloyd, who plays Monk in this production
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