The Milanese soprano Barbara Frittoli has been a regular fixture at Covent Garden for a decade, during which time she has appeared in a variety of roles including Mozart's Fiordiligi and Vitellia and Verdi's Luisa Miller. After it closed for two years of refurbishment, she also took part in the House's reopening production of Falstaff as Alice Ford. Successes at Salzburg with Abbado and Vienna under Muti in the 1990s secured her position as one of the world's foremost lyric dramatic sopranos, with Verdi a specialty; she remains a favourite in Vienna and at the Met. Her discography includes roles in Il trittico for Decca and Turandot for BMG, while her albums of arias by Verdi (under Colin Davis) and Mozart (with Charles Mackerras) remain highly-esteemed examples of this repertoire on disc.
Now Frittoli is back at Covent Garden to play the Countess in the second revival of David McVicar's production of Le nozze di Figaro under Mackerras, a regular partnership. I chatted to her on the eve of the dress rehearsal to ask her about her welcome return to London and her plans to add roles such as Aida and Thais to her repertoire.
Le nozze di Figaro is one of Mozart's best-loved opere buffe but as Frittoli sees it, the Countess is far from being a comic character. 'Well, I think that none of the characters is comic!' she declares. 'It's very important to remember where these people have come from. The Countess is Rosina from Il barbiere di Siviglia. Of course, she is married now, and she's growing up a bit, but she's still the same person. She's a bit like Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, very pathetic, and she finds herself in a strange situation with the Count and the others. Perhaps Bartolo and Marcellina can be comic characters, but none of the others is.'
Does that mean she's a weak person? 'No of course she's not weak. It's a little bit of a shame that this production is set a century after the play, because in the era Beaumarchais was writing about, women were not allowed any power: they could not have a say about anything. The Countess has to go on as she is, and the Count makes all the decisions for her. That's why she has to have help from Susanna and Figaro, whose actions are in her favour as well as their own.'
In La mere coupable, the third of Beaumarchais' Figaro plays, the Countess has had an affair with Cherubino. But Frittoli doesn't think that's part of the action of Mozart's Figaro. 'There's not even a mention of it. But in the second act, there's the brief scene where Susanna and the Countess play with Cherubino and dress him up. It's obvious that he's madly in love with her and wants her. But at the end of the day, they are just two young women who want to play with a boy, no more than that. In this production, there's a brief indication that the Countess will have a baby with Cherubino, but for me it's not so important. We know what happens in the future, but that's enough.'
Although the Countess has two big arias and various other important numbers to sing, she doesn't appear at all in Act I. Does that bother Frittoli? 'It doesn't bother me in the least. I mean, the title role is Figaro, and he and Susanna are the most important characters. Beaumarchais intended it that way: the servants were the people he wanted to write about. When the play was first performed, it was a social scandal because of the way it depicts the serving class and their interaction with their masters. So for me, it's not a problem. Also, it needs to be clear to the audience what has happened in Act I before the Countess arrives in Act II, so I don't care about not appearing in the first act. And I never care if I'm playing the title role or a small role – when the cast is so nice and good at what they do, as they are here, you don't care.'
What's the working relationship like with Sir Charles Mackerras, the conductor of this revival? 'Oh, it's very special. Of course, sometimes it's not easy because he knows so much about the music and is so famous for doing it! And not everyone does Mozart like he does, but that makes it very interesting. The main thing is that he is so energetic, which is very important for Mozart. Mozart must be kept alive, and if anything, Sir Charles is even more energetic and funny in this production than he normally is. He's also a great musician, of course, and he matches his energy to the stage action: to conduct this music well, you have to know how to follow what happens on stage.'
David McVicar's production updates the action to around 1830. What does Frittoli make of that? 'Beaumarchais was alive in the eighteenth century, not the nineteenth century, and for me, I normally like Mozart to be performed in period. However, the way they have done this production is fantastic – the costumes and scenery are beautiful. I did a modern production once, and I hated it: although I like the modern way of acting, I don't like to update the setting. How can you talk about the droit de seigneur in a modern period, for instance? They've done it all well here, but in other productions I've worked on, they've changed the words because, unsurprisingly, it doesn't work. It's like Shakespeare: it doesn't really make sense to do Romeo and Juliet in anything other than the original time period.'
I ask Frittoli about adding the role of Aida to her repertoire in the middle of a year in which she'll also sing Figaro again and Così fan tutte. 'I'm singing a lot of Verdi too, so my problem is to keep Mozart in my repertoire. I like it so much, and I don't want to lose it. On the other hand, I know that some Mozart needs younger people – and I don't want to keep jobs away from other singers! So I'm moving on a little, because I'm getting older, I'm growing up a bit, and the voice is changing. So I'm going on with Aida. We'll see how it works. I have accepted the offer to do it in Munich, and now other opera houses want me to do it for them too, but I want to see how it goes first. This has always been my way. If it's wrong for me, I will leave it. If it's good, I'll do it again. It's better not to do too many operas – do the ones that are right for you, your repertoire.'
Later this year, Frittoli will also sing Massenet's Thaïs for the first time, in Torino. I ask her about this rare foray into French repertoire. 'Well, I have done the soprano roles in Faust, Carmen and Moïse. But for some reason, theatres tend not to ask me to do French roles. Part of the problem is that the most important roles in French repertoire are for the mezzo-soprano, but I'm very happy to be doing Thaïs – the story's wonderful, and Noseda is conducting – so we'll see how it goes!'
Frittoli's working relationship with Gianandrea Noseda will also continue this year at the Proms, where she will sing Puccini's Il tabarro for the first time. 'He pushed me so much to do it, but I'm not sure I will do it again. I certainly won't do it in the theatre, but I thought that since it's a concert performance it would be OK. I much prefer to do Suor Angelica and I would love to do that again. One should never say never, but if I started to play Giorgetta in Tabarro on the stage, they would ask me to do Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi as well, which needs a very young soprano and would make it a very long evening!
'Even though I love his music, I don't like to do too much Puccini. It's so hard for the voice – not technically, but emotionally. The music is very passionate and it's very hard to control the voice in such emotional situations. That element of control is perhaps the most important thing for me.'
Aside from these performances of Figaro, Frittoli will be returning to The Royal Opera next year for the Verdi Requiem, of which she says: 'It's a piece I love to do, and I've done it a lot – the last time was ten days ago! It's very difficult, but very beautiful.' But other than that, she has no further engagements with the company. 'They are asking me to do something, and I would love to. The problem is to find the right moment – I'm very busy! I really like it here – I love London, and I'm not just saying that because I'm here at the moment. It's the only city I would like to live in. I always found it a nightmare to live in Paris for a couple of months, because I don't like it there so much, but London's wonderful. My daughter is with me – she's at school at the moment – so it's perfect, and I hope to come back. I always have a long list of things I want to do here, and now I can take my list around with me and do some of them!'
Since her repertoire tends to revolve around Italian vocal music of the nineteenth century and some classical works by Mozart, it comes as a surprise to learn that this is not the music with which Barbara Frittoli grew up. 'In my home, my father would come back from work very late every day and put on an LP, usually of a Mahler symphony. He loved Mahler and Wagner, and my mother was the same! It was nearly always symphonic music, not opera. At the age of nine, I went to the conservatoire to learn the piano. Then when I was about twelve years old, they said to me, "You are in the chorus from now on", and I thought, "OK, shut up and sing, I will go if it's necessary". At around this time, I met other wonderful musicians, who knew all these operas, and they would say to me things like, "Have you heard Bohème?" and it would be a nightmare for me because I didn't know any of it. Anyway, at the end of this process, I was a singer.'
How did it happen, exactly? 'Well, they had put me in the chorus, then when I was sixteen or seventeen they gave me a small solo part and paid me to do it – I was happy about that! It wasn't a huge amount, but it was not studying at all – no work, just money! The conservatoire pushed me to find a singing teacher. I said "No way!" because I had to spend so many hours on practising the piano. But I was not a very good pianist! I liked it, and the music would be in my head, but I could not get it out of the piano.
'Then it got to the point where the singing was so easy that I stopped playing the piano. My piano teacher was very grateful and thanked me for that!
'Singing just happened for me. I don't want to say that it was easy, but it was a gentle way of getting into the career for me. I won some competitions and said, "OK, I will do it." I was not driven by the idea of the career particularly; I was just doing what I really loved doing.'
When I ask Frittoli if there are any new roles she'd like to do in the future, she responds: 'I could give you a long list of titles, but in truth, it's difficult to know what I would like to do in the future. They have offered me a Wagner role that I could do, but it's very scary!' She almost seems to shudder comically down the phone at this comment. 'Similarly, I've been offered Strauss roles, which is a possibility. The Vier Letzte Lieder, which I sang at the Proms with Noseda, is one of my ten favourite pieces. My problem is that I don't speak enough German. It's so difficult to perform a part when you don't speak the language properly. It's not enough just to learn how to pronounce the words. I have to see if I have time to practice for long enough, perhaps with a coach who can talk to me about the language. I need every word – you know to know all the roles inside out to know an opera properly, not just your own.'
Frittoli has a new recording out in the coming months. 'For Sony, I've done a CD of the Boccherini Stabat Mater. It's a lovely piece and I'm happy that we did it. It was recorded live with the La Scala orchestra. Last year another Falstaff came out, but there isn't any more Verdi at the moment.' Any other ambitions? 'I think it is enough to be healthy and to go on doing what I'm doing. I have enough from life. I could say "I want to do this and this and this", but then I look at all the problems in other people's lives and think, "Just shut up and work!". My daughter is wonderful; I have my health. If my life goes on like this, I will be fortunate.'
When I ask her what Frittoli would like her legacy to be, her reply is decisive: 'I would like to be remembered for my professionalism. This is very important to me. It's not enough just to have a nice voice and move nicely round the stage.
'There's a lot of prejudice against the Italians. But we are a very clever nation and have a lot to offer. It's really not nice for us to have this bad reputation when we spend so much time studying and working hard, so it's a big thing for me to be remembered for being a very professional singer.'
Barbara Frittoli plays the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden from Tuesday 24 June.
Other interviews with artists involved in this production of Figaro:
Robert Lloyd on Bartolo
Image credit for black and white portrait: Johannes Ifkovits