The climax of The Royal Opera's season is unquestionably a major revival of Verdi's revised version of Simon Boccanegra, with a stellar cast led by Plácido Domingo and Ferruccio Furlanetto. Completing the line-up are Marina Poplavskaya and Joseph Calleja, with Music Director Antonio Pappano at the helm.
Of course, the production's key point of interest is Domingo's first foray into the baritone repertoire on UK ground, and it will be seen on the BP big screens around the country, on the BBC and at the Proms. But if Domingo's Boccanegra is the novelty, Furlanetto's Fiesco promises to be an exciting chance to see one of the world's great Verdians in one of his signature roles.
Furlanetto is a great favourite with ROH audiences, having recently impressed in roles as varied as Verdi's King Philip and Rossini's Don Basilio: for many, he was the highlight of both productions. He first came to international prominence in the mid-1980s with a series of important collaborations with Herbert von Karajan, and subsequently ventured into Russian and French repertoire.
When we meet at the end of the rehearsal period, we start by talking about the varied roles he has sung. It's not all been Verdi, he says: 'I had a good twenty years of mostly Mozart, especially the Leporello in Salzburg with Karajan. That really opened a lot of doors at the time, so it was very important. It was also important to grow, vocally and artistically. The Mozart repertoire is pure medicine for a singer, and you need growth. You never approach Mozart by trying to create a different voice from your natural one, so having done twenty years in this way, it made everything easier when I went back to my initial repertoire, which was the dark Verdi roles. My debut was as Sparafucile in Rigoletto. Then when I came back to this heavier repertoire, it was actually much easier than before.'
All along, this seemed a natural progression. 'It was my starting repertoire,' he reminds me. 'I started to sing in this profession with Verdi, which I felt was my daily bread. At that time, luckily for us, there was no chance to sing major roles, so I was fortunate to spend the first four or five years doing quite simple roles. That's important because you can get experience and grow, but you can afford to live. And you're not exposed. So it's an ideal experience, and when the moment comes to sing more important roles, you're ready.
'Mozart came because I had Cesare Siepi as an idol, and he was doing Figaro and Don Giovanni, so I started to aim in that direction. It really opened the door for me. The Leporello with Karajan was in 1987, and the year before, I did King Philip with him. I was covering and an emergency came, so I jumped in. The afternoon before, I was a young promising singer; the afternoon after, I was a reality. So that was a defining moment for me.'
Why does Fiesco appeal to him? 'When it comes to the big Verdi roles for bass, you're often a typical, stubborn old guy. Think about Silva in Ernani, for instance: he's talking about revenge from the very beginning, and he never changes because he finishes with the triumph of his revenge. Then you have the high priests and the kings – it's always in that sort of direction. Fiesco starts like Silva, with rage and hatred, partly because of the difference in social classes, and he goes on like that. But in the end, Verdi gives him an incredible opportunity for redemption. This change of character is amazing. Fiesco suddenly has the courage to admit all the mistakes he's made in his life up to the moment he realises that not only was Boccanegra not guilty of the death of his daughter, but also that he has found his niece. There is this magnificent duet for Fiesco and Boccanegra in which there is a triumph of this redemption for both of them.'
The psychology of the characters Furlanetto plays is always a huge attraction. 'It's very theatrical; he's a very theatrical character – not at the height of King Philip, but close to it. Vocally, it's not exactly easy, because at that level there's nothing easy, but it's nothing very demanding, apart from the finale where he's first extremely violent, and then you need to find a colour where he's extremely soft in order to show this redemption. So if you like, there's a difficulty at the end where you start in the usual way and end with something very confidential and soft.
'It's a very interesting role. I've been doing it since 1982 – it was one of my very first important roles. The very first important role I did in Italy was Oberto, Verdi's first opera. I was very young, and I was sweating blood. Being early Verdi, it has the defining characteristic of his early bass roles, which are hybrid, in between the lyrical bass part and the cabaletta, which is always high. Jerusalemand Lombardi and many others are like this, too. Immediately after Oberto, I went to the Met, where I made my debut as the Grand Inquisitor. The following year, I had my first Procida in Vespri, and the year after that I did Boccanegra. So it is something like 28 years.
'The same thing happened with King Philip. My first one was in Germany in 1980 or '81. It's important with these very monumental roles to have the chance to do them when you're young and then grow up with them. Even without touching them, they get more mature. And so it was for both Fiesco and Philip.'
Does he have more sympathy for them now? 'Yes. Let's say that it is very easy for me to fit into Fiesco's skin. Of course, I prefer to play Philip because he is a great piece of music theatre, like Boris or Don Quichotte or Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral. The latter is one of my very favourite pieces, and I wish it were done more often.'
Elijah Moshinsky's production is ostensibly traditional: does Furlanetto prefer stagings to be set in the right time and period? 'I would say so, yes. I don't have anything against modern versions of operas. But if you do them, you need a lot of talent. It can happen. For instance, in the mid-1990s I did Don Giovanni in Salzburg for three years with Patrice Chereau. It was anything but traditional, but it was a piece of genius. But you need a genius to do that, and unfortunately today we don't have so many of those around. So today, when it comes to putting together something that monumental and important, it is better to stay in period.
'I did a very modern Boccanegra in Paris three or four years ago, where everything was based on politics. It was set on a modern election day, where there were big photos of Fiesco and Boccanegra dressed like Che Guevara. It just doesn't make sense or tell the story. Who cares? They wouldn't face these problems in the same way. The politics in Boccanegra is just in the prologue. There, it's important to present the figures of Fiesco and Boccanegra, the nobles against the plebeians. After that, it's just the hate and rage between these two characters, and the love between the young ones, as well as the grandfather, father, niece, and so on.
'The period is very specific, too. In the Council Chamber Scene, I see Adorno fighting with a Guelfo. When you put the situation in the modern day, where are the Guelfi? Then we're talking continuously about knives and swords, so to do that with a rifle is idiotic. It's not necessary.'
Furlanetto has a great fondness for Antonio Pappano, the conductor of this production. 'I met Tony when he was 26, I think. He was helping us in a tour with the Orchestre de Paris in Tel Aviv. We were doing the three Da Ponte/Mozart operas with Ponnelle and Barenboim. Tony played the piano brilliantly as always, and somehow we grew up in the same direction. We are first friends and then colleagues. It's ideal to work with him – we joke, we have fun.'
Obviously, the bass is greatly experienced in this role. Is it possible to learn anything new? 'Every time that you face an opera, in the approach with different conductors and directors you find something new. For instance, this time we have Elijah Moshinsky, who is very clever. I like him very much. He reads the text and music and finds an alternative to something that's normally routine. You might have done the role for twenty-eight years, but you can still do something in a way that is not exactly conventional. Opera lives through different interpretations, different artists, different conductors. That's why it's still alive. If it were the same every time, it would have died long ago. There is new human material applied to it each time.'
Furlanetto evidently has great reverence for Domingo, too. 'We just did this piece together in Milan a few weeks ago. It's an unusual choice, if you like. But with an artist like him, at this point in his career, why not? Probably, he is vocally more at home in this tessitura than in the one that made him famous. After a certain moment in a career, whatever experiment you choose to do, with all the knowledge and experience that you have, you will never be offensive. I respect his choice, and I think it's absolutely interesting – also for audiences, to be able to go and see a world-famous singer performing something totally different. This is a very theatrical piece, and he's a wonderful actor, so he'll be the character 200%.'
We move on to discuss Padre Guardiano in La forza del Destino, which he'll perform in Vienna in September. 'It's a very easy role – the tessitura is very comfortable from beginning to end. It's a good role to work on and not get tired. Between all the Verdi roles, this is very comfortable, but I prefer the roles where there's a chance to be an actor-singer. I love Vespri very much. If you look at Procida from the point of view of the French, he is a terrorist; but from the Palermo and Sicilian point of view he is a patriot. These black and white shades make him a fantastic character.
'I've done the Verdi roles I want to do. I've done them all: Jerusalem, Attila, I Lombardi, Oberto. For many years, I did Zaccaria, but I find him too much of a hybrid: the cabalettas are in the baritone range, so I find it tiring. All the others are OK, but young singers should be careful with it.'
Last year, Furlanetto made a rare appearance as Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia at Covent Garden. 'To be honest, I'm not so fond of the character,' he confesses. 'I don't like playing the grotesque – it doesn't give me satisfaction or fun. But I have to say, that production was so beautiful, and it was so good to work with these directors, and the result was so lovely and rewarding that on that occasion, I did like it!'
Russian repertoire takes up a fair amount of Furlanetto's time now. Does he feel a particular affinity with it? 'I love the music,' he says warmly.' As a bass, you are compelled to go into this repertoire, because most of the greatest roles were written for basses. I was lucky enough to do even Boris in St Petersburg. Recently, I went back in February to do my Russian recital of Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky; it was recorded and will come out in August.
'Even though the Russian and Italian languages don't have anything in common, they do when it comes to singing because they are both based on vowels. Therefore, the sound carries because of the vowels, and it makes life much easier for Italians singing in Russian and vice versa. It was a matter of deep work. I studied a lot for both the recital and Boris.
'I do feel an affinity for this music; it is so rewarding. And the character of Boris is a triumph for somebody who wants to act on stage. Regardless of whether it's a traditional or modern production, it's always a joy for me.'
Massenet's Don Quichotte is another of the bass's passions. 'I just did it in February, and for the White Nights in St Petersburg with Gergiev in concert. This is probably my favourite character, because he's an ideal character. Every man should be this person for at least three hours in his life. He's somebody who's totally in love with everyone else, and with nature and poetry. This comes through on every page.
'The character is sensational; that's why he's been the subject of so many books and movies. You cannot imagine, even in a concert version, the results we've had with audiences. They were jumping up and down at the end, because the beauty of the character goes straight to the heart. I'm doing a production in October in Italy, which I've just done in Brussels with Laurent Pelly. I'm very much looking forward to it because I want to do it in lots of places. The Mariinsky are taking it in 2012, and I would love to do it in Vienna. When you see people jumping like that, you realise you've given them something special.'
Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific is an interesting choice for Furlanetto. He recently played the role in Vienna and will do so again in the near future. When I ask him about it, he answers: 'Don't forget that the piece was written for Ezio Pinza – a great opera bass. He was at the end of his career, but he was still at the peak of his powers. I would have not gone to do some other musical.
'The offer to do the show originally came from Broadway. Four years ago, they started to think about the big production that has recently been running, and they asked me to do it. And I would have done it like a shot. I was so flattered, because it would have been the first production on Broadway since Pinza's. And Scarlet Johansson was due to play Nellie, originally, which made it even more exciting.
'But they wanted me for five months, and there was no way I could cancel various things I had already agreed to do because they would have sued me! It was as simple as that. I tried to persuade them to double-cast it, but it didn't work out. A few months after that, the Vienna Volksoper heard about it, and asked me to do a concert version. It was a great opportunity, so of course I agreed, and in the end it was an amazing success – to the point that they had to cancel two Bohemes to have two extra nights of South Pacific because of the demand for tickets. On the basis of that, they have asked me to do it again.'
But did he find it satisfying? 'Very much so. The two songs that Emile de Becque sings are so beautiful: “Some Enchanted Evening” is the most famous, but “This Nearly Was Mine” is the real beauty. At the beginning of September, there's always a big open-air gala in Vienna for the opening of the season for the Volksopera, and they have asked me to sing “This Nearly Was Mine”. I am thrilled to be doing it.
'After they heard about my success in Vienna, San Diego have asked me whether I can stay on for an extra week in 2014 after the Ponnelle Italiana to do South Pacific. So I said yes, of course.
'I wouldn't do any other musicals. This is something special: it was conceived from the very beginning for somebody like me, so it's totally natural to go into it. The Volksoper came to me with two other titles after South Pacific went down so well, but it's not for me.'
Furlanetto's major project in the future is his first Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier.
'I'm doing it for the first time in San Diego next season,' he confirms. 'Why am I doing it? I've done all the roles that I really want to do. But the third opera I ever did was Rosenkavalier in Trieste, where I played the Polizeikommissar. It was a fantastic cast with Gundula Janowitz, and Manfred Jungwirth as Ochs. I was absolutely fascinated by Jungwirth in particular: he was so refined. He was the perfect Ochs. I was a kid and I watched this amazing artist, and always told myself that I must do it one day. So eventually, they have organised it.
'It's a huge amount of work. And they have told me that never in history has an Italian bass sung Ochs in German. So it's a challenge and a risk!
'It's the character that's so challenging. Vocally, it has beautiful moments, but the real beauty is in the character. Here you have this country nobleman, with so many different colours, and to play with it is fun.'
With so many accomplishments, does he have any ambitions left? 'My ambition is to keep going! I have done all the things that I ever wanted to do, and I keep doing the things that I most want to do. My ambition is to maintain that for as long as it gives you satisfaction and joy. Up to now, whenever I'm onstage and in good health, I have a lot of fun. The day that changes, it will be time to forget it. For the future, I just want to focus on the things I love to do.'
Curiously, given his status as one of the world's operatic elite, Furlanetto started out by studying agriculture and forestry. What happened there? 'I was born with a voice, and I was singing at the age of 4. My great-grandfather was an opera fanatic. When I was a little kid, I didn't have a soprano voice, I had a kind of tenor voice, so my great-grandfather taught me bits of Trovatore. I did it just for the pleasure of singing, but in truth I couldn't care less at that time. You must remember that when I was that age, it was the second half of the '60s, and it was an incredible moment for pop music. I had a group and was lead singer and guitarist. I did some professional pop recordings at that time and was on TV.
'But I never liked the ambience of pop: there was already a culture of drugs, and when I met even some big names, they reminded me more of people who sleep under bridges than in big hotels. It wasn't for me.
'In the meantime, I went to high school. In Italy we have the liceo classico, which is a fantastic place for the humanities – you learn Greek, Latin, philosophy and so on. For the psychological preparation of a kid, it's the most beautiful school ever. After school, it was a question of whether to stay in the humanities, or study something else like medicine. I had a special love for nature, and I wanted to do forestry, but first I had to do agriculture for two years.
'In the meantime, I followed the advice of an aunt of mine to try with opera. She lived in Mantova, where a very famous teacher lived. I had already left pop music by then, but I was sorry not to do something with my voice, so I went to meet Maestro Campogalliani, who taught Pavarotti, Freni, Scotto and all the big Italian names of that generation. I had learnt Fiesco's aria to sing for him, but he didn't want to hear it. He just asked me to show me my vocal extension on the keyboard. He was very encouraging and told me I was a bass.
'So I started learning with him, three times a week – which was quite a trip. A year later, I had my debut in a tiny, beautiful theatre in Lonigo, close to Vicenza. I did Sparafucile with three days of rehearsal! Six months later, the important debut came as Colline in Trieste, with a very young Carreras and Ricciarelli. It was quite a cast! They were wonderful.'
I put it to him that it seems like quite an easy trajectory. 'I must say so, yes. I was very lucky. But those four years of small, unexposing roles were wonderful for me. I was working and earning money, but I was also studying the roles I dreamed of doing in the future – Giovanni, Figaro and so on. That was a big difference compared with today. I was twenty-seven. Nobody, at least in Italy, would have ever given the role of Giovanni to a man of that age. You had to go through Masetto and the Commendatore first. That's the way it should be.
'But it happened that in Treviso, a lovely city north of Venice, they did a competition where the prize was an opera. So that year, they decided to make Don Giovanni the prize, with all the roles available. I was participating for Giovanni, and I won, so I had the opportunity to make my debut in the role and sing eight performances. The finale of the competition was a concert of the entire piece. Already, the artistic director of the Teatro Regio in Torino came and asked me to come and sing Giovanni with him. Treviso was important, but Torino was a massive, important production – and I wasn't yet 28.
'I was very lucky to be Italian, I must say. In Italy, we have ten or eleven major houses – not just La Scala but also Genova, Torino, Venezia and so on – as well as lots of little theatres with short seasons where you can get work. So I never had to belong to a company. I was freelance from the first day. This is important because the choice of what I was going to do was mine. I could make mistakes and have successes. Many non-Italian singers end up going to Germany and belonging to a company where they will give you King Philip one day and Soldaten the next. That's very dangerous, because they squeeze singers without thinking of their good. There is no perspective of having a forty-year career. They squeeze them and then throw them away.
'Whenever young singers come to me for advice, I advise them to do as much Mozart as they can. It was pure medicine for me, and it should be for everybody. If it's possible to avoid belonging to a theatre and to do what you decide, that's the best thing. The administrations don't care: they just want to use you. That's very sad.'
And what would he like to be remembered for? 'I hope they will remember the interpreter. I try to privilege that: the voice is important, and you must develop in the right way, but for me to meet people like Karajan and Ponnelle in the right point in my life allowed me to mix voice and interpretation. The two things combined are the best, so I hope to be remembered for things like Philip or Leporello or Boris.'
Simon Boccanegra opens at Covent Garden on 29 June 2010.
Verdi's Ernani with Furlanetto at the Met
Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin on DVD with Furlanetto
Verdi's Boccanegra with Furlanetto at Covent Garden in 2008
Rossini's Barbiere with Furlanetto at Covent Garden in 2009
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