A couple of weeks ago, Romanian-born British soprano Nelly Miricioiu had no particular plans for the beginning of July. Then late one night, an apparent miracle happened: she received a call from the Royal Opera, asking whether she would like to take over the role of Puccini's Tosca from an ailing Deborah Voigt. She'll sing the part at the performances on 11 and 18 July, with the others being taken by her compatriot Angela Gheorghiu; the stellar cast also includes tenor Marcello Giordani and Bryn Terfel.
It's a dream come true for the soprano, who has not been seen at Covent Garden for nearly half a decade. When I meet her for a quick chat during a hectic rehearsal schedule, Miricioiu is brimming with excitement and clearly can't believe her luck.
'It is the chance that not so many people have at my stage of career,' she says with humility. 'I'm excited because this is where I live, this is where I got married, this is where my family is, this is where my life is. The first day I came in for rehearsal, I said to myself, "Gosh, how I've missed it – the standards, the quality." Covent Garden has changed a lot, and entirely for the better. I love the feeling I'm getting from everyone. They're in tune with art – the exact thing they're here to do – and everyone seems to be humble. In my time, there were lots of egos around. Each one was another diva, no matter where you turned. So I became stronger and more defensive, and I didn't like it because that's not my personality. It was a different epoch. It's wonderful to be here now.'
And she knows that she can do it, telling me with humour, 'Did you know that Magda Olivero sang Tosca for her Met debut at the age of 57?' Olivero is considered one of the finest Toscas of all time, and she and Miricioiu enjoyed mutual respect and admiration for one another.
Yet Miriciou is tackling the role completely afresh for Covent Garden. 'I'm rediscovering Tosca really,' she says fervently. 'This production's the best I've ever done! It just feels right for the time, and for the sort of mind I have. The one thing I was particularly happy about is that Stephen, who's reviving the production, has been working with me on such beautiful details. He's helped me to break away from the cliché, from the old-fashioned Tosca, from the crazy diva who goes onstage and makes these big statements.'
She did the classic Franco Zeffirelli staging, originally mounted for Maria Callas, three times. 'It was such a beautiful production,' she says sincerely, 'and I'm sure it was just as exciting as this one when it was new, but it had become tired.'
Miricioiu enthuses about the cast for the current revival. 'Everything around me is so positive, with Bryn and Marcello, and Jacques the conductor. Everyone is part of a team that cares about the music and not egos. It's a fantastic moment for us.
'I sang Tosca to Bryn's very first Scarpia in Amsterdam, and we had a ball. We had a ball – we're very compatible and we love one another. I've done Rigoletto and Traviata with Marcello, too, so it's very nice to find old friends. We're very comfortable. And I have to say, I'm full of admiration for the two of them: they have to rehearse two sopranos, but they've never held back, and there's been no time wasted. It's beautiful to see that in such gifted people and such big names. They're very humble as well as being great singers.'
How did she feel when she got the offer to do it? 'Wow!' she exclaims. 'It was a dream come true. I couldn't sleep!
'What's wonderful is that we have two casts, two different Toscas, and Angela [Gheorghiu] has been adorable with me. She's a wonderful colleague and a wonderful friend. It's not been difficult at all; I know Angela, we're friends, we were born in the same city! I recognise in her a lot of things I understand myself. She does one type of Tosca, I do a different type of Tosca, and that's fine: we're all happy to respect that kind of individuality. We have such a great friendship that we're not competing at all – it's not the typical sopranos at each other's throats all the time. It's very harmonious.'
I ask Miricioiu why this Tosca is different from the other ones. 'I remember in the past, the Toscas I worked on were much more "bitey" and stronger. This one is more feminine. There is an understanding of Tosca as a woman rather than Tosca as a diva. That's good, because I think that when we go out there and perform, we are divas anyway. So there's no need to emphasise that aspect. She's an opera singer, but it goes without saying: you walk onstage, you have a personality – it's already part of the package. What I love about this production, then, is that it's working on the human side instead of the diva side.
'There are lots of little touches like the movement of the hands – it's something I've always loved. The best directors in my career have always been the ones who've got me to move my hands beautifully and elegantly and stylishly. It's almost like choreography, and I enjoy it. It's part of the diva quality. And Tosca was part of high society, so she must have learnt the manners of the day – to have expressive hands, rather than just to hang them round her body, or indeed to do too much with them. I adore the sets and the costumes too, of course: they're out of a movie.
'It really has a Shakespearean quality to it, like Hamlet: you get that 'To be or not to be' feeling out of her. That works so well because she's permanently debating with herself. I'm learning more and more about her: I don't care how many times I've done it before, I always want to know more about my roles. It's an entirely fresh characterisation.
'I used to say that I didn't like Tosca very much, but in the middle of rehearsals I suddenly said, "I love how I do her now!" I've found something in her, and I see it differently, so it makes it different vocally too. I'm a very instinctive artist, and I always cut into an interpretation that stimulates my vocality. Obviously, I have a strong basis and a technique, but sometimes things happen to my voice that I cannot explain. And it can be in my favour, or against me. But I've never stopped doing that, because I don't want to lose the spontaneity and the freshness. I don't want to be a routine Tosca – or any role, for that matter. Each performance has to have a new flavour.'
Miricioiu fondly remembers her first Tosca, back in the 1980s. 'It was in Glasgow with Scottish Opera. It was set in the Nazi times. I loved it, and it was a very interesting production. I remember once, though, that someone told me not to overact. For a long time I did, because I never realised how powerful my body and my face are. Then when I tried to stylise it, I became too peaceful! I always struggled about having either too much temperament or being too placid, so now I have a happy medium between the two!
'Even the musical tempi with Jacques seem cleaner, in a way, this time around. It's not metronomic, but we both know where we are and we don't take each other for granted. I heard some of the orchestral rehearsals, and he's made it so beautiful without losing the charm. Puccini is very flexible, of course, but even within that flexibility he needs to have a shape and a colour. It can't be all over the place. I remember in my past, a lot of conductors were very sympathetic to me and indulged me perhaps too much!' she laughs. 'Sometimes I do tell my conductors "Please don't be too sympathetic to me!" I need a bit of control.'
The last time I met Miricioiu, she was on the brink of singing her first London recital in over two decades. Knowing her tendency to self-criticism, I ask her how she felt about it, but she says contentedly that 'That concert pleased me. There are not many where I can say that, but that one did. I aimed for quality, expression and strength, and I think I achieved it for that evening. Nothing is perfect, of course, but I was happy. I'm a strong believer that you're as old as you think and feel, and I think if you train, you can keep going.
'I'm very much like my mother in that respect: she's eighty years old, but she's still unbelievably strong. She's independent, she paints, she's about to open an exhibition, she's still learning English, she studies history and politics. I think it's probably in the genes, but it's also a result of experience. Mum has lived through three epochs: she comes from a noble family, the royal family; and then the Communists came along, and everything was taken away; then she married my father, who was a Communist, which was a difficult time for both of them because they were not accepted; then she went through the change of the new regime; and then she came to England! Not many people of my mum's age would really adjust to that, but she did. She's become so English now herself that it's unbelievable: she says "I don't like to do those things in the way I used to do them any more". So I'm full of admiration that she has the desire and the ability to cope with that. And she has the same passion that I do.'
As well as continuing to sing around the world, Miricioiu is at work on her autobiography. 'We've already started to put down some ideas. I didn't want to write an autobiography like everybody else. I don't want to report facts because I think you can easily go on the Internet and find them.
'My concept derives from psychology: they say we all have a child inside us that stays with us our whole lives. I want to talk about what that child went through. I had a lot of things to face. As a kid, I had tuberculosis and the doctors predicted I would die. It's that child who came through lots of things that I want to talk about. Of course, I will talk about technique and the voice, because that goes hand in hand with who you are and how you develop and who you become. To me, that's more personal than just describing what I sang – that will probably be in a glossary or will be accompanied by ideas and emotions and stories, but I will not put an emphasis on that. I'm also open to ideas, because my husband has been a great observer and he will add his insights too.
'The gentleman I chose to write it, James Mayhew, is not a typical writer, but I like his approach. He can paint beautifully too, and he writes very sophisticated books for children. I've known him for a while, and the conclusions he makes about life and art are very similar to mine. I feel we can collaborate, rather than write just another autobiography. It's the journey of a singer that has never been told before.'
Miricioiu's next London opera engagement is as Violetta in the Chelsea Opera Group's concert staging next February. 'Callas sang Violetta many, many times, but she said that she was never pleased with her entire Traviata,' explains Miricioiu. 'So this is my chance to do it again and bring in all the experience I've had without making it old. I don't know: it's just a concept that will have to grow vocally, and luckily I have the time on my side to explore it and find new things. I'm lucky that I'm doing other things in the same tessitura around the same time.'
After Violetta, she's singing the title role in Donizetti's Caterina Cornaro at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. 'I've never done it before. I've got the recording of Montserrat Caballe doing the piece, and that's the very best to me. I aim to achieve that kind of standard. I look forward to that because I believe the bel canto is still in my voice even when I'm doing Tosca and Macbeth, and in any case I don't want to drop it. I think that's what's kept my voice fresh so far, and I need to keep the agility. I'm too passionate about it to let it go; I'll only do that when the voice starts to have less flexibility.
'I also have the masterclasses in August, which I'm very excited about – I have a fantastic class this year. I have lots of concerts, mainly in Holland, and a charity recital at the Purcell Room in October.'
As we part, Miricioiu emphasises 'how really, humbly happy I am to be back in front of the Covent Garden audience, and how grateful I am to the Royal Opera for giving me that chance.'
Nelly Miricioiu appears in Puccini's Tosca at the Royal Opera House on 11 and 18 July 2009. Tickets can be booked at http://www.roh.org.uk
More information on Nelly Miricioiu, including a complete discography and details on forthcoming performances, can be found at her website: http://www.nellymiricioiu.com.
Review: Nelly Miricioiu as Lady Macbeth in 2008
Review: Nelly Miricioiu as Adriana Lecouvreur in 2009
Review: Nelly Miricioiu as Beatrice di Tenda in 2007
Interview: An interview with Nelly Miricioiu prior to her May '09 recital
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