One of the undoubted highlights of the 2013 Glyndebourne season is the joyful revival of the Richard Jones production of Falstaff that first saw the light of day in 2009. And one of the undoubted highlights in that revival is the triumphant assertion of the role of Alice Ford by Glyndebourne debutante Ailyn Pérez. Four weeks into the run, we caught up with the young, prizewinning soprano between performances, to ask her about thoughts, plans, and the Glyndebourne experience so far. And in conversation, Pérez proved to be as engaging and as fun as she is ear- and eyecatching, and completely assured on the stage.
We started with the Falstaff revival. What is it like to sing the role, and to sing it with the period instruments of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the pit, under the experienced baton of Sir Mark Elder? “Oh, it’s a great experience. Of course, the orchestral sound is very different, it’s a warmer sound, and the orchestral texture makes the intonation trickier for us as singers”. Is that because the pitch is lowered? “No, the instruments are tuned to standard concert pitch, so from the vocal point of view nothing changes except that onstage, and in the audience, you hear the instrumental tapestry quite differently. All sorts of details emerge and in this incredible score by Verdi, with its crazy corners, you have to be painstakingly accurate to get everything right. It’s really a giant ensemble piece for instruments and singers, and the period instruments emphasise just how intertwined the vocal and instrumental melodic lines are. It means you can’t make a single mistake, or you put others out – normally in opera, you can recover if you make a little slip, but in Falstaff it’s so intricately put together that you have to place every note, every syllable just right”. Does that mean it’s a trial to sing? “Oh no, like I said, it’s simply a great experience and I love the production, which Sarah Fahie has revived with great wit and skill, but for example I find myself having to sing in different time signatures, say in triple time syncopated against other soloists, while the orchestra does something else yet again, and meanwhile we link hands while we step between the rows of cabbages in Ford’s garden…it’s quite complicated (she giggles), but it’s hugely rewarding. What I always have in mind, and try to achieve, is the balance between music, the notes I have to sing; time – the speed and the rhythm I give to those notes - and expressivity, which adds colour and character to the role I am singing. So all this is going on, but in the end, with the quality of the cast and orchestra we have here – which I think you can hear – we all just have to trust each other, and play out and sing out. I think it’s working”.
Audiences and critics so far agree, many regarding the ensemble that has been assembled for this Falstaff revival as even better than the original cast. And one of the secrets of success, for this as for every Glyndebourne production, is the long rehearsal period and the longish – this Falstaff has thirteen performances between 19 May and 14 July – actual run of performances. Pérez’s husband, tenor Stephen Costello was at Glyndebourne in 2011 for L’elisir d’amore. Presumably he briefed Pérez on what to expect?
“Yes, he did, and I came to Glyndebourne knowing that it would be a four month period of my life, rehearsing and performing the one opera, but actually this is longer in one place than I have spent anywhere else in my career! But the whole experience of getting to know the cast, and working with them, and getting to know the people who run the estate, has all just been so much better than I ever expected. I’ve simply loved working for Mark (Sir Mark Elder) and connecting again with some great singers with whom I’ve worked elsewhere – Laurent Naouri and Susanne Resmark – that I feel privileged to be part of this production”.
Pérez is vivacious and animated in conversation, with an enthusiasm that is contagious. But mention of the four months she is spending on the Sussex Downs prompts the obvious question – what is it like to be married to another opera singer, with his own career to maintain and foster? Her composure does not falter. “It’s all sorts of things at once – it’s a unique affair, it’s complicated and it’s challenging! Stephen and I have known each other for 8 years and we’ve been married for 5. It’s exactly the same for each of us: we have to be very understanding of the needs of the other”. What are those needs? “Well, in my case I’m married to Stephen and I’m married to the art form too. We both just have to accept that. It’s all a huge challenge, but we have certain rules – we never take each other for granted, and actually we feel very fortunate”. Especially when, as is starting to happen, they appear together onstage. “Oh, that’s very special!” Just how special will be the prerogative of a UK audience to judge later this summer, when Pérez and Costello are singing together in the first ever Branscombe Festival on 27 July, the brainchild of Ian Rosenblatt, who is doubtless taking the ethos of his Rosenblatt Recital series from London to the unique beauty of the South Devon coast.
2012 was the year of awards for Pérez – first she won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award and later in the year she became the 15th winner of the Placido Domingo Award, joining a roster of winners that includes vocal superstars such as Juan Diego Florez and Rolando Villazon. What difference do awards like these make to her developing career? Pérez comes across as remarkably matter of fact and level headed in her reply. “The first rule for a singer is to get out there and do the work. It was my very first teacher who saw that I had a connection with music and who gave me two golden rules – sing into the words and sing into the emotion. With everything I do, I am trying to communicate with the audience and I am looking for a response from them in affirmation of what they are seeing and hearing. It’s a huge responsibility, but what you have to do is consider carefully what roles are right for you, what will fit into your schedule, how you can develop your voice and your vocal personality. When I started, I had great heroines from the past – singers like Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballé – but obviously I am a lyric soprano, so I have to remain true to myself. I have a tremendous connection with the music of Verdi – his music asks everything of you – and having sung Gilda, and Violetta, and now Alice, next year I shall be singing my first Desdemona for Houston Grand Opera. Oh, and I start next year by singing Liu at the Royal Opera House”. The monumental Andrej Serban production of Turandot returns to Covent Garden this autumn, for two runs either side of Christmas, and Pérez will be in the February/March schedule, singing under the idiomatic baton of Nicola Luisotti.
2013 is of course Verdi, Wagner and Britten year. Pérez’s involvement with Verdi and her love of his music is clear, and already well documented. What about Britten? “Well, I haven’t yet sung any Britten. I should love to, and I’m sure I will before too long”. And Wagner? It is of course not always wise for a young singer to take up Wagnerian roles too early, because of the sheer physical demands on the voice, but I tempt Pérez to imagine the first part in a Wagner opera that she might sing. “Hmm, I think it has to be Elsa, or maybe Eva… No, let’s say Elsa!” We all might have to wait a little while for that.
Successful roles in successful productions make for happy singers, and Pérez is clearly happy and feeling at home with her cast and fellow principals and Glyndebourne environment at the moment. But before we part company, she stresses once again how keen she is to work at her art, and assures me that she has “a great desire to learn”. Audiences enjoying a radiant Alice Ford at Glyndebourne for the next few weeks may think they are seeing and hearing a lead soprano at the height of her powers, but I have a feeling that Pérez has huge potential for further development yet. It will be fascinating to see how she matures and develops further in the course of an exciting operatic journey.
Ailyn Pérez is currently appearing at the Glyndebourne in Verdi's Falstaff.
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