Every time The Royal Opera revives its Richard Eyre production of Verdi's La traviata, it's quite an event. Last time saw the return of the original director to lead Renee Fleming through a radical revision of his initial ideas, and the previous occasion saw young Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho taking over most of the run from Anna Netrebko after a sensational first night.
Now Jaho is back for a new revival, and she'll be partnered by her fellow countryman Saimir Pirgu, the young tenor who made an acclaimed debut here a couple of years ago in the Richard Jones staging of Gianni Schicchi. Although a mere 28 years old, Pirgu has already sung in all the world's big houses, including Vienna, La Scala and the Met, so it seems we can look forward to an Alfredo who's both world-class and the right age. I caught up with him just before the first night of the Covent Garden run to ask him about his career so far.
First, we talk about Alfredo. 'This is my eighth production of Traviata,' he says, 'and I change it every time. For instance, the Covent Garden production is traditional and classic, so I need to act in a slightly more formal manner. But I think that the character of Alfredo is somewhere between me and "Saimir the tenor". He's a little bit traditional and passionate. He's not a very intellectual or intelligent person. He's just a cute guy from the province who's in love with this wonderful woman. He's very simple, and obviously I'm not that simple! But I feel I can bring something of myself to him.'
I mention Jaho's name, and it turns out they've known each other for years. 'Oh, she's amazing!' he says with genuine enthusiasm. 'We did L'elisir d'amore together in Albania in 2003, when I was just 21. I haven't seen her since then, and when I was hired to do this Traviata I didn't know it was going to be with her, but then I suddenly heard it was her! I heard how fantastic she was when she took over from Netrebko here a couple of years ago, and she's been wonderful in rehearsals. It's lovely for two people from the same country to work together – we can talk directly to one another, and I can see the connection between us in her eyes.'
The cast also features the megastar Germont of Dmitri Hvorostovsky. 'It's my first time with him, but it's fantastic,' says Pirgu. 'He's very professional, and a genuinely good guy. And of course, he's really big in London – it's my second time here, but Dmitri has been here for twenty years. I'm happy to be in this cast, because we're all friends and are working together as a team. I really hope to be at my best for this Traviata debut at Covent Garden.'
I mention the Gianni Schicchi that marked his Covent Garden debut, and Pirgu confesses that 'It was amazing to work with Pappano and Bryn Terfel. I love the opera house here, because it's very professional but at the same time friendly. You can see that the people are happy to have you here. If I'm in Vienna or La Scala, they're a little bit formal, but here and at the Met they're very cheerful and friendly. And I love London.'
Pirgu has also appeared in a production of Schicchi by Hollywood legend Woody Allen. 'It's very different,' says Pirgu. 'He's such a man of Hollywood! But he was very simple. He doesn't speak too much, and when he spoke we needed a translation because of his American accent! It was very different: he kept encouraging us to be natural and normal, and avoid all the artifice. I think he initially found it a little difficult to work on a big stage, but we tried to make him feel more comfortable with it, and it turned into a fantastic production. Everyone found it a great experience to work with him.'
I ask him about his future plans. 'After this, I'm going with Ermonela to do a big gala concert in Dortmund, and then for the first time in five years I'm having a big break of two months. In September, I'm doing Romeo and Juliet in Italy, and then on to Vienna for a new production of Don Giovanni, followed by a new Magic Flute at La Scala. I also have Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco coming up.'
Pirgu is only 28 years old and has already sung all over the world. Isn't there a danger that there's not much left for him to do? 'I don't have that many ambitions left at the moment,' he confesses. 'I'm very lucky to have sung everywhere in my five-year career: La Scala, Vienna, the Met, Covent Garden. And I'm not just appearing there once: I keep being asked back. That's enough for me; I don't want to be the best tenor in the world, because with twenty-eight of us out there, it's impossible. I'm taking my time. I'm just working on lyric Mozart and Verdi roles, and not trying to do too much.
'Last year, though, I had a new challenge. I did Idomeneo at the Zurich Opera House with Harnoncourt. It was a great production and a fantastic experience – it's on Sony DVD now. It was quite unusual for me to play this sort of older character, and I was worried in advance about some of the critics, who were asking "Why is Harnoncourt doing Idomeneo with a young lyric tenor rather than a baroque tenor?" But he likes the sound, and he wanted to search for something different. It was quite a big deal for me: I was up against people like Filianoti and Francesco Meli. But it turned into a great experience. I would do it again with Harnoncourt like a shot.'
Looking at his repertoire at the moment, I ask Pirgu whether he isn't a bit bored by playing so many love-sick young men. But he's perfectly contented. 'I'm very happy to be doing these roles. And they are by no means simple: Edgardo in Lucia has all kinds of problems with his family, and the Duke of Mantua has a very complex personality – I love doing him. And the roles I play in Don Giovanni and Cosi could not be more different from one another! Even with slightly less interesting people like Alfredo and Romeo, the music makes the roles more exciting. It's not just the text: it's everything together that makes it interesting. I'm looking forward to doing my first Romeo in Italy with Daniel Oren in September.'
He doesn't plan to add too much to his repertoire in the near future, though. 'I'm happy for the next few years with what I have: I don't feel I need to do any more. Thank God, I can sing Mozart, Donizetti and Verdi, and that's a lot of roles. I just need to take my time. I want to wait and see what happens with my voice before deciding on the new things. When I started off, I had a very small, fine voice, and it has changed every day and got better and better. Maybe I'll work up to Boheme and things like that, but I want to go slowly with it. People try to do too much nowadays: one day it's Cosi and the next it's Andrea Chenier. I don't want to make that mistake.'
I'm curious about Pirgu's artistic relationship with Pavarotti and Domingo, both of whom helped him on his way. 'I started with Pavarotti because he was my teacher and we were good friends. Then in 2009, I did Cyrano de Bergerac in Paris with Placido. And after you get to know these people, you realise how much you can learn from them. In particular, you learn what you can be: I try to take their very best qualities and use them myself. They're two of the biggest artists of all time. It was interesting to be with Pavarotti and to try everything, but I was very young at the time. But with Domingo, we were singing together and were onstage together, and that was a wonderful experience.
'I try and listen as much as possible to all the great singers of the past – Del Monaco, Gigli, Corelli, Caruso – because when you hear everything, you can take what you want.
'With Domingo and Pavarotti, it was a case of taking the vocal aspects of one and the artistry of the other. Seriously, Domingo was amazing. Pavarotti was concerned with the quality of the sound: he wanted the correct pronunciation and vocal position. So I took the technique from him, because in order to be more than just good, you have to be more technical in approach. And he wanted everything to be more natural. He insisted on working on the passaggio every day, for instance. Everything was very technical. From Domingo, you take life: when he's onstage, he's captivating. And now he's asked me to come to Los Angeles and Washington, where he's Artistic Director.'
Pirgu also has a CD available, entitled Angelo casto e bel, on the Universal label. His reaction to mention of this is interesting. 'I made it in 2004, after the Salzburg Festival,' he explains. 'My appearance that summer had a huge effect: everyone suddenly wanted this 22-year-old Albanian tenor who was singing in Salzburg so young. Universal came to me and asked if I wanted to do a CD. But for me, it wasn't quite the right time: my experience was limited to the Rossini Opera Festival and Vienna. So I was very sincere with the record company, and said I didn't need a CD at this stage. I didn't want to do a CD to say "I'm a big tenor, I am the best." So we agreed that it would be more of a document of where I was at that point. And subsequently, I've had various offers to make another one, but I want to wait and ensure I'm ready for it.'
One of Pirgu's most significant appearances in recent times was in a TV production of Boheme in Switzerland. It was filmed live in the high-rise apartment complex in the suburbs of Bern, and was watched by millions of people. 'For the people that don't know opera, it was an amazing production. It wasn't for regular opera goers; it was for the two million people that didn't know anything about opera. They cancelled the news so that it could be broadcast! It was a very accessible production. I saw some rave reviews and some negative ones, but this was for normal people, not critics. I loved doing it. It's like at the Met with the live telecasts: it's great for the young people who aren't in contact with opera already – for people who don't usually have the opportunity, or don't know whether it's really for them.
'We need something new: there are so few recordings made nowadays. It used to be the case that four or five million people would buy a classical CD, but now you're lucky to get 20,000. We have to make it all more interesting for people.
'Working for young people is very important for me. There's nothing for them. In South Europe especially, the situation isn't good. Italy has the most important repertoire for opera, but when I'm singing there, I don't see young people: they're all old. It's worrying. It's not my job, of course, but we need to do more. When I was asked to do the Boheme, I said yes immediately. It's important to me.'
I ask the tenor whether he feels there's more pressure on him because he's so young, but he says, 'I don't think so. After Salzburg, things became easier for me. And I don't sing things that I can't do, so I don't feel too much pressure. I'm singing Alfredo because I'm sure I know how to do it. I don't sing Cavalleria or Tosca because although I might be able to do them, I'm not secure about them at this stage. God gave me my voice, and I need to protect it.'
Pirgu's rise to fame is the classic rags-to-riches story: 'I came from a normal family, and was born in an industrial city. I started with the violin, and took my exams on the instrument. But then I saw Pavarotti's concert at Caracalla, and afterwards I kept playing it over and over and sang along with him. Then I went to school and sang for my teacher, and I was sent to Tirana to train. It was a difficult time for Albanian people, and it wasn't the best place for me, so my father agreed that I should go to Italy to study. That was a difficult decision for me, because the immigration situation was complicated. Thankfully, the situation is changing, and things are better in Albania. I'm very happy for the first period in my life, because if you have everything, you don't have to push for something different. Whenever I'm not feeling happy, I think back to the start and say to myself, "Look how far you've come."'
La traviata opens at Covent Garden on 11 May 2010.
B&W Photo: Kanjo Take
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