The Royal Opera's summer Italian mini-festival continues with a revival of Verdi's mid-period masterpiece, Un ballo in maschera. Heading an interesting cast in Mario Martone's production is Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas in the lead role of Riccardo, the Governor of Boston, who dies at the hands of his best friend Renato during a masked ball when the latter believes Riccardo has been engaged in an affair with his wife, Amelia. It's an innocent love, however, and Riccardo dies innocent of the crime for which he has been murdered.
Un ballo in maschera is one of the composer's most underrated mature works, and Riccardo has become something of a signature role for Vargas who, more than twenty years into a distinguished career, ranks amongst the world's finest lyric tenors. He partnered Renée Fleming in excerpts from Manon and La traviata in the Met gala given in her honour to open the 2008-09 season, came to London to sing Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni,and is now back to perform an opera by Verdi, whom he ranks as the greatest of all opera composers.
We meet during rehearsals for Un ballo and Vargas is a charming, direct and expressive interviewee, as well as being a keen advocate for his art form. When I ask why he thinks this piece remains so powerful 150 years after its premiere, he answers simply: 'Because in many ways it's a very modern story. It's something that happens every day. Many people in the audience will be able to relate what happens on stage to real life. Frustrated love is very human, and it's always happening.'
Even Ulrica, the grotesque fortune teller who almost convenes with the Devil during the course of the opera, sits well with our modern sensibilities, according to Vargas. 'We see Ulricas on the television every day!' he exclaims. 'We have all the astrologists and fortune-tellers – even more than ever before. It's incredible. People are very attracted to this kind of thing.'
The role of Riccardo has been sung by very weighty voices in the past, but, says Vargas, 'This is totally a mistake. It's something that came in during the 1960s and 70s: people with big, less flexible voices started singing this role, but it's not correct. Almost all the opera is written in a bel canto style. For instance, I have to sing several trills in a row: bigger voices can't do it, and surely Verdi wouldn't have accepted them not doing it. I don't want to say that my voice is perfect for it and nobody else's is – that's not what I mean at all – but I think I have the capacity to sing what Verdi wrote. For me, that's important. There are other voices, very good voices, who can do it, but they can't sing exactly what was written, and I prefer to be respectful to the composer. It's one of the principles of my career.'
Vargas has performed the opera in numerous productions around the world, and the tenor confirms that his interpretation has 'changed a lot. We all change when we have different life experiences, and my Riccardo is now a little bit different. He's more mature. He's almost a little bit immature and childish in some decisions, but he was a nice guy in the opera. He's nice, a little bit superficial perhaps, but very honest and noble. He makes mistakes and tries to correct them.' Of the staging by Martone, Vargas admits that 'I haven't seen the whole production yet, but it seems to be working well and I think it's going to be lovely.'
Un ballo in maschera is an opera which Vargas admires in particular, and comments that 'Riccardo is the most amoroso of the amorosi of the operas of Verdi. I don't know another tenor role to compare with it. Maybe Rodrigo in Don Carlo is the same – he's a nice, noble guy, and everybody loves him.' Vargas also notes the clever technique of chiaroscuro in the final scene, where a small onstage ensemble plays trivial party music while the conspirators plan the assassination of Riccardo, making the shock of the death even stronger when it happens. 'The danger is coming ever closer, and Riccardo doesn't realise it. If you're on the top floor of a building and you see two cars coming too fast towards each other, you know something's going to happen but you can't do anything about it. Verdi was a great composer; for me, he's the greatest opera composer, because he wrote so many high-quality works. He was very clear about each personality. Every character is thinking about what's happening all the time: about life, about honour, about their country. Each one decides which way to go, and this is fantastic. This also happens here with Riccardo: he decides to take his best friend and his wife back to England, because he puts love second to being a good Governor. He thinks, this is my way and I have to follow it. Verdi's always like that.'
Vargas explains that his progress through the Verdi canon is going slowly but surely. 'I don't order my voice: I follow it,' he says with honesty. 'When I sing a role that makes me tired or doesn't quite suit me yet, I wait until later. I don't pretend to force my instrument to follow my ideals, or anything like that. I do the opposite, and I think it's worked well until now. In the future, I have Simon Boccanegra, Attila and I due Foscari – more roles from the early and middle Verdi. They are technically very difficult to sing, because the composer was still under the influence of the bel canto. I think this is the moment for me to sing these kinds of roles. My voice is not powerful: it's like a Bentley, not a Ferrari! It's elegant and stylish instead.' So no Aida and no Otello? 'No, it's not that kind of voice. The verismo is not for me. I like it very much, but it's not written for me. This kind of dramatic emotions that come in without control is not me! I have so many things to sing, and I enjoy what my colleagues make of Manon Lescaut and so on, so I have no reason to sing it.'
The tenor also explains how he's able to maintain the versatility to sing both Mozart and Verdi roles. 'You have to respect your capacities and your characteristics. If you keep these things in your mind, life is fairly easy; if I tried to be a dramatic tenor, I would make lots of mistakes. It's just like being a boxer: you go from the weight. Just because you're a heavyweight doesn't mean you're a better boxer than a middleweight. It's only the weight of your body. And similarly, the weight of your voice is a characteristic that you have. Juan Diego Florez is a lightweight, but he's the best in this category. Nobody can sing like him, so just because someone else has a heavier voice, it doesn't mean that they can sing better than him. It's just different, and you have to respect that. And just like if a boxer went and fought with the wrong weight it would be very dangerous for them, so too would it be dangerous for a light singer to sing a heavy role.'
One new challenge Vargas has recently undertaken is the role of Lensky in Eugene Onegin, recently seen on a new DVD from the Met with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. 'This music is fantastic,' he enthuses. 'I think Tchaikovsky is between Puccini and Verdi. I'm deeply sorry that he wrote so few operas, because he could perhaps have been the best. He creates nice combinations with an extraordinary musicality, wonderful melodies and strong dramatic points. One of my dreams is to sing Hermann in The Queen of Spades but it will never happen, because he's like the father of Otello – the music is so heavy! Onegin is a fantastic opera too, though, and Lensky is one of my favourite roles.'
Des Grieux in Manon is another new direction for his voice, and one with which Vargas is particularly happy. 'If we look at French music, I think it's important not to confuse the dramatic nature of the post-Romantic French repertoire with Italian music of the same period. It's not the same style; it's a totally different thing. I think roles like Romeo and Werther suit me better than many Italian roles, if anything. I feel more comfortable with it, because it's very refined. There are a lot of colours in it. It fits my manner of singing very well. For example, I sang La favorita in Italian and La favourite in French, and I found it much easier in French. The colour of the voice changes: the drama of the Italian language immediately takes you in a more dramatic direction than when you do it in French. Don Carlos is another example of that: the French style is always a little bit more gentle, whereas the Italian is more direct.'
One of Vargas' upcoming projects is to lead a new production of Mayr's Medea in Corinto in Munich – a rare staging of an unknown bel canto work from the early nineteenth century. 'The composer was the teacher of Donizetti,' explains the tenor, 'which means that lots of it sounds like early Donizetti. I'm still studying it, and it's a very interesting thing to do.' Why learn something so rare, I ask, when he's unlikely to be singing it in many other houses? 'I am curious about it. I don't want to sing lots of operas just for the sake of it; I'm not interested in singing things that I can't do well. But it's nice to do unusual things like this – the music's beautiful, and you don't get to hear it very often. There are other operas that I'm not interested in singing at all, however. For instance, I don't like Cyrano de Bergerac – I think it's terrible! It could stay in obscurity for another fifty years, as far as I'm concerned. There are two scenes that are nice, but the rest is not interesting to me. The capacity of Plàcido [Domingo] makes it better, but there's not enough in the opera to sustain my interest.
'And there are other operas that should be sung more. But normally there's a reason why operas stay in the background. Sometimes it's the music, and sometimes it's the drama. It's very difficult to stage lots of Donizetti operas, for instance, in order to make sense of them in our time. And I think both Puritani and Sonnambula contain some of the most beautiful music ever written, but they're very hard to put onstage. Sonnambula has such a stupid story that you think "Oh my God, only the music saved that!". It's a shame, because it's one of the best bel canto operas.'
Vargas had a very normal upbringing, where music was encouraged but not his parents' profession. 'I didn't have a very musical family. I loved music, and my father let me listen to traditional Mexican popular music. It's quite refined. I heard it a lot, and we have nice voices and music in Mexico. Then I was in the children's chorus of the Basilica de Gaudalupe in Mexico City, which was very important for my life. I sang a lot of Gregorian and polyphonic music, and I think that gave me a good taste for music. Singing Palestrina and the responsorial music in Gregorian chants was a great preparation. Then I worked slowly towards opera. Lots of people go directly to Puccini, but I got there through a different process.'
The tenor had an early case of stage fright as a young boy singing in the choir. 'It's good that it happened when I was ten!' he laughs. 'It was very funny, because I was meant to sing a Christmas carol – my first solo – but I couldn't do it because I was afraid. The director of the chorus told me to start singing, but I couldn't, so the rest of the chorus started singing my part. After that, I was very sad and upset, and started crying. The chorus director came to me and told me that because we were in the open air, a pocket of cold air had got stuck in my throat, so I couldn't sing. So he persuaded me to try again the next day, when we were doing a concert inside, and then I sang well. I was lucky to have had the experience when I was young, rather than later in my life.'
When I ask Vargas about his ambitions for the future, he's admirably level-headed about it. 'The only thing that I ask for myself is to stay healthy. If you're healthy, you can do everything. I am very satisfied with what I've done, with what I'm doing and with what I have to do in the future. I try to enjoy what I'm doing, and I try to enjoy my friends and family. My kids mean a lot to me. Opera singing doesn't take first place in my life: it's one of the important aspects, but not the most important. I think I'm more happy now, because we singers are part of a totally subjective art form. What one person finds nice, another won't like; somebody might say my voice is beautiful, somebody else might say it's ordinary. This is both liberating and limiting, and I don't want to live under the shadow of the limits. If someone likes me, I'm happy, but if someone doesn't like me, I'm sorry but it doesn't change my life. In Mexico we have a song which says 'I am not a gold coin that everybody likes'. I'm not a gold coin; I have a personality. Everybody has a different opinion about me, and I don't care.
'I try to be honest with myself, to enjoy myself, to follow the principles I've always followed. I don't have special ambitions; I'm OK. And I don't want to sacrifice my values for the sake of ambition. Maybe people who read that will be disappointed to hear it, but I think that we have to decide what we want to do. I've been singing for so long, and many of my colleagues have put their whole lives into the theatre, but the theatre does not always bring back what you give it – in fact, it rarely does. The glorious careers like Luciano and Plàcido are very few. I think you should find a balance. You have to be responsible, and be happy, rather than put everything into your career.'
Having made a few high-profile studio recordings in the earlier part of the decade, Vargas has more recently appeared in DVDs of Onegin and Boheme from the Met. He's clearly saddened by the demise of the record industry. 'The future is in the DVD now, which is fine. But the parameters of the people who make the decisions about these things are totally different than before. The big companies are making many mistakes. The market is totally down and depressed, because they look for events rather than the real artistry of music. They lost their way when The Three Tenors started to sell millions of CDs, because they suddenly saw that they could make money. Before, it was not like that: there was less money, but it was continuous. Each CD used to be important, but now everyone can make a CD. There are thousands of CDs.
'Prior to this, making a CD was an important event, and the people that did it were experienced. When The Three Tenors did their 1990 concert, Plàcido was more or less my age, Carreras was a few years younger, and Luciano was in his 50s. In that moment, they were the three tenors. Now, people try to do the same thing twenty years earlier for everybody. And it doesn't work. The artist needs time, experience, needs to learn, needs to make singing second nature. You become that with time, not by rushing. It's not McDonald's. You have to go to the best restaurants and find the best food that's been made properly with time. But they want to serve McDonald's, fast. These younger singers are brilliant, but they don't have time to develop. And then the next person is around the corner to replace them.
'I'm totally against it because it causes a lot of confusion in the younger generation, as well as with the public. They now hear through the eyes, whereas before they used to see with the ears. You need a good combination of things. We are singers, not pop stars or movie actors. Acting and singing are important but they have limits, and you have to respect that. Nowadays, we respect the composers more, which is good, and we are better actors. But the fundamentals of the past – good singing, good technique – are being lost. You can be as beautiful as Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie and you can have the voice of God, but if you don't have a good technique you will be lost. You need a combination of things. But the CD companies don't permit it because they want money fast, and this causes many problems for us.'
As our conversation comes to a close, Vargas is refreshingly candid about his attitude towards critics, the public and his legacy. 'People can say whatever they like about me. Everything they say is true to some degree. Maybe they say I am not a good actor, or a powerful singer. But I am a very respectful singer, and I am an elegant singer. I think these are good things to be remembered for: the last thing people respect nowadays is the music, but to me it is the most important thing. Stage directors nowadays tell singers how to sing, because they move the stories to different times. Sometimes that really works, but often they do the opposite of what the stories say. If Verdi or Puccini or Wagner say piano, in the new character that the director has created you can't do it piano. Then you have to change everything. The music is changed tremendously.
'The work of these great composers is totally undermined when the new genius comes along and says "You are not a Riccardo like that any more. You're a bad person and you're very pretentious, and you don't like your people, and when you come on and say 'Amici miei' ['My friends'], you're angry." They come along with these ideas, and you then have to invent a new opera. It's like painters who can only do colours, and you want to ask them, now can we have a design please? Or modern composers who can't invent a single melody. They only do effects. Why? Put melodies in your music. Make a beautiful opera. Make it romantic. And of course, singers don't have to be so technically rigorous, because the director comes along and says, "Why do you sing that so sweetly?" They decide how to sing. Can you imagine that? It's totally crazy. It's not the conductor who puts together the music, it's the stage director who can't read one note. It's terrible what happens in our world.'
Un ballo in maschera opens at the Royal Opera House on 26 June 2009.
Opera Review: La clemenza di Tito with Ramon Vargas at the Met
Opera Review: La boheme with Ramon Vargas and Angela Gheorghiu at the Met
Opera Review: Ramon Vargas in Don Giovanni at Covent Garden
DVD Review: Ramon Vargas in Eugene Onegin from the Met
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