July 2008 marks a significant moment in the career of the tenor Charles Castronovo. Having been heard already at the Royal Opera House – once as Ferrando in Così fan tutte and twice as Alfredo in La traviata – it’s not so much where he is singing as what he is singing that makes this so special. In a decade that saw him starting out with Los Angeles Opera and shortly thereafter appearing at the Metropolitan in New York, his repertoire despite containing much Italian music has centred first and foremost on Mozart (“He has been my main bread and butter as they say and I’ve done pretty much every Mozart role that I want to do at this time”). Some variation on this came about, however, when French works started to feature more prominently in Charles’s repertory (“I really feel that the French repertoire suits me well because you don’t have to stay in that high tension mode all the time as in some of the Verdi operas”).
But while it is the case that he continues to branch out – a carefully pondered debut in Lucia di Lammermoor is planned and a second stab at Faust in Berlin early in 2009 (“I’ve done it once before and was happy then with some things but less so with others; three years on I’m ready to try it again”) – Charles readily confesses that he has never had any strong interest in doing more-modern pieces. Despite that, his return to Covent Garden is for a new production by Robert Lepage of Stravinsky’s 1951 opera The Rake’s Progress. So what was it that finally made him take the plunge into the 20th-century?
Before discussing that, I ask Charles about his background and early days, inviting him in addition to comment on his career to date. He thinks of himself as a Californian (“I grew up with the sun and to this day I can’t live anywhere that’s too gloomy”), but that’s far from being all of the story. “I was born in New York, but my parents moved to California when I was two. My father is from Sicily and my mother from Ecuador and both of them came to the States aged sixteen or seventeen. But it wasn’t a musical family – I’m actually the only one who sings and neither in my immediate nor in my extended family is there a musician of any kind. However, in my second year of high school what provided fun for me was being in a rock band and I would play guitar and sing Beatles tunes. One day the choir teacher was walking by. She heard me, complimented me on my pretty voice and suggested that I join the choir. I made excuses saying ‘I’m into rock ‘n’ roll, not choir’. But she immediately pointed out to me that there were only five boys in the choir and sixty girls. “It could be good,” she said, and a little light bulb went off in my head and I decided to join. So she knew what she was doing!”
Charles was sixteen at the time and before he reached eighteen he had become familiar with pieces like Messiah and had performed in Oklahoma! at school. “I knew by then that I wanted to be a singer, but I wasn’t sure what kind: I liked classical and I liked musicals. But then, knowing already that I was a tenor, I borrowed a CD of tenor arias from a friend. The very first thing I heard on it was Plácido Domingo singing the entrance of Otello. The effect on me was immediate. I just said, ‘Wow! That’s what I want to do’. After that I found recordings by older singers like Gigli, Tito Schipa and Corelli and tried to make that kind of sound as best I could. So at eighteen I started taking real lessons with a real voice teacher.”
By chance Domingo would soon feature again in Charles’s life, but this time in person. Charles was signed up as a resident artist to undertake small roles at Los Angeles Opera following two shows there in the chorus. His debut role was in Fedora in which he had only a few lines but Domingo was its star and when, after an audition led to him being contracted to sing Beppe in I pagliacci at the Met, he found that the production again featured Domingo. After that he got an offer to join its Young Artists Programme. “To be perfectly honest, I almost didn’t take it. It had been a huge experience for me singing all those small roles in LA and part of me felt that I should move on, but in the end I decided to stay. That was on the basis that I probably needed to stew for a couple more years if I were to be truly ready.”
Thereafter Charles developed his own method for deciding what he should do and when. “It’s really based on the examples provided by those heroes of mine whom I wanted to take as role models – tenors like Gedda, Kraus and so on. I would check out all the details: what kind of roles they chose, the time when they did them and where they did them: everything. It also pointed up a contrast. Nowadays people like to put you in a particular section – this is the kind of music that you sing – but when you look at some of the old tenors you find that they really spread out in choosing roles. I find it refreshing to do something different from time to time and I welcomed the opportunity to record Mercadante’s Virginia for Opera Rara; the less familiar operas possibly enable you to put your own stamp on a role that little bit more. The Pearl Fishers is known for the duet, but it’s not often done and I love it. The whole opera is just gorgeous and lately I’ve been doing it a lot. That was one of those roles which, as soon as I started to sing it, fitted me like a glove.”
Schubert is one of Charles’s favourite composers and, being also a great admirer of Fritz Wunderlich, the Lieder repertoire appeals to him although he’s only done three such recitals. “I’d rather do opera and that’s because I feel comfortable on stage. There you can move around and interact with other singers and concert performance is really a different kind of art and one that’s difficult.” Aware of the vulnerability involved, Charles seems ambivalent about it. “When I have done it, I’ve felt afterwards that I’ve accomplished something really worthwhile and, if you created a nice recital set and did it in a number of places, then perhaps you’d start to relax and to find the groove a little bit more. Not many people ask me for recitals, but I would enjoy to do more.”
Whether or not that happens, there’s no doubt about opera remaining central, but how come that Charles got this opportunity to venture into the for him unfamiliar field of 20th-century works? ”It was to be done in Brussels, and I think there was somebody who just enjoyed my voice in general and thought that being kind of young I might fit the role of Tom Rakewell. There may have been a debate: the role is often cast with a rather light, somewhat whiter sound in mind whereas people consider my tone rather more Italianate. So they probably reasoned it like this: ‘Why not try a rather more earthy, Latin kind of sound in this role: it could be interesting’. So I got the offer and would have appeared in Brussels had I not fallen ill; so that’s why I’m making my first appearance as Tom now that this same production is having its London debut.
“One of the things that has tended to discourage me from more modern works is the fact that learning the music can be so difficult technically, and when I was learning The Rake’s Progress I found that I was initially pretty much damning Stravinsky every day because there are some very tricky things in there. But now that I’ve got into the role and am in the process of putting it on stage with all the physical emotion involved, I find that I’m absolutely in love with the part. In accepting it I went on a gut feeling really, because my role models were no help here, not having done it to my knowledge. Although I knew as soon as I looked at the part that it was going to be hard to learn musically, I sensed also that it would be another of those roles that would fit me like a glove. Sometimes you sing a part and do it well enough, but somehow it never feels like a perfect fit. But with this one I just had that feeling about it, and hopefully I can translate that to the audience also.”
Quite apart from the comparative modernity of the work, another factor could have been inhibiting. The director is the adventurous Robert Lepage and, while he is much admired, the publicity from Covent Garden indicating that 1950s Hollywood would provide the setting could be regarded by some as a danger signal. Since the original was set in 18th-century England and drew on Hogarth, such a marked change is on a par with, say, Jonathan Miller setting Rigoletto among the modern Mafia (that fact in itself reminding us that however disastrous drastically-novel ideas sometimes prove to be they can also result in a triumph). So how did Charles respond to the Americanisation of The Rake as conceived by Lepage?
“Well, it certainly answered one question that I was asking myself when looking at the music, namely how was I going to manage the British accent since I’m from LA? But the fact is that I had seen one of Robert’s productions in Paris and I had found it just amazing, so I was ready for whatever he might do here. Actually what they said about ‘fifties Hollywood is true, but that’s only one section of it. The setting for the first Act is Texas, and the music totally works with that sense of a hot day on the prairie where you can see oil-rigs in the background and Truelove, the father of Tom’s girl Anne, is like an oil baron. It’s when the scene shifts in Act Two that we come to the Hollywood part. The brothel scene is presented like a bordello sequence in a western that is being filmed. It’s not easy to explain, but, when you see it, it really works. Then, after I’ve married Baba I’m a famous movie star with a house in Malibu complete with a beautiful swimming pool overlooking the ocean. The famous graveyard scene follows, the one in which the Faustian figure of Nick Shadow allows me to gamble for my life by identifying three cards. This contrasts with the realism of the final scene in Bedlam because in this production there are no tombstones. Instead it’s like a junkyard filled with old neon signs and discarded trash from carnivals and shows. But when it transforms into the insane asylum, it becomes so authentic-seeming that you can almost imagine that sick hospital smell, So the scenes are each very, very different but I really enjoy what Robert Lepage has done because, varied as it is, it all blends together so well.”
The Americanisation may seem apt in another way, too, since this is a score that only occasionally carries a Russian echo and more often features rhythms that point to the subsequent work of Bernstein and Sondheim. Does Charles have a favourite moment in the score? “Well you tend to revel in the cockiness of the first aria, and then later you find yourself singing something so poignant that you think that that is the best section. As for the card-scene, that’s fantastic, but not so difficult vocally although you need to maintain the tension in your voice throughout. But ultimately I have to choose the scene in Bedlam. It’s not only challenging but very moving, and in rehearsal the other day I found the emotion getting to me which isn’t good. ‘Get hold of yourself, Charlie’, I said to myself; ‘if you cry, you can’t sing and you have to make them cry, not yourself.’ For me it’s the most fantastic moment of all.”
Clearly, Charles is happy with his role and strongly defends our ability to identify with Tom even at his most extreme – such as when he betrays Anne by marrying the grotesque yet ultimately sympathetic Baba. “Shadow says, ‘Don’t be a slave to your desires or your duty’ and, even if we don’t act on it ourselves, we can recognise the attraction in that. That makes me understand what Tom is doing. The idea is so out there that no one would do it: only, that is, someone with his kind of balls. So I can see not only how he would be attracted to that but how he would regard it as liberating.”
Finally, Charles praises Covent Garden and also London itself. “It really is my favourite place to sing in the whole world and I love the city in general. It’s fun. Although I was born in New York, I can only handle it for short periods: it’s a little bit too crunched up for me. But here I feel like its New York but with elbowroom and a chance to see the sky. I have absolutely nothing to complain about.”
- The opening night of The Rake’s Progress is 7 July 2008 at 7.30 and runs until the 18th
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera