For Sara Mingardo the music of Antonio Vivaldi, that most famous of Venetians, is something that she has long connected with the very waters of Venice and with the atmosphere of that unique city. This is, perhaps, only natural for Sara is herself a child of Venice and when I talk to her at Covent Garden it emerges that she is also a child of Teatro La Fenice. “I had contact with the opera house at a very early stage because when I was ten years old I was part of the chorus there when they were performing Boris Godunov. That was the very first time that I was involved with opera.”
This involvement was not unique in her family because her father had had an uncle, Gabriele Viviani who had been a piano accompanist at La Scala. Furthermore although not a professional her mother enjoyed singing and was extremely good at it. Today Sara is an established figure in concert halls and opera houses and, while her appearance in Covent Garden’s Tamerlano in a production by Graham Vick, marks her debut with The Royal Opera, she has already performed in the Royal Albert Hall and has established a relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra. “I am very grateful to London because it’s a city that has opened its doors to me and it welcomed me by taking me seriously from the beginning, At the Albert Hall I did the Bach B minor Mass with John Eliot Gardiner and I’ve done a lot with the LSO.”
Although the road that led to all this started in Venice – she studied at the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory – Sara’s path was not defined immediately. “When I went to the Conservatory it was to study the piano, but while I was there I met the tenor Franco Ghitti and came to the conclusion that what I wanted was to focus on opera singing. I am very grateful to him not only for his encouragement but because he had the patience as a teacher to wait for my voice to be ready, to ripen and to mature.”
1987 was an important year for her because, having first successfully taken part in competitions in L’Aquila and in Barcelona (a third success awaited her in the Toti Dal Monte competition in Treviso the following year), she made her stage debut. Indeed she appeared that year both in Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto as Fidalma and in the title role of Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Prior to that, however, there has been sadness in her life. “I won a bursary to attend the Accademia Chigiana of Siena but I was actually in Siena for just one day. I was unable to study there because my father died suddenly and I had to go back, but later on I did return to Siena several times although that was to sing and not to study.”
Even if her father did not live to see Sara’s career flourish, the fact that she won a scholarship to Siena served to indicate her potential during his lifetime and those first performances in 1987 would subsequently point the way ahead since Rossini would come to feature in her repertoire along with much earlier music. Although her operatic roles extend to works by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi and Berlioz, it is probably fair to say that composers that preceded them feature even more prominently. It is not just a range of works by Handel but also Gluck (L’Orfeo), Monteverdi (Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria) and Vivaldi (Armida al Campo d’Egitto). I ask her about how she came to be drawn so strongly to this field of music.
“At the beginning what got me in touch with Bach was not my voice but my piano-playing. However, when I started my signing career I wanted to develop that further because I was attracted by the music of Bach, Monteverdi and Vivaldi. In that period of music there was always an accent on what I thought of as the gravity of the voice and within that I found something that suited my own voice. That particular quality is largely missing in Italian music by the likes of Puccini and Verdi, so for me when it comes to that era the German repertoire is better for my voice and I like Brahms and Mahler who feature in my work in the concert hall.”
This question of what suits Sara’s voice is something that we are discussing in the same week that an article by Rupert Christiansen has appeared in the Daily Telegraph lamenting the fact that contraltos as such are now rare with many singers being encouraged to present themselves as mezzo-sopranos instead. In the light of this move away from an earlier age when singers like Kathleen Ferrier were proud to be known as contraltos, I am struck by the fact that Sara firmly holds to the old label. She admits that people in Italy are sometimes taken aback if she tells them that she is a contralto. “I’m not sick – I’m just a contralto,” she says laughingly, but she stands her ground. “It all depends on the colour of your voice and, since I recognise that my colour is that of a contralto, that is what it should be called and it’s also what guides me in following a certain path as far as repertoire is concerned.”
That brings us to Tamerlano and to this production by Graham Vick first staged in Florence in 2001 and then in Madrid in 2008. Sara Mingardo appeared in both and, as with a number of other Handel roles that she has done, she appears as a male character, Andronico. Having been written for a castrato (the opera dates from 1724 and thus belongs to their era), the role is one that can today be sung by a countertenor but which is equally suited to a voice like Sara’s. The plot of the opera is relatively conventional. The title role is that of a Tartar Emperor and warlord who, despite being betrothed to a princess, Irene, finds himself drawn to Asteria the daughter of his prisoner the Turkish sultan Bajazet. Accordingly Tamerlano decides to woo Asteria. To aid this plan he decides to pass Irene to his supporter the Greek general Andronico, but this complicates matters since Andronico and Asteria are in love. When Asteria nevertheless appears to fall in with Tamerlano’s plans both her proud father and Andronico feel betrayed, but only because they are unaware that Asteria’s real motive is to get close enough to Tamerlano to kill him.
Such dramatic plots have fuelled many an opera but Handel’s approach is strikingly original. However, before discussing that I ask Sara about the challenges of this part since when performed by a woman it becomes a trouser-role albeit not conceived in those terms by the composer. “First of all you need to keep in mind that because the countertenors of Handel’s day were actually castrati the type of voice was in any case very different from what we hear in countertenors today. I have performed a number of the roles that Handel wrote for Francesco Bernardi better known as Senesino who was his favourite castrato. I can feel the beauty in those roles and in the music that Handel wrote with that person in mind. I can also compare that with appearing as Cornelia in Giulio Cesare and there is definitely a difference in the way that the character is presented and in the psychological insight required, but that’s because in one case it’s a man and in the other a woman: that in itself involves two ways of being on the stage. But when it comes to the voice it’s always the same – the difference is not in the voice but in the characterisation. It’s very helpful to have Graham Vick as the director because I find him one of the best that I have worked with and I appreciate the way in which he explains the libretto in depth – that’s really exceptional. It’s important to me because I am always looking for the point of fusion when it ceases to be a case of my trying to be someone else and Sara and the character become as one so that in this case I actually find myself thinking and acting like Andronico. For Graham, the key to the work lies in the words. With Handel some directors worry about the repetitions in the da capo arias and wonder what can be done physically in those sections when the words are repeated, but Graham is not afraid if it looks the same. He prefers to concentrate on how it sounds and even on how a specific word can change in effect from time to time within the same opera. What emerges from that is not just singing but rather acting while you are singing, and that I feel is what is crucial to Graham’s approach.”
Prior to interviewing Sara, I had seen only a handful of Handel’s operas, but having listened to a recording of Tamerlano I had been struck by the way in which the drama is presented. Partly this is a matter of structure. One instance is the closing section of Act Two when to build-up to Asteria’s closing aria (a typically long one with the first section repeated), Handel precedes it with a series of shorter arias including one for Andronico. Then again one finds that the third and final Act is the only one to include duos which thus provide a contrast while also bringing out the reciprocity of feeling at these moments. The first duo has Asteria and Andronico lamenting; while the second, sometimes cut but happily included in this production, marks the reconciliation between Andronico and Tamerlano after the latter has been diverted from his aims. But the feature that stands out is the extent to which Handel gives recitative an unfamiliar weight. Whatever information they may impart, even Mozart’s recitatives largely exist to lead us into an aria but Tamerlano finds Handel consciously using recitative for some of the strongest moments of drama and characterisation. I even wonder if this fact makes the recitatives even more of a challenge for the singer than the arias. “The key lies in the acting. Obviously the fact that the focus is not just on the arias makes you aware of how the recitatives tell the story and thus invites you to exploit each moment to tell it in depth. That’s something extra and a thing of genius, but it means that there’s more to do in studying the role because you have to understand fully those parts of the opera as well as the arias.”
Daunting though all this may be, Sara is clearly happy to be in this work and in this particular presentation of it which will have the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the pit under the direction of Ivor Bolton. “I did Tamerlano with him in Florence and I love him because he’s full of energy – but it’s not only that: he’s very understanding about the problems and difficulties that singers can have and he’s always willing to help. For me that’s really important. Also it’s very welcome to have an orchestra made up of baroque instruments with the characteristic warmth that comes from the strings. That’s even more the case with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment because they are the best.”
With such support and a strong role in a production with which she is familiar, it could be that Sara views Tamerlano as ideal for her debut at Covent Garden although I have known some singers who prefer to dip their toe in the water first with a smaller role. I ask her how she feels about this. “I don’t even want to think about it too much, not about where I am. What I can say is that I have come to know Andronico very well: I consider him my best friend and with luck he will carry me through.”
- Seven performances at 6.30 p.m. from Friday 5 March to Saturday 20 March 2010
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera