A Channel for the Role: Franco Vassallo & La bohème [Royal Opera 13-19 July]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

As Covent Garden’s current season ends with a revival of Puccini’s La bohème, Mansel Stimpson talks to the Italian baritone making his debut there…

Franco Vassallo

Italy may be the country most readily associated with opera and Milan is famed for La Scala but, although Franco Vassallo was born in that city in 1969, there was nothing in the first decade of his life to suggest that he would find fame as an opera singer.

This is how he puts it when we meet at Covent Garden where he is playing Marcello in the latest revival of John Copley’s much-loved production of La bohème. “My parents are not involved in music – my mother is a judge and my father is an engineer – and I myself did not even listen to opera for some years. What did bowl me over was my discovery of classical orchestral music through seeing a re-issue of Disney’s film Fantasia. I must have been six or seven, but it was not until I was eleven that I came across opera and that was from listening to long-playing records featuring Rigoletto which my father had in the house.”

The portrait of his young self that Franco provides is indeed child-like since the eleven-year-old would not just listen to this opera but would dress up by draping blankets over his shoulders and seize hold of an umbrella to stand in for a sword – all this while singing away in front of a mirror. However fanciful such play-acting was, Franco nevertheless recognised the underlying seriousness of what he was doing: “I was quite certain at that point that my life had to be that of an opera singer.”

Crucial to making this dream a reality was Carlo Meliciani, a singer famed for his work at La Scala in the 1950s. “I was in high school and the man who taught me architecture heard me singing on the stairs during the breaks between lessons. Now, it happened that he was the son of Carlo Meliciani, so he said to me, ‘Why don’t you come and demonstrate your voice to my father?’ So I did, and the first thing that Carlo said to me was, ‘You’ve got the voice but you have to study’. Where other teachers often put you under pressure by suggesting that you come to them, Carlo did not. I took that as a good sign, I recognised in him an interesting person who could teach me a lot, and I wanted to explore what he could offer. At our first lesson he spoke of the need to be patient. He referred metaphorically to the little seed of an oak which when planted is very small but which, after being watered regularly, grows and becomes a big tree. He was also very precise, indicating that I would probably have to wait at least ten years before getting any real result. But I wasn’t daunted: I trusted him and he remains my one and only teacher to this day.”

Franco Vassallo as Marcello for the ROH in La bohème. ©Catherine Ashmore

This lasting bond between teacher and pupil evidences Franco’s high regard for Meliciani and one of the special gains from their relationship lay in the fact that Carlo passed down from his own tutor a technique for breathing that is invaluable to Franco but not widely practised among singers. In other respects, however, Franco is decidedly his own man. Given his desire to sing in opera, it was his idea to study Stanislavski’s famous Method for acting. By 1994 all of this paid off with Franco being declared the winner of an international music competition in Milan. Then three years later through winning another competition he found himself performing in Verona alongside Renato Bruson in Verdi’s Falstaff. Franco appeared as Ford.

Franco remarks that while Carlo remained his teacher and guide he was discovering a new universe with performances in houses all over Northern Italy. Some had more appeal than did others (he mentions a theatre in Venice where the sound of the rain could be so loud as to drown-out the orchestra). But it was all valuable experience. As for repertoire, Franco comments that “in Italian theatres when they have Italian singers they tend to push them into Italian roles. Actually that remains the case on a worldwide basis. German singers are offered German repertoire and Italians the Italian, whereas American singers being associated with no particular repertoire are much more readily able to do everything. At the moment, I do actually prefer to sing the Italian repertoire, but I would like to do other things also. When I did Les pêcheurs de perles it was a wonderful experience, and so was Faust. One day I would also like to do Wagner because I love his music and I know that when he came to Bologna to hear Tristan und Isolde he loved the sound of the Italian singers and wanted them to sing his operas.”

As his career has progressed, certain occasions have stood out. One was Franco’s acclaimed debut in Munich with Bavarian State Opera in Un ballo in maschera and another came in 2005 when he was heard for the first time at Metropolitan Opera – in the title role of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. “Every time I sing ballo it’s a great pleasure for me, because Renato is one of the most wonderful roles that Verdi ever wrote for the baritone and the Act Three aria ‘Eri Tu’ is one of the opera’s great moments and justly famous. I’m also attracted by the fact that Renato is such an interesting character. At the start you see only the respectable surface which is something of a façade, although he is very faithful to his friends. Later, however, you dig a little deeper, and in time the dark side of him emerges. With Verdi you almost always find that the baritone parts have this deeper and darker side, whereas by comparison his tenor roles are more two-dimensional.

“As for barbiere, Figaro is one of my favourite roles because it is just the opposite: he is like the rising sun, the joyful sun indeed, and it’s contagious. There’s so much joy there and I loved working on it at the Met. At first you feel daunted by such a huge hall and wonder how you can ensure that your voice will carry to the furthest seat. But, in fact, it’s rather like driving a car: once you’ve learnt how to do it, you understand what’s needed.”

As Franco’s fame increases so does the amount of travelling involved. This can be a drawback for a married man. Franco, however, is lucky in that his wife, formerly an accountant and also from Milan, is happy to share his itinerary and she is, indeed, present at this interview. Commenting from her own perspective, she echoes Franco’s thoughts about a life that is exciting but which has disadvantages too. “The fact that we have no children makes it easier, but it’s now ten years that I’ve been travelling with Franco and you keep having to start from scratch whenever you need to make a new home. Nevertheless, I travel with him as much as possible and we always aim to be together.”

Franco Vassallo as Marcello for the ROH in La bohème. ©Catherine Ashmore

Their visit to London is another key moment in Franco’s career since his role as the painter Marcello in Puccini’s La bohème marks his Covent Garden debut. I wonder if the role offers unusual challenges in that Marcello is very much part of the group of impecunious young friends headed by the poet Rodolfo, the work’s leading male figure, but also including the philosopher Colline and the musician Schaunard. In many an opera a singer has a role that links him or her with one other character in particular, and they may well share duets that call for a special rapport between the artists. In La bohème, however, although Marcello is in love with the fiery Musetta, the main feature that the singer has to bring out when portraying Marcello is the closeness of the bond between these friends, their natural ease together. Is that something difficult to achieve in a staging previously unfamiliar and where you may or may not know the other singers involved?

“It’s true that our Schaunard, Roderick Williams, is someone new to me, but I know Matthew Rose who sings Colline and Roberto Aronica who is Rodolfo is a very dear friend and we have appeared together quite a lot. In any case, in portraying this group of friends, it’s a great advantage to be doing it here at Covent Garden. The fact is that usually all the artists who come here for a work like this have performed it in many other places too; and with experienced artists it only takes a few rehearsals to create all that again.

“What’s more our director, John Copley, is an extraordinary gentleman. I’ve not worked with him before but I’ve discovered that he’s a wonderful director – quite beautiful in fact. Having had almost sixty years at Covent Garden, he has so much experience on which to draw. What I have found is that he is quite magical in pointing out details to us. They may be small things but he reminds me of an Impressionist painter like Monet utilising small strokes and creating something marvellous. I was quite taken by surprise. You find that his suggestions make everything become so simple and so perfect. What he finds brings out the line of the work in a very deep and touching way. By finding out what is natural and eliminating any over-acting that would destroy the effect, he captures what Puccini wanted and it becomes very real.”

Although Franco’s remarks have drawn their own parallel from the world of painting, his comments remind me of cinema and of the way in which some great veterans like Luchino Visconti were able to find in their maturity a seeming simplicity of approach that is actually artistry of the highest calibre.

It’s clear from Franco’s comments that he prefers Verdi to Puccini, but which has nothing to do with the sometimes rather snobbish attitude that can lead to that judgement. “If I favour Verdi it is because no composer is better than he for the baritone. Those roles in Verdi are so intense and when Verdi meets Shakespeare it is especially wonderful. So my principal wish at the moment is to broaden and deepen my Verdi repertoire by exploring such operas as Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra. Puccini’s Marcello is a splendid role but he has no aria. You can warm up in the part and then find that it’s the moment to exit: Verdi would never do that to you! But, seriously, I do think that Puccini’s music is marvellously direct while also being difficult to get right. It often seems light-hearted but actually it’s not, so you have to be careful.

“To realise what Puccini really wanted is not easy, not for the conductor, the orchestra or the team of singers. With Verdi it’s all very grounded with a firm structure for the orchestra, whereas Puccini is softer, more like the moon or the wind. Of course, La bohème is famous for its big arias like ‘Che gelida manina’. But, although the melodic lines are basic to the opera’s fame, the fact is that he was incredibly innovative in those scenes of interaction and fast exchanges between the characters: for 1896 it was a whole new way of singing.”

Before we close the subject of Stanislavski comes up once more. We have been discussing the character of Marcello who claims that he and Musetta take love lightly, a statement which if accepted at face-value suggests that their relationship offers a contrast to the central and ultimately tragic one between Rodolfo and the dying seamstress Mimi. But both men feel jealousy and Rodolfo calls Marcello a liar when he laughs-off a split-up with Musetta: he declares that in reality his friend is fretting. So, perhaps, there’s less of a contrast for Franco to present here than an echo? “The two pairs of lovers are contrasted in character but the pain is the same, so I’m aware of the similarities while also recognising the differences. I feel that my own nature is closer to that of Rodolfo so I’m having to work hard studying Marcello.”

In getting to grips with the character he is portraying, Franco’s interest in Stanislavski’s methods comes to his aid, but with a broader basis. “The saying of his that stuck in my mind was when he declared that theatre starts when you stop saying ‘I make something’ and start saying ‘I am’. If I am the character, then at that moment something magical occurs. You lose yourself and become a channel for the role and when that happens in opera the effect can be very, very strong.”

  • La bohème opens on Sunday 13 July at 3 p.m. with further performances on 15 & 17 July at 7.30 p.m. and a Family Performance (“not available for booking”) on 19 July at 12.30
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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