Written by: Mansel Stimpson
“Bryn Terfel is wonderful in the role, one of my best Scarpias ever”, a comment from Marcello Giordani when talking to him between rehearsals for Puccini’s Tosca at Covent Garden, the opinion of a singer who has played in this opera many times as Cavaradossi. This is the first time that he has done it in London, but in 2007 he performed the part in the Puccini festival in Torre del Lago, once the composer’s home in Tuscany, and he has also appeared as in this role in locations as far apart as Beijing, Vienna (the Staatsoper) and New York (the Met).
The international success achieved by Marcello would have pleased his father who did at least live long enough to know that his son’s career was blossoming. “My father was an opera fan and since he came from Catania he went to the Teatro Bellini once a week and it was he who brought me to this world that he loved. He would explain to me what an opera meant and he’d talk about the libretto and everything. However, when he bought a long-playing record of Cavalleria rusticana the names of the singers meant nothing to me because I was just twelve at the time, but they were Jussi Björling and Zinka Milanov and I loved it. At first I just listened, but then I started to sing along – I was already in a church choir – and when my father heard that he realised that maybe I had a voice to take note of. So he mentored me and gave his support, and at the age of nineteen I started to study music professionally. All of this happened in Sicily where I lived until I was twenty-seven. Three years of study led to my winning a competition in Italy at Spoleto and after that I moved to Milan.”
On paper Marcello’s career looks to have got off to a fine start since by winning that competition he found himself making his operatic debut in the role of the Duke in Rigoletto. Two years later he was at La Scala (in La bohème) but Marcello’s own take on that time reveals another side to it. “I think that doing Rigoletto in 1986 was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. Of course, I was happy that I won the competition, but those running it didn’t think about my age. I was only twenty-three, but they took the view that they had to do Rigoletto and had found a guy who had high notes. In fact I only had high notes and my voice was lacking other registers and I just wasn’t ready to sing such a huge role, one for which you need great technique and great preparation. In the event after doing it I put my career on hold for a year and did more study before getting back on-stage. Despite being accepted at La Scala I still wasn’t happy with the way I was singing. It pains me to have to say it but my experience with teachers in Italy was that they lacked the right technique and were insufficiently responsive to teach the voice effectively. Every time I tried to ask a question, they would just say ‘this is it: just imitate what I’m doing’ and they would never explain, but what I needed to know was the right mechanism to use, and the right feelings for when you are singing.”
Marcello would only find what he was seeking in 1994. “That was the year that my father passed away and after that I moved to New York for six months. That was where I found the teacher I needed, the teacher who was the best for me and it’s because of him that I’m here. When I found Bill Schuman I finally had somebody who you could talk to knowing that you would get a response and, although I had to go to America to find him, what he taught me was the old-fashioned Italian technique that he himself had studied with a soprano from Italy. Among the things I learnt from him there was the need to anchor my voice in one position and to trust that and to lift the palate and sing very pure vowels. All of that is important.”
When you look at the repertoire that Marcello has embraced since then – and by 1995 he was appearing at the Met – it becomes clear that both Italian and French opera are central to what he does. In Italian repertoire his range is vast; not just works by Verdi and Puccini but by Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Cilea, Ponchielli, Giordano and Zandonai. What is changing within that range is the extent to which he favours the heavier more dramatic roles. “For ten years I did a lot of bel canto – works like L’elisir d’amore and I puritani – and I will still go back to them from time to time because I think it’s healthy for my voice to find the right technique and style for that. I am still singing works like William Tell and La favorita, but I am slowly going more and more for the heavy repertoire although approaching it in the same way that I was singing bel canto. I do consider myself essentially a lyric tenor rather than a spinto or dramatic one.”
The other special feature in Marcello’s career has been an emphasis on French repertoire and, despite his Italian background, it is an idiom to which he has taken with ease. “Because French is not my language, the style of French opera required some study, but the way that their music is written made it helpful to me because my voice seems naturally suited to it and, even if my French may sometimes sound a little Italianate, I am able to keep my voice pure and clear in that repertoire. Whether singing high passages in Verdi or in some French work, I do it similarly and don’t find any difficulty – indeed, depending on the tessitura, I sometimes find it more difficult to sing in Italian than in French.”
In this respect it significant that in Marcello’s recording of tenor arias for Naxos, Bizet is in there along with the Italians but, while Massenet’s Manon and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette are also works in which Marcello has appeared, there is one French composer who has a particular appeal for him. “I developed special feelings for Berlioz and an admiration for those who sing his work, but I never thought that I myself was going to do it. It was really due to James Levine. The maestro convinced me that I had the right tenor voice for Berlioz and I feel really flattered to have done all three of the big Berlioz roles with him, those in Les troyens, Benvenuto Cellini and La Damnation de Faust. The first time I approached Berlioz was in 1998 when maestro Levine was principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, but it was at the Met that I did Benvenuto Cellini for the first time and I’m so happy that the maestro considers me a Berlioz singer. I feel it the more strongly because La Damnation de Faust is written in such a strange way: the first two Acts are really lyrical – pure bel canto you could say – but in the forest scene of the final Act you need something that a lighter tenor cannot do for it’s almost a kind of heldentenor sound that is required.”
Despite Marcello’s interest in French opera, it has long been the Italian repertoire that has brought him to The Royal Opera, first in the 1990s when he did La traviata and Simon Boccanegra with Solti and then in 2004 when he appeared as Enzo Grimaldo in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda conducted by Antonio Pappano. “Working with Solti was like the dream of my life because for me he was a god. When I got the contract to sing with him I could scarcely believe that it was really happening. On approaching him for the first time at rehearsal I felt very nervous, but I soon found him to be so human and so humble. I learnt a lot from him, about life as well as about artistry, and I can say that he was like a father to me, someone I shall never forget. As for Antonio Pappano, well it was like love at first sight, and all the more so because I can sense that Italian blood flowing through his veins. He loves the voice and working with him is like being in a family because he’s so happy if the singers and the staging are a success. He doesn’t do it for himself and, having had only one engagement with him, I hope I can do a lot more.”
The work that brings Marcello to The Royal Opera this time is Tosca in the latest revival of Jonathan Kent’s popular production first seen in 2006. It is, of course, at the operatic extreme from the rare works that Marcello has taken part in such as Verdi’s Jérusalem which he recorded for Phillips and Puccini’s Edgar, a concert performance. “Such pieces stay in my mind because it’s a matter of pride for me and my colleagues to bring them to life again and there is much beautiful music to be rediscovered.”
There are also well-known works that have not come Marcello’s way yet. “The dream is coming true next year as regards two operas that I’ve always hoped to do. I will be appearing in Aida for the first time in San Francisco and there’s also La fanciulla del West which the Met is staging to mark the hundredth anniversary of the piece.”
My meeting with Marcello takes place just after the announcement that, following the withdrawal of an indisposed Deborah Voigt, there will now be two Floria Toscas opposite Marcello’s Cavaradossi, one being Angela Gheorghiu and the other her fellow Romanian Nelly Miricioiu. Marcello is taking this late change in his stride: “I’m the only tenor and I’ve got two sopranos in five performances, so it’s a luxury!” I’ve appeared with both of them before, but not in Tosca. However, we are friends: I’ve known Nelly for many years and I’m already rehearsing with her. Angela has yet to come, but I’ve known her for a long time too. As a professional you learn to adjust and the whole thing is collaborative: you feel the needs of your colleagues and seek to meet them.”
Set in Rome in 1800, Tosca (this latest ROH revival is conducted by Jacques Lacombe) is a drama which gives many opportunities to all three of its leading singers. The villain, Scarpia, the sadistic head of the secret police, may die at the end of Act Two but he’s a figure who looms large foreshadowing real-life monsters of a later age. Floria Tosca, the singer who kills him in a desperate bid to save the life of her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, rightly gives her name to the opera, but as Cavaradossi Marcello has two great arias to sing, ‘Recondita armonia’ at what is virtually the start of Act One, and the even more famous ‘E lucevan le stelle’ in Act Three. “I think it’s the latter that the audience is really waiting for. But, yes, that first aria is a testing piece. You need to be warm and secure in what is something of a show-off piece and with it you either relax the audience or make them a little nervous depending on how it goes. And then Tosca comes on and you have to sing the duet with her. The first Act is huge and with so many high notes, but because it suits my voice it doesn’t scare me in the way that Les troyens, Benvenuto Cellini or William Tell do.
“I have much less to sing in Act Two but there’s another show-off moment when I have to sing ‘Victory! Victory!’ on hearing about the outcome of the battle of Marengo which Cavaradossi acclaims as a sign that tyrannies will collapse: that involves a high note and the need to hold on forever! However, despite having less to perform in this Act, I do think that musically it is the most interesting of the three. That section for Tosca and Scarpia is so well written and the dynamics and crescendo bring out the insistent element in Scarpia that makes you see how terrible he is, while Tosca sings in such different ways.
“Previously I had only worked with Bryn Terfel in concert but yesterday we were rehearsing the Second Act interrogation together and I can tell you that he really scared me. He brings out the evil in Scarpia, the cynicism and everything that makes Scarpia a great tyrant – and he does that as only Bryn can. But it’s true to say that every performance of an opera is different and that’s what I like. Otherwise, I’d be like a machine always singing in the same way and that would be boring and would mean that I wasn’t progressing. It’s beautiful to learn more all the time, and that’s why I welcome new things, be they ideas from directors, from your own instinct or indeed from your colleagues – because every partner affects the way in which you react. I know that both Angela and Nelly will bring out different things in me.”
- Five performances – from Thursday 9 July until Saturday 18 July – all at 7.30 p.m.
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera