Covent Garden’s New Carmen: Viktoria Vizin

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to Viktoria Vizin about her current role and about her career to date…

In Powell and Pressburger’s much-loved film of 1945 the title I Know Where I’m Going was ironic since the heroine found her firm expectations transformed by fate. In the case of Viktoria Vizin, however, one feels that the Hungarian mezzo-soprano does indeed know where she is going and has always done so, even if at the age of four she was not quite spot-on. “At that age I informed my parents that I was going to be an actress. They just laughed, as any parent would at a child who said that. Nevertheless they put me into a musical kindergarten and that was followed by a special musical school. From the age of five I took piano lessons, but I didn’t really think that I’d be other than an entertainer. I wasn’t sure if it would be something to do with singing or with dancing or with straight theatre: I just wanted to be on the stage. That feeling was further confirmed when at age eleven I participated with other children from my school in a production of Zoltan Kodály’s Háry János, Kodály having been born in Kecskemet, the same place as myself. I said to myself then: ‘This dusty stage smell I can never forget.’ Now I’m allergic to dust but I love it regardless.”

Viktoria sees it as prophetic that as a child singing soprano she got to play what was in reality a mezzo-soprano role. Yet even when she started singing properly at fourteen she was thinking of operetta and musicals, combined perhaps with straight theatre. It was a High School teacher who suggested that her voice would be one for opera. What followed after that turned more than once on Viktoria seizing with determination the opportunities that came her way. For example, when her father read about tests being held to enter the Franz Liszt Academy in Szeged she had just six days to prepare. She duly got in. Later, while in Budapest for further studies, she saw a poster for an international singing competition in Romania. “I’d never been to competitions but decided to sneak out from college without requesting a permit as you were supposed to do; I’m a very free woman and I just didn’t believe in that. Only my voice trainer knew what I was doing and I thought it would remain a secret because I would lose out anyway, but I won.”

A third example of Viktoria’s decisiveness came the following year, 1997. By then she had worked on stage in Romania as a professional singer and she decided to compete for the role of Alice Ford in a production of Verdi’s Falstaff in Verona. “The head of the jury called for me and I was told that they already had a soprano but had formed the view that I was really a mezzo. They then said that if I was ready to sing the role of Meg Page and knew the part I could begin the next day. That was when I decided that I had to bluff. It’s a role with lots of words and in truth my Italian at the time was almost non-existent but I hid that fact. It was dangerous because I had just five hours to learn it all, but the gamble paid off because afterwards they kept me on to do other things.”

In a career that has developed strikingly in the past decade, a crucial step occurred when Viktoria became a prize-winner in the prestigious International Belvedere Competition in Vienna in 2000. It brought her in due course to America and it enabled her to widen her repertoire further. “The past is Mozart”, she remarks when talking about the heavier roles that she now favours. She makes the point that changes in the voice are natural for a mezzo. “Voice and body are very much connected, and now that I’m a mother of two I’d say that affects the timbre. It’s become a more round voice.” Given her very wide range of roles – the composers that she sings range from Bellini to Tchaikovsky, from Richard Strauss to Janáček – I ask about any special favourites. Since she is here for Carmen it’s no surprise that French music comes up but her number one choice is unexpected. “Close to my heart now is Massenet. I don’t know why his operas are not played more often because they’re so fully realised and I love his music so much. You can’t really compare the French and the Italian but nevertheless he reminds me of Verdi: that’s because there are no ups and downs in his work, it’s just perfect from A to Z.”

Viktoria first came to Covent Garden in 2000 as Flora in La Traviata, that appearance being specially arranged as an opportunity to check out her stage quality before offering her the larger role of Maddalena in Rigoletto the following year. As for Carmen, she performed it first at the Essen Aalto Theatre at about the same time. “It was a very modern production in which I wore jeans but what was really interesting, what made it a great learning period for me, was the general director Stefan Soltesz. He was someone who taught you that whatever is written in the score is all that he wants, not less and not more. Nowadays it’s very difficult to find somebody like that – unless he’s called Tony Pappano. The second time I did it was in Düsseldorf, very much a classical treatment. I liked the fact that for the first time I really had to dance, and I even took private lessons in flamenco because you need to know the moves.”

Further productions featuring Viktoria as Carmen followed. There was one in Pittsburgh and more recently a staging in Chicago, but she came to London to play Mercedes not Carmen. Fate, however, had other plans for her. She was expecting to leave once the second cast took over, a cast scheduled to include Marina Domashenko as Carmen until illness intervened and she was unable to travel to England. Consequently my interview with Viktoria touched both on her work with the first cast, which had extended to being the cover for Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Carmen, and on her preparations for the title role in the second cast which had fallen to her. What stands out here is Viktoria’s enthusiasm for the approach of the director, Francesca Zambello. “Her production is such that I just enjoyed myself totally because she is the type of person with whom I love to work. For one thing she treats singers as people who are going to do more than sing. She has an image of the whole role and of the situation, but she indicates initially what she wants without giving us too much detail. Having supplied the frame she lets us fill in and feel it for ourselves. She may then say ‘Alright, I liked what you did’ or it may be ‘I don’t buy this: I’m sorry but you’ll have to change it’. But I really like that attitude to working and I’m just sorry that she’s not around now for the second cast.”

That Viktoria’s admiration for Francesca is reciprocated becomes clear when one learns how Viktoria came to replace Marina. It was the latter’s cancellation of an engagement in San Francisco that made it apparent that Covent Garden might have to look for another singer. “Although Francesca didn’t see me doing the role of Carmen, she saw me as someone who could play her. In fact she congratulated me on my success with the part in Chicago before adding that she didn’t need to read reports to appreciate it because she could tell for herself: ‘From what I feel and see when watching you on stage I know that you would be a great Carmen’. So when it became clear that Marina would not be appearing and Covent Garden asked Francesca who might make a good replacement, she recommended me. It was really her backing and that of Tony Pappano that brought it about.”

Since Anna Caterina’s performance had won such acclaim, I wondered if that fact was in itself daunting for her, but Viktoria totally rejects the idea that performers should be compared. “Her interpretation was, I think, completely individual and very good, but it was something coming out of her. What I do is necessarily quite different. Even the fact that I am much taller means that each of us uses our body structure in our own way, and I am sure our approach to the dancing is equally individual. In fact I like such things to be more structured so I’m asking the choreographer Arthur Pita to set that down for me accordingly. The presence of newcomers is also hugely relevant. For example, Philippe Auguin is now the conductor and his tempos are sometimes faster than Tony Pappano’s and sometimes slower. In the card trio, for example, Philippe is much slower, making it less lively and more mysterious in tone. The consequence is that the staging of that sequence has changed and so much more is changing too. Part of that is the way in which we are building up something for me in relation with the new Don José, Marco Berti. 80 percent of the last duet has changed because neither of us felt right struggling on the ground and there are lots of empty spots where we feel the need to do something to fill them in. Every single day we change something and Denni Sayers, Francesca’s assistant, calls to get her approval”. Everything she says confirms what a positive experience this is proving for Viktoria. I didn’t get around to asking her if playing Carmen at Covent Garden was something that she had expected might happen one day albeit not now, but somehow I feel that she always knew it was on the cards.

  • The second cast of Carmen is in repertory until 3 February
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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