Doing What Comes Naturally: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Il turco in Italia [The Royal Opera’s Il turco in Italia, 3-19 April 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Italian bass reprising his role as Selim in Covent Garden’s production of Rossini’s popular comic opera…

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo. Photograph provided by The Royal Opera. ©Fadil Berisha

The illustrious career of Ildebrando D’Arcangelo continues to build and could well take on some new directions in the near future. This emerges when we meet at Covent Garden and discuss both his current choice of performance roles and those in which he has only been heard so far in recordings. First of all, I enquire about the early years of this Italian singer who was born in Pescara and began his musical studies at the conservatory there. Although some singers come from families that are not musical, one is never surprised to learn that a singer had grown up in a house full of music. In Ildebrando’s case music even played a part in the name that was chosen for him. “My father was an organist and first of all he thought to call me Radamès. However, my mother was against that, and that is why my name is Ildebrando. I was born in 1969 and the famous Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti had died the year before. Furthermore, my father loved the idea of having a son who was a pianist and at the age of six I started to study the piano at his suggestion. However, when I reached the age of thirteen my father asked me if I wished to continue with these studies or not. It was summer at the time and I said ‘no’, so he closed the piano. But come September I looked at the piano again and felt the need to play, so I agreed to continue after all. Singing came later when I was sixteen.”

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo. ©Fadil Berisha

This was the background that led Ildebrando to the local conservatory, that of Luisa D’Annunzio, and to the teacher who would influence him, Maria Vittoria Romano. “When I went there it was to study the piano, the organ and singing – but fitting in the sessions for all three was just too much.” It was Maria Vittoria who helped him to make a choice. “I remember the day when I sung Leporello’s ‘Notte e giorno faticar’ for her and she was all smiles. She said ‘you have a wonderful voice, but we need to be careful’. That was because I was still very young. So for a year or two I concentrated on just two pieces, the one being by Monteverdi and the other Bartolo’s ‘La vendetta’ from Le nozze di Figaro.” Not surprisingly Ildebrando’s father is now proud of him, but in any case he seems to have adjusted easily enough to his son’s decision to concentrate on singing. As soon as Ildebrando started to develop this interest, his father encouraged him. “He taught me to sing from Rigoletto. He was my accompanist and, although I felt that I was not up to it at that young age, he would say ‘try, try, try’. So we had great fun doing that.”

It was while studying with Maria Vittoria Romano that Ildebrando made his first public appearance, as part of a chorus provided by the conservatory. His first solo role was that of Masetto in Don Giovanni and this came about through his own initiative. “I saw in a newspaper a piece about the Toti dal Monte competition held in Treviso and I thought that if Maria Vittoria Romano believed I had talent than I ought to try it. So I went there, and I won.” As Ildebrando explains, this particular competition is simultaneously a kind of audition: you go into a stage production if you win and each time you sing in the competition it is an elimination round. “I never thought that I would get through to the final and had expected to go home long before that. But instead I heard (conductor) Peter Maag saying ‘We will start in September’, so at that moment I realised that I had made it.”

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo. ©Fadil Berisha

In fact Ildebrando entered for a second time in 1991 and had another success, this one leading to his appearance as Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte but it was the role of Masetto that he reprised when he made his debut at the Met in 1994. “I was really surprised: they called me, and being twenty-four years old then I never expected to be singing there alongside big names.” By this time he had studied in Bologna also, since following the death of Maria Vittoria Romano he had decided to study there with Paride Venturi. These two helpful teachers had opposite approaches and from this he gained the opportunity to bring together the best of both worlds thus achieving a more open sound.

If the Met had beckoned in 1994, Covent Garden followed suit two years later (he was Colline in La bohème) and he is now an established figure in houses around the world, a situation that enables him to make comparisons. “Every theatre is different but I like Covent Garden because you feel part of a family here. Your don’t find that everywhere, but if some houses are rather machine-like in their efficiency there are others that are similar to Covent Garden: the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, for example, and Chicago where it is wonderful to work.”

It is at this point that we start to talk about Ildebrando’s choice of repertoire and I remark that his CV suggests that he seems to be reserving heavier roles for recordings, including Il trovatore and Rigoletto. That’s not to say that his stage parts are always lighter – he has appeared in Bellini’s La sonnambula, Vivaldi’s Bajazet and Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto – but in the theatre the main emphasis seems to be Mozart and the lighter works of Donizetti and Rossini. “I began recording dramatic roles because I felt that I had reached a time when my voice was becoming more mature, and I wanted to make a start now. But I do believe that to sing a role like Filippo in Verdi’s Don Carlos you need to be a bit older and to feel your age. I prefer the younger roles for now, but I think that when I reach 46 or 47 I can start to appear as Filippo and in roles like that, and at that time I may perhaps look to do on stage some of the parts that I have recorded, but not yet.” If Verdi is one of the composers that Ildebrando has in mind, steps in that direction are already being taken. “Donizetti is completely different from Rossini. I haven’t done a lot of his work but now I will start to, and I am to appear in Vienna in a new production of Anna Bolena with Garanča and Netrebko. Part of the contrast with Rossini is that Donizetti is more lyrical but he’s also much closer to Verdi and a way for me to prepare for Verdi.”

Although some singers take the view that comic roles are even harder to bring off than dramatic ones, Ildebrando chooses not to be drawn into that comparison but comments instead on his general attitude to roles, be they comic or dramatic. In this respect it is relevant that when talking earlier about his success in the Toti dal Monte competition in 1991 he had stressed how pleased he had been to hear the comments on his performance by one of the judges, the great singer Sesto Bruscantini. “He told me that I had won because every time that I performed a particular aria or piece of recitative I had done it differently and that was evidence that I was not a machine. That was really nice because I like to express what I feel in that moment. What counts on stage is what you feel and what comes naturally.”

In arriving at what feels natural, Ildebrando consciously turns to many sources to increase the information available to him on which he then draws to represent a character in depth. One such source for Il turco in Italia comes from outside the opera house and may well be relevant not only to his own approach but to that of fellow Italian Alessandro Corbelli who appears in this production as the potential cuckold Geronio (both artists are returning to the roles they took in 2005 when this staging by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser opened). “Corbelli and I were talking the other day about the people who live on the streets in Napoli and about how these street vendors are just like actors in real life as they promote their wares. So, as an Italian familiar with that, it is something that you bring to the stage. I watch Corbelli with pleasure because he understands so well the need to be an actor as well as to be a singer. That makes for a really great combination – sometimes we think about the voice at the expense of thinking about the character. Also I’m really proud to be reunited with Sir Thomas Allen who again plays the poet. When I was seventeen he was my ideal Don Giovanni at La Scala under Muti and his Italian was unbelievably good. From working with people like that you get lots of information and it’s the same when it comes to collaborating with conductors. Every meeting with a conductor is important because you can extend your reach, build your character and enrich it from the information that they give you.”

There’s also another way of learning that can arise for singers who, like Ildebrando, have made a point of taking on more than one role in a particular opera (his CV shows that he has been the Count and Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro, Guglielmo and Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte and in Don Giovanni he has appeared in three different parts including the title role). “When I did Masetto I was watching Don Giovanni and Leporello and learning from that what the music gives to me. I remember thinking then that one day I would do Leporello and that I would like to change various things that the singer in that role was doing.”

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Selim & Aleksandra Kurzak as Fiorilla. Photograph: The Royal Opera / Clive Barda. April 2010

On other occasions including this revival of Il turco in Italia there is a wholly positive aspect to tuning in to what your colleagues are doing. Learning from your fellow singers and responding to their interpretations helps to keep a production fresh and eliminates the risk of mechanical repetition in a performance, which Ildebrando is so keen to avoid. Thus he is pleased that this time around he finds himself as the seductive Turk Selim making up to the flighty Fiorilla of Aleksandra Kurzak. Last time the role of Geronio’s wife was taken by Cecilia Bartoli. “While the notes are naturally the same, Aleksandra is totally different from Cecilia. What is so beautiful in music is the expression of it as one tries to convey what one feels inside, and that applies to the words too. Each of us has different colours and I want to be really close to what my partner is expressing and to establish connection. I wouldn’t want to be the same as I was when I did it in 2005 and, since that was my debut in the role of Selim, I hope that my vision of the part is now bigger. Certainly I regard having Aleksandra for Fiorilla as great casting and, just as I believe that over the years I have found more colours in Leporello, I am aware that I am gaining new insights into Selim from Moshe, from our conductor Maurizio Benini and from the different emphasis musically and rhythmically of Aleksandra and Cecilia. All of these things make him another person this time.”

But if Ildebrando feels that his characterisation of Selim is growing and developing, one aspect of Il turco in Italia that he would not wish to change is the approach that is central to this particular production. Since last appearing in it, he has taken the same role in a very different staging in Vienna. In that presentation the comic element was much emphasised from the start with Selim as much as Geronio being seen as a buffo character. “In this production Selim is more human and not just a figure in a funny story: Patrice and Moshe have captured the Italian life-style really well and, while Selim is authentically Turkish in his outlook, Alessandro’s Geronio and the others emerge as such Italian figures. To that extent it’s more like a real story. It’s full of funny situations, of course, but that can happen in real life too. That’s the balance.”

  • Seven performances at 7.30 p.m. from Saturday 3 April (7 p.m.) to Monday 19 April 2010
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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