Fighting Tradition: Giuseppe Filianoti and L’elisir d’amore [The Royal Opera’s L’elisir d’amore, 12-25 May 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti and meets a man who is not afraid to make his views known…

Giuseppe Filianoti. ©Paiz

The role of Nemorino, the shy and simple youth who woos the initially disdainful Adina in Donizetti’s much loved opera L’elisir d’amore, is a part that Giuseppe Filianoti has performed in Barcelona, Toulouse and Vienna, and in December this year he is due to sing it in Munich. It’s also the role that he is rehearsing when we meet at Covent Garden for a revival of Laurent Pelly’s acclaimed production. The work is one containing a delightful buffo role (that’s the quack Dulcamara who claims to be selling a love potion of guaranteed power) and in Nemorino’s rival, the opinionated soldier Belcore, we have a character whose behaviour is constantly being sent up. Consequently it’s hardly surprising that L’elisir d’amore should be thought of as a comic opera. Nevertheless Nemorino himself seems to invite sympathy rather than laughter, and that suggests the need to incorporate a variation in tone to take account of this. It is this that makes me wonder if Giuseppe has found that the different directors of the productions in which he has appeared have varied in their approach to his role.

“Every time I have to tell these directors that they are pushing the role too much into comedy because in all of these productions the director wants the public to be laughing.” How about Laurent Pelly’s way with it at Covent Garden? “It’s the same – all are the same, and I accept it, especially when coming to a production like this which is already a classic staging, one where you cannot expect to change anything. But one day I wish for a new production in which Nemorino is not treated as a comic character but as someone who develops in the course of the story. He is, after all, a lyric tenor, so maybe in Munich in December? Who knows?”

If Giuseppe believes in asserting his views, it probably stems from the fact that he studied in Milan with the great tenor Alfredo Kraus whose attitude to music influenced his own. Prior to his arrival in Milan, Giuseppe had obtained a degree in music at the conservatory of his hometown of Reggio Calabria. That might suggest that there was never any doubt about what his career would be, and, indeed, he mentions that his mother would point out that as a young child he was always singing. “It is something I was born with, but I had two great passions and the other was Italian literature which I studied also. Indeed when I started to learn about bel canto I was not expecting to become a singer, but by the time that I had finished my studies it was music that was taking the lead and that decided it. In any case in this job it’s important to have a base in literature, to know well the history and the story of an opera’s plot and to be aware of the source from which it was taken. When I start on an opera for the first time, I always begin by making a study of the character I am to play. If you play Werther and you know Goethe it helps you to elaborate the role, to understand it better and thus to bring more to your performance. The staging and the singing go together because the days when singers would ignore movement and just stand there and sing are long past.”

Giuseppe Filianoti. ©Paiz

Giuseppe’s period as a young student of singing encompassed six years at the conservatory before moving to Milan for two years at the Accademia of La Scala, but what stands out for him is the connection with Kraus. “I did a masterclass with him and after that we continued to meet and to discuss music, my voice and my career prospects. Even today I find that I will suddenly recall something that Kraus told me years ago and I will invariably think ‘yes, he was right’. He was noted for his technique and that was one adopted to fit him, but nevertheless you can bring something of it into your work, those aspects which you recognise as being suited to your own voice. In any case Kraus remains my model of what a singer should be because he had such respect for music and for the art of bel canto. Consequently, if some conductor or some director asks me to do something that for me is against bel canto or against the wish of the composer as expressed in the music, I will say that it’s not possible. There was another thing too that I admired about Kraus: he was a real gentleman.”

Giuseppe’s operatic debut came when he was twenty-four and it was also at about this time that he scored notable successes in music competitions, the Operalia by Domingo in which he won the second prize and the Viñas in which he took the top prize. But it wasn’t this that got him to Bologna to sing the title role in Donizetti’s Dom Sébastien. “The director had come to Milan and had heard me in La Scala at the Accademia and decided to give me this opportunity. It was a beautiful production and it’s an opera that I love and being inexperienced I jumped at the chance. But after doing it here at Covent Garden in 2005 I decided that I wouldn’t do it again. The part starts and ends using the middle of the voice – what you expect in Donizetti – but in between you have an aria so high that it comes close to being impossible.”

It may have been an unusual vehicle for a debut, but for an Italian tenor to turn to Italian opera and to specialise in that field is nothing out of the ordinary. However, Giuseppe surprises me when he elaborates on what he likes to sing. “I’ve always had a great curiosity about music in general and wish to do as wide a repertoire as possible. Early on I did one of Mozart’s juvenile works and I’ve done serious Rossini, even though it’s not ideal for my voice. The fact is that I wanted to discover the way in which music evolved, to sing Monteverdi, Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi and, whereas some people like to go in one particular direction and follow it, that’s not for me. So when I was offered Flamand in (Richard Strauss’s) Capriccio I did it, and there was (Stravinsky’s) The Rake’s Progress which has wonderful music. There is this idea today that if you are Italian you are good only for the Italian repertoire, but why should that be so? Mozart is my favourite of all, a genius, and I’ve done four perfect works of his, Idomeneo, Don Giovanni, Zauberflöte and Clemenza. With a lyric voice you can also do Handel and I would love to appear in Tamerlano, and some time I wish to sing that masterpiece Peter Grimes, which, after all, was written for Peter Pears who was a Mozart tenor. If I like the character and the music and it suits my voice, then I wish to do it, and it’s good to have variety. Nevertheless I feel that my voice was born most of all for the French repertoire, operas such as Faust, Manon and Roméo et Juliette, but what made me realise that this was so was doing Werther.”

Giuseppe Filianoti. ©Paiz

Giuseppe may assert this preference for French opera despite being Italian, but his approval of the Italian repertoire is nevertheless self-evident. But there are other sides to Italy’s musical life that he is not afraid to criticise. “I’m Italian and I want to say the truth: to sing in Italy is not easy. It never was. It’s not the same in all parts of Italy but particularly at La Scala there is no respect for the artist. They treat their singers like hired servants to whom they can dictate everything. Their attitude is something like this: ‘We are La Scala, so I can tell you exactly what I want from you and, if I want to, I can deny you your individuality because you are here under La Scala’. Now that’s not nice. There’s another problem too that you get in Italy: audiences who take the view that they know how something should be done and believe that there is no other way. Singers can falter and it’s bad enough when you don’t get applause as can happen here in London, but at least not applauding is gentle. I remember those words of Riccardo Muti faced by abusive screaming audiences in Italy: ‘We are in the theatre, not in the circus: this is not a stadium but an opera house’. That kind of behaviour is traditional in Italy, but it’s a bad tradition.”

As for London in the here and now, in raising the question of the role of Nemorino and how it should be played, I encourage Giuseppe to explain in detail just why he feels that even enjoyable productions invariably treat the character in a way that conflicts with his own sense of what is appropriate. “If you look at the score of L’elisir d’amore you find that it is described as a melodramma, so it’s really a mixture of the comic and the pathetic. Of course, Lucia di Lammermoor is much heavier, but we need to understand that it is wrong to treat L’elisir as a totally comic work. Nemorino is a country boy but he’s not stupid, merely naive, and there are pages in the score which, not unlike Sonnambula, reflect this. At the beginning he is very much like a child but what he discovers inside himself, this feeling for Adina, makes him special. Adina herself is very different and wants to be modern in her outlook, but to evolve in that way is not necessarily an improvement: she’s not ready to give her heart and there’s something in her that is a little bit cold. This is in contrast to Nemorino who is always open and never tries to conceal what he is feeling. He may not be smart and so much is new to him, such as meeting people like Dulcamara and Belcore, but by the end of the opera he has grown and become a man. That’s why I never like it when a production puts him on the receiving end of lots of pushing and gags generally. It’s certainly become the tradition but it is not right.”

It could be argued that supporting Giuseppe’s view is the fact that the most famous aria in the opera is completely serious in character and is given to Nemorino, ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ which in translation begins ‘One secret tear welled up in her eye’ and refers to Adina. “It’s a lyric aria and a piece that Donizetti had composed earlier but wanted to put into this opera. Some thought that that was strange, but it’s crucial to the story representing not a lament but an expression of possible happiness. Adina has yet to tell Nemorino that she loves him, but the tear over what looks to be his impending departure as a soldier indicates that she feels something for him. Nemorino’s realisation of this and his understanding of it mark the change into his truly becoming a man. So it’s a serious aria, but one that has been prepared for by several other moments that suggest lyrical intensity, such as Nemorino’s lead in to the Act One finale where he implores Adina not to marry Belcore. The one scene in which Nemorino indisputably cuts a very comic figure is that in which he is drunk: but that’s written into the music, and why are people so determined to find something more like it both before and after?”

Clearly Giuseppe believes in the case that he is making, even if in truth he suspects that he will never see it realised in a performance. However, none of this prevents him from enjoying his participation in the Covent Garden rehearsals. “It’s the first time I’ve worked with Diana Damrau and she’s fantastic, but I’ve appeared before with Anthony Michaels-Moore, that was in Lucia, and I’ve done this very opera with Simone Alaimo whose Dulcamara is so well known. Also, following La traviata, this is my second time working with our conductor Bruno Campanella.”

That having been said, I am ready to close the interview, but Giuseppe adds that there is one more thing he would like to say: “It’s about this theatre. It’s a pleasure to come back here, really. And that’s because in this period of great economic problems it’s not easy to work today, but in this place I can feel that nothing has changed as regards the professionalism and the desire to do good music. I hope that people will enjoy this production of L’elisir d’amore.”

  • Six performances – from Tuesday 12 May until Monday 25 May at 7.30 p.m. [7 p.m. on Saturday 23 May]
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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