Finding The Character: Anthony Michaels-Moore on Il Trovatore

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the British baritone as he prepares for the role of Count di Luna at Covent Garden…

When attending at Newcastle University, Essex-born Anthony Michaels-Moore studied for a degree in music and history and the subject of his dissertation was the baritone voice in Verdi. That doesn’t sound surprising since he himself would eventually become a highly successful baritone most famed for his appearances in operas by Verdi. But the fact is that it was an army scholarship that had taken him to Newcastle and, having been accepted at Sandhurst, he was expecting to make the army his career. “I think that it was by the middle of my second year at university that I really began to think that perhaps I had made the wrong life decision,” he explains, going on to stress that the realisation was a gradual one. It was not that music had not featured in his life from early on – his father was conductor of the local choral society and he himself had belonged to church and school choirs and taken leading Gilbert and Sullivan roles as a schoolboy. However, he doubted at that stage that he had the voice to become a professional singer and felt strongly drawn to army life. “When I decided to come out of the army, to throw away all that stability for something relatively unknown, my parents were astonished and did not encourage me. Through his choral society work my father had come into contact with people from London arriving for Saturday night concerts and he knew how fickle the music business can be.”

But, as becomes clear when you talk to him, Anthony is resolute, astute and practical. He had recognised through winning local competitions in the north-east and by appearing as the Christus with the Newcastle Bach Choir in the St John Passion that his voice did have the necessary potential after all. His resolve was to take the plunge, but also to set himself a time limit: if he did not have a measure of success by the age of thirty then he would not pursue his dream further. Luckily for him – and for us – he made his deadline. He credits various teachers for helping him to develop, and also Luciano Pavarotti. It was the latter who advised him to regard himself not as a high bass but as a baritone: “Coming from Luciano Pavarotti, that was like a wake-up call.” Pavarotti also influenced Anthony in a more general way: “He’s probably got the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard in the flesh.” But, having listened to the recordings made by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the 1960s, Anthony quotes him as an equal influence for interpretation and colour. “I admired the easy beauty of his tone and the musical intelligence.”

My meeting with Anthony takes place as he prepares to sing in a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Anthony did in fact cover the role of Count di Luna for Scottish Opera in the 1980s, but he was first featured in the role in a production in Toulouse just over ten years ago. “It was a traditional approach in that nothing weird was going-on on stage, and there was no heavy sub-text to be explored. It was simply a question of trying to tell the narrative clearly. But if it was not the most imaginative of productions it was for me a very good opportunity to experiment and to get inside a new character. The second occasion when I did it was at the Bastille in Paris, but it was a revival of a production first done some six months earlier. The original director was not there to explain the psychological reasoning that had provided some of the rather strange moves on stage and to this day I’m not sure why there was a railway track running across the front of the stage!”

Anthony’s description of what happened in Paris with only a revival director and limited rehearsal time contrasts totally with his current experience. “This Covent Garden production is, I believe, on its third revival and Elijah Moshinsky is here with us. Each time he has changed ideas and brought in fresh things, and this time around it’s a case of all the singers in principal roles being interested in acting as well as singing. So it’s a question not just of delivering the music as beautifully as possible, but of trying to offer a realistic character on stage. The sets are not so different but the actual physical action on stage is, and each of the characters is extremely highly defined and well motivated.”

At this point Anthony makes some observations about the opera that would be relevant to any production of it. “It’s a feature of Il Trovatore that each of the four main characters is driven by emotion pure and simple. By that I mean that there is an inconsolability about each of them because their feelings are so intense that there’s never a chance of them actually agreeing or finding a solution. Because their emotions and beliefs run on parallel tracks they come into contact only at points of conflict. That makes the work quintessentially Italian, because it’s all about melodrama and high emotion. Indeed, it’s fantastic to come back to this piece now after five years because it has so many wonderful melodies and enough material for a whole handful of operas: it never flags for a moment and having Nicola Luisotti as the conductor provides exactly what this opera needs in terms of energy and impulse. Also he’s someone who is aware both of the singers’ needs and their capabilities.”

It is, perhaps, a paradox that a work so representative of grand opera with its bold gestures and big emotions should also be so subtle in terms of characterisation. In this production Catherine Naglestad plays the tragic heroine Leonora, Marcelo Alvarez is the rebel Manrico who loves her and Stephanie Blythe is the gypsy woman Azucena, seemingly Manrico’s mother and out to avenge a death that has come close to depriving her of her sanity. But of all the roles the most complex is probably that of the Count, Manrico’s rival for Leonora, whose obsessive jealousy and ruthless actions drive the woman he loves to suicide and render him unknowingly responsible for killing his own brother. Anthony enjoys playing villains with subtlety – as witness his Scarpia and his Iago – but the fascinating thing about the Count is that he is far too complex to be summed up merely as a villain. He is motivated by genuine love for Leonora and the hostility he feels for Manrico is justified by the fact that this man is not only his rival in love but also his enemy in military terms. All these elements in one role make it well suited to Anthony’s temperament because it requires detailed consideration as to how the Count should be characterised and that’s a challenge he welcomes.

“The idea for this production is that at the start he’s very clearly motivated by love and also by jealousy, but then, at the end of Act Two, there’s a twist in his character. He warps. It’s the moment when he crosses the line between romantic love and possessive love. He enters some darker, poisonous region and that influences what happens scenically in Acts Three and Four. When we get to his last act duet with Leonora there is no longer any hint of romance. Earlier he has had that great romantic aria ‘Il Balen Del Suo Sorriso’ but now there’s no suggestion of that feeling: it’s all about taking possession of her as a driving desire. Despite all that, the Count does become an anguished, tragic figure at the end. That concluding scene happens very quickly but Nicola our conductor is very interested in stretching the musical lines there. That’s to give the audience time to attend to what’s happening and to what’s being said. The Count is, indeed, one of Verdi’s more concentrated baritone roles so it’s been a good challenge for me to do intelligent work encompassing all this in a short space of time. I’ve been helped by a wonderful conductor and by a director not afraid to try new ideas and always ready to push me that little bit harder just to see if there are more possibilities I can offer.”

Anthony’s final comments undoubtedly apply to this role but also to his approach to opera in general. “I think one of the hardest things for a singer to do is actually to open up, to expose themselves emotionally on stage. It takes a huge amount of courage, confidence and technical ability to do that. But when it happens the rewards are immense. It allows you to tap into emotional colours and feelings, some of which you would probably prefer not to have exposed. What I hope I have learnt over the years is to achieve that without damaging myself, because as any serious artist knows it’s all very well to be able to open things up but you have to be able to put them back together again – and that’s where technique comes in. Audiences respond to singing of that type because the immediacy and directness of communication affect them not just intellectually but physically, and any great artist wants to satisfy on both of those levels. I go back to what I was saying about Pavarotti and the intense beauty of that man’s voice, but the immediacy of any great singer arises from letting out something that’s from very deep inside. Nevertheless, you still have to remain in control: that’s the balance I’m after.”

  • The opening night of Il Trovatore is 30 January 2007 at 7.30 and runs until 23 February
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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