First of Three: Alessandro Corbelli and Linda di Chamounix [The Royal Opera, 7 & 14 September 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the baritone Alessandro Corbelli who starts off the new season at Covent Garden and will return for later appearances…

Alessandro Corbelli

The first work to be staged in the new season of The Royal Opera is a revival of Verdi’s Don Carlo (the five-act version, sung in Italian), which opens on 15 September. Prior to that there are two concert performances of Linda di Chamounix, one of Donizetti’s less frequently performed works. It’s a piece that was previously presented in London in 1997, at the Royal Festival Hall. It is hardly a coincidence that the conductor then as now was Mark Elder, a passionate promoter of rare works in which he believes. Another participant returning to this work is Alessandro Corbelli in the role of the Marquis de Boisfleury. This is the first of three appearances at Covent Garden during the forthcoming season. There follow Rossini’s Il turco in Italia in April and Donizetti’s ever-popular La Fille du regiment, in May. In both cases Alessandro is reprising a role for which he has already been acclaimed. He is indeed a “Covent Garden regular” and I was able to talk to him in July while he was here for Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Has becoming a regular in this house been something that he could have anticipated? He at once confirms that when he first came here, as Taddeo in Il turco in Italia in the late 1980s, any such idea was beyond his expectations. Nevertheless, he now delights in his appearances in London and, in the same breath, he sounds a critical note about opera in Italy today, which echoes similar comments from other Italian singers. “I am, first of all, very happy to be here. I love especially the atmosphere that you find in this theatre: everybody is very respectful, and that’s something that doesn’t happen so often in Italy I’m afraid.”

Alessandro was born in Turin and from a previous meeting with him I knew that his father was a painter who played the piano. I ask him now about any other connections with music, anything that might help explain why it was that at the age of ten Alessandro was at the opera house sitting attentively through a performance of Die Walküre. “None of my family was exactly involved in music, but I’m told that my grandfather on my mother’s side who was a judge had a very good tenor voice. Similarly, my mother, who taught Italian and old Greek, was very, very musical: she was possessed of a beautiful, natural voice. That’s about it, save for my great-grandfather on my father’s side who was named Edgardo, quite possibly after the character in Lucia di Lammermoor. In any case, he was very, very fond of opera in general and of Falstaff in particular – he lived in the period when that opera was created.”

Two teachers and a singer who directed were also to play important roles in the development of Alessandro’s talent. “I started to study with Giuseppe Valdengo when I was just twelve and that went on for about eleven years. He transmitted to me a real enthusiasm for opera, for singing and for being on the stage. He would tell me many, many stories about the Metropolitan and about Toscanini, and he fired me with enthusiasm for Toscanini’s approach to music: very honest, sharp, faithful and serious. My debut in opera came in 1973 singing Monterone in Rigoletto in a production that had Leo Nucci singing the title role at a time when that was fairly new territory for him. It marked not only my first official appearance but gave me something extra to contribute, too: in that opera there’s the tempest scene and I was put in charge of the effects for it, timing it all very precisely by reference to the score.”

The second major influence on Alessandro was Renato Capecchi whom he met in 1978 through a production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which Capecchi directed while also appearing in it as Don Alfonso. “It was he who made me aware of the need to be conscious of one’s body, to make certain that every gesture comes from you when the body is in a natural position, not tense but relaxed. As an actor I was at that time an amateur and I would make far too many exaggerated gestures. So what he taught me about being as relaxed on the stage as one is in real life was crucial, not only for my acting but also for my breathing. It helped me a lot.”

The other teacher who has featured in Alessandro’s career is Claude Thiolas. “Valdengo was good for me. He was an artist who gave me a delight in interpretation, in what we call in Italy ‘displaying the phrase’. But Mr Claude Thiolas has been my teacher now for more than thirty years, and he’s a real technical voice expert. He’s very aware of vocal physiology and the vocal techniques that I learnt from him are based on physiological gestures, just like speaking; but then you have to amplify everything in order to project. What he revealed to me were the real vocal Italian techniques of the old school, something that is perhaps getting a little bit lost now.”

When he started out Alessandro was a lyric baritone appearing in La traviata and Madama Butterfly, but today many think of him as a buffo specialist. It is not a term that he likes, preferring to think of them as comic roles. His move in that direction has never become exclusive and it was not calculated. “It came about a bit by chance, I think, but the facility that I had in pronouncing words was part of it. I think that my first comic role was Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I remember feeling absolutely at ease saying the words and making the jokes, and all at once I found that I loved the music of Mozart. It’s a role not far removed from the comic figures in Italian opera since it shares with them an element of descent from the commedia dell’arte with the addition of characterisation that makes them real as human beings. There’s often the master/servant relationship, be it Leporello, Figaro, Dandini or others and, as I realised when singing Leporello, Mozart must have known very well the Neapolitan and Venetian operas and tradition”.

The Italian comic roles undertaken by Alessandro cover a wide range of composers including, in addition to those already mentioned, Verdi (Falstaff) and Puccini (Gianni Schicchi). I wonder to what extent the similarities exceed the differences or vice versa. “First of all, the periods are different – but not of course between Donizetti and Rossini, although the former was the younger by about five years. But the style is already contrasted: Rossini comes from Mozart and Cimarosa in terms of his style. He is, of course, a genius, but in some ways he marks the end of a period. Donizetti on the other hand, who composed about seventy operas including many tragic ones, derives from Bellini – he develops the latter’s magical invention of melody. I don’t really know where that comes from, but it’s a vein distinct from Beethoven or Mozart and it suddenly happens not only in Italy but also with Chopin. But Donizetti in developing this also showed his versatility by embracing too the comical vein as exemplified by Don Pasquale, Rita and L’elisir d’amore. Look at Falstaff or at Don Pasquale and you find the same origins in the commedia dell’arte, but those roles go beyond the masks and create something new and that’s by bringing out the human side of the characters. Gianni Schicchi being a farce is something else, but there are similarities nevertheless because as well as being so humorous it’s so Italian in its characterisation, so Tuscan I would say.”

Linda di Chamounix is a rarity not only in the UK. “There was a time in Italy when it was done more often than you find it done today, although I believe that La Scala did it a few years ago. In the past sopranos would often sing the aria ‘O luce di quest’anima’ but the work has rather a faded away. I have only done it on that one occasion in London in 1997 and I am very grateful to Mark Elder who invited me then and again now when the performance will be recorded by Opera Rara. The story is very difficult to stage, but the music is of a very high level. In point of fact, I always like concert performances because then the audience has the opportunity to imagine for themselves what the staging could be like and that may well be an advantage in this work.”

The plot is set around 1760 both in the village of Chamounix and in Paris. The eponymous Linda, a farmer’s daughter, is in love with Carlo but then discovers that he is an aristocrat whose mother has arranged for him to marry somebody more suitable. The fear of losing Carlo, together with the fact that her father believes she is Carlo’s mistress and curses her, drives Linda mad. Although the libretto avoids a tragic ending and restores Linda both to sanity and to Carlo, the piece ranks as one of Donizetti’s serious works.

However, Alessandro’s part, that of the Marquis, gives the opera its one lighter role. He’s a landowner in Chamounix who plans to seduce the much younger Linda, a situation which brings to mind the year-later Don Pasquale, in which the Don foolishly pursues a young woman thinking that she might accept him. The comedy that dominates in Don Pasquale, despite that work’s humanity, means that the two operas are very different, yet once again Alessandro sees in the Marquis a character in whom the comic and the human are combined.

“It has both those elements, and I find my role very interesting. He may be an old man who sets out to woo Linda, but eventually he changes his view and becomes wiser. Similarly, the humour that is part of his character ultimately develops so that he comes to see the comedy in his own situation. Thus, in the finale, he is dancing with the others. But earlier there’s a duet with Linda that I like doing, and there the Marquis starts by trying to woo her and ends up by insulting her because she resists him. Vocally the role although not very long is hard, but I remember hearing it once on a record with the young Renato Capecchi and he was very, very good. As for audience response, I remember that when we did the opera in 1997 they were very pleased with it. It was a very good occasion, and I hope that this one will be too.”

  • Two performances – on 7 & 14 September 2009 at 7 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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