Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Mansel Stimpson talks to the mezzo who plays Amneris in Covent Garden’s Aida and who sings the praises of its director David McVicar…
The American mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti is a very easy person to talk to, outgoing to a degree but never brash. This is the second time she has appeared at Covent Garden – she made her debut last September when she took the role of Eboli in Don Carlo. Her return finds her playing Amneris in Aida, a role that she has already taken some 250 times, but she is more excited by this particular production than by any she has previously known, which is down to its director, David McVicar. This is the first time that she has worked with him, but what she has discovered in rehearsals prompts her to reflect on the difference between a good director and a great one. “A good director tells you about the emotions of the character; a great director shows you. David has literally shown us every emotion and it’s been truly unbelievable in that way. Many a director might say ‘oh, you have to feel happy at this point’. But David shows us exactly what that happiness is, expressing it with his body, with everything. It’s not something that’s usual: I’m exhausted after every day’s work because he’s so intense when rehearsing, not letting up for a minute. And he expects you to come up with that daily. Believe me, as an artist when you see him working it just makes you want to give and give and give. It’s been a tremendous experience.”
Having become a leading singer in opera houses internationally, Marianne can legitimately feel that she has realised what was truly her destiny. But that does not mean that everything went smoothly when she set out to become a singer. It was quite the reverse, in fact, although all seemed promising initially. She comes from a musical family and, given that Italian opera in general and Verdi in particular play a central role in her repertoire, the only surprise lies in the fact that it was not her Italian father but her Irish mother who brought music into her life.
“My mother just loved music and her mother played the piano while her mother was a mezzo soprano like me. So there was a lot of music in the family that was passed down: nobody was ever trained but nevertheless it played a big part in their lives. What I got from my father’s side of the family was the romantic heart of the Italians and he certainly enjoyed our music. My brothers and I were raised as Catholics and we would sing in churches. Indeed when I was in college I would often sing on Friday nights and Saturday mornings in a synagogue, on Saturday nights as a cantor in the Catholic mass and then on Sunday morning I would be the mezzo soloist in a Protestant church. Both my mum and my dad encouraged me to sing and they would say of my voice that it was a God-given thing and should be treated accordingly. They’d say ‘it’s really not yours to keep but yours to share’ and I have maintained that attitude ever since. If I keep it to myself, what good does it do? But if I’m giving it out then hopefully even though not everybody will necessarily like it you are making people happy through your talent, touching people through the gift that you have been given. That’s what I learnt from my parents, and I feel it all the more because the human voice is something that you can’t compare to any other instrument.”
Those early days that she describes could hardly have been more encouraging and included four years of good vocal study starting in the eighth grade. But then came a much less happy time at the Manhattan School of Music after which a planned move to study at the Cincinnati Conservatory was thwarted when she developed a thyroid condition and had to return home. That prevented her singing for some time and when she eventually set out to return to Cincinnati she lost her nerve and turned the car around. This was the time that brought her to Penn State and then to the Dusquesne University in Pittsburgh, but what she had in mind was no longer a career in music but helping others by training in speech pathology. However on arrival in Pittsburgh she encountered a new administrator who referred to all the credits she had got in music and suggested that she should finish her music degree. His notion was that she should go for a double major, but she was then told that this administrator had got it wrong and that she would have to make a choice.
“My thought then was that as I was indeed close to finishing the music degree so let me just finish it. But I still hadn’t made a definite choice. And that was where Maja Novich came into the picture. She was a former singer, a wonderful dramatic soprano who was teaching at the University. She was full of life and down to earth, so after some two months I opened up to her and admitted that I was confused. I said to her: ‘Singing is what I love to do, but there’s a major part of me that thinks I’m not suited to it because I haven’t got a diva-like personality. I grew up in a very normal family, I’m a well-rounded person who loves all kinds of sports and I couldn’t be more unlike a Maria Callas and yet this is my passion’. When I said that she came over to me and taking me by the shoulders she pointed out that I needed to become my real self. ‘Marianne’, she said, ‘if you don’t sing it will haunt you the rest of your life’. And I never turned back: from that point I just went forward.”
Going forward took Marianne into the Young Artists programme at Pittsburgh Opera where she made her first stage appearance in Elektra and then on to the Met at the end of 1993. Having made her debut there as the Russian Nanny in Death in Venice, it looked as though she was set to be a fixture at the Met in small roles but in 1995 something very significant happened. “I was asked to sing for the opera in Atlanta. It was originally meant to be Nabucco but they changed it to Trovatore and that was when I started to segue into bigger roles. When singing Azucena I realised that it fitted me like a glove. It led to Amneris and I found that the rest of the world was starting to pick up on me because by that time my voice was growing and another teacher, Dodi Protero in New York, had helped me to stabilise my technique. Consequently in 1998 I told the Met that I was finished with small roles and was leaving. They looked at me as though to say ‘alright – but you’ll be back’. So I said: ‘I will be back – and through the front door in a major role.’ Well, I did it: I came back as Amneris, although it did take me four years.”
That Marianne had made the right move was soon clear beyond all doubt. One proof of it came in 2000, the year when Italy started to take an interest in her. “I had a new manager who just after I had finished at La Scala informed me that he had five possible auditions for me in one week. ‘Do you think you can handle five?’ he asked, and I said ‘Just watch me’. I got all those jobs too, and they were all Verdi. He’s such a popular composer, but not everybody who appears in his operas is a true Verdi singer; however the colour and size of my voice meant that people began to think of me in those terms. Nevertheless, important though that has been to me you can’t just do Verdi because you’re going to be limited: I’ve done Ulrica, Azucena, Amneris, Eboli – what else is there? Doing these roles over eight years or so has been good and they have established me, but I have to continue to re-invent myself.”
In looking to expand her repertoire, Marianne is sensibly self-critical. She has tried Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde and concluded that the former suits her much better than the latter. “I don’t think that every role is for everybody. Brangäne in Tristan is, sort of, not my character, and that’s probably why I don’t find her so interesting. But there are many other roles I would love to do some day. I’d like to do Samson and Delilah although my figure may not be ideal for it and then there’s the nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten, what a great role that is.”
As regards the Covent Garden Aida, Marianne is delighted to have been asked back so soon after that debut in Don Carlo having been impressed then both by the house and by that production’s director Nicholas Hytner. However, whereas Eboli is the part she’s done least among her Verdi roles, Amneris is a character that she has played so often that her enthusiasm for David McVicar’s approach is all the more striking. “As I said, I’ve done this over 250 times but I’ve never ever, ever had a director that has really gotten in there so intricately and from such an intimate standpoint. I’ve always liked the role of Amneris because, like the others that I do in Verdi, they are to my mind the most interesting roles, characters of real complexity who can be thought of as the action figures in these operas because the drama lies within them. Without Azucena, Amneris or Eboli you wouldn’t have an opera really, because what happens hinges on them. Also, not least with Amneris, there’s an absolute growth in the character clear through to the end and I like the challenge of having somewhere to go with the character. It’s an even bigger challenge this time because of what David McVicar is bringing to it.”
As we discuss this new production further, Marianne comments first on the character of Amneris and the way in which it is being perceived and then on David McVicar’s take on the opera as a whole. “Amneris is very controlled and a virgin despite her age, a person not unlike Queen Elizabeth I in fact. She really falls for Radamès but is shy about it having not openly expressed such emotions before, and it all builds from that. I myself am a very outgoing person, but for the role I hold my hands clasped in a way that suggests that I am in a sense boxed in. Then when Amneris has some huge outburst it really means something. In this production you’re made to realise just how much power she has – how she could say to Aida ‘you’re a slave and you’re dead’. I even asked David why if that is the case I don’t send Aida to her death, and he said ‘because in this situation you want to torture her’. But I don’t believe that Amneris should be considered a villain, not even at the beginning. You have to understand women. When as here you have two women, Aida and Amneris, both in love with the same man, Radamès, jealousy can be such a strong force and you have to remember that Amneris is used to having complete and utter power. Indeed we see that the only person more powerful than her and the king is Ramfis the high priest, and it’s only in the fourth Act that she fully realises that he and his priests are in the strongest position of all and not she herself. As for my appearance, this Amneris is half bald and I have an astonishing hair-piece. The make-up takes two and a half hours and it’s a phenomenal piece of work by my make-up artist Huriye. But the costumes by Moritz Junge are no less remarkable.”
As for David McVicar’s approach, spectacle is out in order to get to grips with the real meaning of a work which at heart is as bleak and condemning of a repressive state as is the auto-da-fé scene in Don Carlo. “The look of it is very minimal, almost an empty stage: but what does that do? It makes you focus on us, the characters. There are no elephants, no horses and the treatment of the famous Triumphal March is unlike anything you’ve ever seen: there’s no procession but something much more surprising and mesmerising.” It seems that at one time David McVicar had grave doubts about Aida on account of all the spectacle associated with it but, having dug deep into the characters, the music and the whole concept, he has come to love it. That seems wholly understandable especially when one bears in mind the tragedy of the opera’s final scene which goes much further than, say, La traviata in the way that it pares down everything to a quiet, intimate and sustained close. In its way it’s as daring as the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony.
“It’s unbelievably quiet and a stroke of genius. And the staging of it here is very simple but really impressive. I do hope that it all translates because David and his team have been working on this production for three or four years. In my case I’ve found that the motivation that he put into my blood has been so helpful. The wonderful thing is that David gives you something, a structure, and then allows you to work with it so that his stuff passes into my mind and into my body where it can grow, and that’s what has made it such a great pleasure. We’ve also got a great cast of people that I know from Italy and in Nicola Luisotti a conductor who’s also intense and who possesses an energy that encourages us greatly. There is such a sense of unity here, so strong you can’t imagine, and it’s such a joy to be part of it. If I did my opening night and hopefully finished the run but died the next day, I couldn’t have any regret. That’s because this is the kind of production that you long for but so very rarely get.”