On Her Own Terms: Martina Serafin and Tosca [The Royal Opera’s Tosca – 7 June-17 July 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to Martina Serafin about the path which led to her becoming an international soprano…

Marcello Giordani as Cavaradossi & Martina Serafin as Tosca (Tosca, The Royal Opera, June 2011). Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

For the Viennese-born soprano Martina Serafin building a career meant finding her own way, one that would be distinct from that of her parents and allow her to become her own person. Her mother and father were both stars of operetta and, on reaching that point in her teens when she needed to think of her future, Martina had to take that into account. She recognised that children of the famous who try to follow in their footsteps often have a difficult time of it: daunting comparisons can be made and charges of nepotism can arise. “I knew it would be very difficult for me starting off in Vienna where my parents were so very famous, and for that reason I asked myself if there was anything else that I would be interested in doing. However, I quickly realised that there was nothing in the world that I would like to do as much as singing.” The fact that Martina Serafin is telling me this at Covent Garden – she has returned there to sing the title role in Tosca – is evidence of just how far she has succeeded in establishing herself.

Music has always been part of Martina’s life. “It was quite clear from early on that I could become a singer because I have a natural voice. Unfortunately my parents divorced and in consequence I grew up more with my mother, Mirjana Irosch, than with my father. She was very, very beautiful and about thirty-five years ago she achieved huge acclaim in Vienna for her appearances in such roles as The Merry Widow, Rosalinda and Safi. In my childhood I was always in the theatre with her. In her dressing room I loved to wear her costume jewellery and I adored attending both her rehearsals and her performances. Sadly the heyday of operetta’s popularity seems to have passed. Compared to the 70s and the 80s much less is done now except for The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus, but there’s a great deal of beautiful music much of which is very difficult to sing. In the beginning it was music of that kind that I would take on and it was a great school for me because I learnt a lot, not just about singing but about acting, movement and dancing. My father, Professor Harald Serafin, is now the artistic director of the Mörbisch summer festival and he already had that post when I started to enter competitions and do concerts. They put on an operetta every summer by the lake and he asked me to go there to sing the Countess in Wiener Blut. My initial reaction was that I was too young and inexperienced, but I went and as a result the Opera of Graz heard me and offered me a contract for three years.”

Since Graz is in Austria the comparison which Martina had always hoped to avoid followed her there. “Everyone was comparing me to my mother even though she had a really lyric voice whereas mine was heavier, more dramatic and at that age sometimes less round. But luckily I was allowed to make my Graz debut in an opera, a role in Busoni’s Doktor Faust and it worked very well. I went on to do a lot of Mozart which is always very good for the voice: there was Donna Elvira, Fiordiligi and the Countess in Figaro.” Another role that she took there was that of Mimi in La bohème, a pointer to the importance that the Italian repertoire would assume for her. But quite soon there was another composer to consider. “Since I am Viennese and my mother language is German and since I am very tall with long hair, everybody would say to me that I had to sing Wagner. And I was lucky enough to do that. These days I’m doing Sieglinde a lot and it’s a role which I love very, very much but my first Wagner was as Elsa in Lohengrin. That came when I was twenty-nine or so and at thirty I did my first Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. That too was a great experience – Richard Strauss is wonderful and his music is a great gift. Next year I will be singing Lieder of his in Vienna with Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic.”

However, that early experience of singing Mimi had been revelatory for Martina. “When I performed that it was as though something opened inside – not just technically or vocally but something that I felt in my heart. Consequently I told my agent that I would like to sing more Italian opera, but nothing came my way and I decided that it was not my destiny. But then I met my husband, the Italian bass Alessandro Guerzoni, and he assured me that the Italian repertoire brought out the beauty in my voice. Even so I lacked full confidence and felt uncertain about it. But then I changed my agent and that led to my singing Maddalena in Giordano’s Andrea Chénier and I had a success in that far greater than anyone had expected. Consequently it became clear that I should go further in this direction, and that’s how I came to do not only Tosca but Manon Lescaut, Adriana Lecouvreur and Turandot. Now Verdi is on the horizon and I am shortly due to do my first Elisabetta in Don Carlo for La Scala. Nevertheless I will continue to sing the German repertoire which I love and, as for Mozart, only six months ago I did the Countess in Los Angeles conducted by Domingo.”Martina has also appeared in a range of other works – from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades to Berg’s Wozzeck and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. Some roles she tries out to assess how well they will fit her repertoire now, but some she has earmarked. “I want to wait with Salome and also Isolde.”

Turning to Tosca, it’s a role that she has taken several times. Her debut in it was in Rome, a production by Franco Zeffirelli, followed by Teatro Antico di Taormina, Salerno, Vienna, and with more to come. Even so, the most memorable occasion was in 2008 when she appeared in Jonathan Kent’s production, which marked her Covent Garden debut. The circumstances that surrounded that were special. “I had just done my last show as the Marschallin in an engagement in Toulouse and was on my way home when I received a call. ‘Would you like to sing Tosca in London tomorrow?’ and I at once said ‘Yes’. Their singer was indisposed and it was wonderful to jump in like that regardless of any problems involved. The first one was that my little dog was with me at the airport in Paris: I couldn’t just leave him but also I couldn’t bring him into the UK. That was solved when my husband came from Brussels to Paris to take him, but I arrived in London very late in the evening. That meant that everything – the costume rehearsal, the music rehearsal, the show itself (the first of two performances I gave) – all happened in the one day. Tony Pappano who was conducting was so friendly and there was no time to think. One knows though that when you jump in and save a performance the audience feels sympathetic to you and will probably forgive any slips that may occur. So it became a great way in which to make my debut and at the time I felt calm and happy. It was only afterwards when I came to look back on it that I found myself thinking ‘Oh my God!’.”

Martina is back for the same role in the same production and singing eight performances (there’s a substantial change of cast for the last two July 14 and 17) and to her delight Antonio Pappano is again the conductor. “One of the great things about my profession is that there is always more work and more study to do: in a sense you never ever arrive but are always learning. That’s why it’s so wonderful to rehearse with Tony. He is giving me so much, helping me to get so far into the role and finding little nuances that make it even more beautiful. In a way it is research, but it’s a huge, huge joy. Indeed, now that we are into the musical rehearsals, Marcello Giordani, who has appeared in this opera so many times and all over the world, was saying ‘It’s like doing Cavaradossi for the first time’. And that’s so, because you feel that Tony is showing you how it must be, how it has to be, and you ask yourself how you could ever have done it any other way. As a singer, I hope in any case to grow, but I want to grow here for him, to make him happy: he gives so much to us that all we singers want to give something back through the quality of our performances.”

In passing Martina speaks about her co-performers. She knows Giordani well from Andrea Chénier and Manon Lescaut (“I like working with him because he is a very, very good colleague”). It’s also a pleasure for her to be working with the Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo who appears as the evil Scarpia. But in considering Tosca we mainly discuss the character of Floria Tosca herself. A diva living in Rome in 1800, she finds her life transformed not only because Baron Scarpia the ruthless head of the secret police lusts after her but because he is prepared to torture her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, who has helped a political prisoner to escape. This torture may be aimed at extracting information about this escapee but it is also Scarpia’s way of bending Tosca to his will.

Many females in opera are portrayed essentially as victims and Tosca might have been one of them, but Puccini offers instead a rich and complex character. She is truly in love with Cavaradossi, but that makes her prone to jealousy and to suspicions, a side of her that is as notable as her religious piety. Furthermore, it is the strength that Tosca displays that elevates her above the role of victim: she confronts Scarpia and even seeks to secure the escape of her lover and herself with a daring plan and which comes to her killing Scarpia. How does Martina see Floria’s character? “She’s a real woman who commits herself one hundred percent in all that she does – she’s a woman we would all want to be, I think. She’s very passionate, very Italian, so her jealousy like her love is intense. There are, of course, different types of women and they love in different ways, but what she displays is the normal jealousy of a passionate woman. You do, however, have to be careful in Act One not to allow this aspect to arouse antipathy towards her: you need to remember that there’s something almost flirtatious in the jealousy she shows. Theirs is a young love and she’s afraid of losing Cavaradossi. If they quarrel a bit when she reveals signs of jealousy, you know that they will nevertheless have a great night together afterwards. As for the political situation in which they are caught up, I don’t think that the world has changed since those times. However, television brings us much more information about what is happening. Originally some people may have regarded the story as melodramatic, but the truth is that it’s really a very modern story, isn’t it?”

The Third act leads to a highly dramatic and tragic conclusion but for the artist portraying Tosca Act Two is arguably the most intriguing. “It’s very interesting to show the change in her during this Act. When she’s brought in to Scarpia she believes that he can’t do anything to her because she’s an important person. Although she recognises that he is very corrupt and dangerous she thinks that she is safe from him, but then she discovers that she is not. She believes too that she knows where the edge is, just how far she would go. But then Scarpia’s cruelty pushes her further: she sees the knife, takes it and puts it in his heart. That’s the moment that she relives as she describes it in the Third Act. I regard her as somebody who has been brought to this extreme by Scarpia, so I really prefer it when a production has her stab Scarpia just once, all in the moment as she resists his advances. In the Covent Garden staging she puts the knife in three times and I have had to get used to that.”

The Second Act concludes with an essentially orchestral section following Scarpia’s death and Martina feels that it is something of an acting challenge to convey Tosca’s feelings through such details as hand movements and turns of the head. “But you do have the help of Puccini’s fantastic music and at rehearsals the sound coming up from the pit is so wonderful and warm: it’s a full sound and elegant even in those moments where there is a sforzando.” Crucially for the soprano this Act also includes the celebrated aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ which seems to take us inside the head of Tosca as she reflects on God allowing her to get into this situation. “It’s not a prayer. She’s arguing with God and asking ‘Why?’ again and again. She may refer to God in the very last line of the opera, but in some fundamental way I think that what has happened has changed her. A door has been closed.”

  • Tosca – Ten performances at 7.30 p.m. from Tuesday 7 June to Sunday 17 July 2011 [6.30 p.m. on 17 July]
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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