Puccini Without The Tear Factor: Dina Kuznetsova Talks About Gianni Schicchi

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

An interview with the Russian-born soprano who makes her debut at Covent Garden…

In 1987 Dina Kuznetsova’s aunt emigrated from Russia being allowed to do so at last after ten years as an anti-government refusnik. Had that not happened Dina’s own life might have been very different as soon becomes clear from her comments. “My aunt kept calling me suggesting that I visit her in Boston and eventually at the age of 18 or 19 I did so.” By that time Dina had already shown an interest in music but, rather than emulate the grandfather on her mother’s side who but for the Second World War might have made a career as a baritone, she had taken to the piano and studied that instrument at a school in Moscow. “In those days you would be expected to specialise very early and if you played the piano it was definitely understood that you were going to become a pianist.”

The American approach to such matters was different as Dina knew and after making that visit to her aunt she went on from Boston to Oberlin in Ohio. “The year I went there they had a so-called independent major at the conservatory. It meant that while entering as a pianist I could go on to explore different fields of music. I had always loved the theatre and was quite passionate about literature and poetry and while still in Moscow I had worked as an accompanist in one of the big theatre colleges. It involved playing at singing lessons for actors and I found that revelatory. It’s true that they didn’t have professional voices, but what they did have was a power of interpretation, of shaping a word, that fascinated me. But it was at Oberlin during my third year there that I encountered Mary Schiller when taking secondary voice lessons. She was a visiting professor and she really opened up my voice and that was what made it possible for me to switch over and become a vocal major. I had recognised earlier that I would love to be a singer but it had seemed that there was no way in which it could happen. But thanks to Mary I realised that there was a chance, if only one in a million. So I just dropped everything else and decided to go for it. For me that was kind of a miracle year, but also a scary one because it was something of an identity crisis. I was already in my early twenties no longer a pianist but not yet a good singer.”

Six years on Dina has studied at Santa Barbara and had come into contact with two important singers, Marilyn Horne and Renato Scotto, by which time she was taking an interest in song as well as in opera. She won a recital competition set up by the Marilyn Horne Foundation which involved contact with Horne herself and led to a solo recital in New York. The Scotto connection came through Dina’s first agent who arranged for her to study with her at the singer’s home. It was this that prompted Renato Scotto to invite Dina to take part in a duet recital in Savona, Italy. “Both of them are tremendously positive people, such great and giving artists,” she recalls. Another figure prominent in her career has been the conductor Sir Andrew Davis whose position as Music Director at the Lyric Theatre of Chicago brought him into touch with Dina who was initially there at the Young Artists Studio. “They’ve been very kind to me in Chicago and after graduating I came back to sing three leads for them. Sir Andrew’s wife, Gianna Rolandi, is head of their Music Center and I take vocal lessons with her. It was particularly helpful in the case of The Cunning Little Vixen because she herself was the vixen when it was first revived in New York after decades. I just love Janáček but having a lighter more Italianate or French voice I shall have to wait before I’m ready for another role of his. I adore Jenůfa: I can just listen and listen to it. Otherwise I must say that I’m musically omnivorous. I love Handel and Mozart but as a performer I seem to get the biggest reaction in nineteenth-century repertoire that features lyrical coloratura, roles like Traviata and Juliette. But I can get very excited about different periods and different styles – there’s never one that dominates.”

Before moving on to discuss her Covent Garden debut, I asked her whether or not her Russian roots remain important to her seeing that she is now based in America and has an American husband. “Despite being an American citizen now, I think of myself as a Russian native because that’s my cultural base and my language base: that’s part of my temperament. Sometimes I have to work against it because I’m doing something in Italian or French. It’s not just the diction and the pronunciation but the need to be true to the character you are portraying. You inevitably put into a role something of what you are yourself, but while we all share the same emotions every culture has its own individuality and subtlety of expression and I recognise that the core of self in me is absolutely Russian. Consequently, although one wants to be as sincere as possible, you have to cheat in a way, to change yourself a little bit in order to be true to that other culture to which your character belongs.”

For now, however, it’s another Italian work following recent appearances as Violetta and Gilda. This time, though, it’s a role debut for Dina, that of Lauretta in Puccini’s one-act comic-opera Gianni Schicchi which, directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Antonio Pappano, opens at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden in a light-hearted double bill with Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole. I suggest that the Puccini is less familiar than it deserves to be, partly because it fills only part of an evening and partly because the public tends to associate Puccini with tragic operas. Dina very much agrees with this view. “I think it’s a great, great piece but it lacks the tear factor and also a lot of it is more recitative-like. That may be why it’s not as popular as, say, La bohème, but it’s certainly a work of genius and it’s good to work on it with Richard Jones because he dissects every thought and every musical gesture, and that’s so necessary in an opera so tightly and ingeniously constructed.”

This is the first time that Dina has had Pappano as her conductor and, like most singers, she enthuses about him. “I was amazed how hands-on he is and at the significant amount of time he gives to it. It’s so often the case that conductors come late and the full musical rehearsals are left to the very end – but not here, which is as it should be. Pappano is a great conductor and I’m very, very happy to be working with him. Richard Jones I have met before: he came to Chicago when I was an apprentice there and I covered Gretel in his production of Hansel and Gretel. It was enough to get to know his working style and I have been looking forward to meeting him again. Because his Humperdinck staging was very dark, I half expected a deeper and darker look at Gianni Schicchi, but as is natural he sees it as a comedy and his detailed work on it is on that basis.”

But, if this opera is a comedy, Dina’s role in it as Schicchi’s daughter has the most famous aria in the whole piece and it’s not one that suggests it would find its natural home in a humorous work. This is ‘O mio babbino caro’ best known to older English music-lovers through Joan Hammond’s recording under the title ‘O my beloved father’. This is what Dina has to sing within minutes of taking the stage, a formidable assignment for someone making her first appearance at Covent Garden. “It’s such a famous aria that I’m working very hard to unburden myself from the weight of every great soprano in the world who has put a stamp on it. I’m just trying to see it from a theatrical perspective and considering how I can make it work in context. I don’t think one can do much with it that’s new, but you need to be true to it in every respect. It’s an aria that features many tight little turns and far from just delivering something beautiful you must keep the intensity of those turns. If I were to think of it as a sweeping, amazing melody and emphasise that, then it would create more of a standstill than Richard wants. It’s an opera in which you can contrast the comedy involving the family with the scenes featuring the two lovers, Lauretta and Rinuccio, as though they belonged to separate worlds. But our approach is not to do that but to show them as interconnected worlds one within the other. I’m very much Schicchi’s child in this production, observant and calculating, but what I am trying to do is find a way for Rinuccio and myself to get together. However, the real difficulty here lies in the opera being a concise one-act work. If you go awry early on in an opera, you usually console yourself with the thought that you have two more acts in which to be stupendous! You don’t have that luxury here and that’s the challenge. Would I prefer to be making my debut in a longer role? That’s an impossible question to answer, but I do know that I’m very happy to be doing this. It’s lovely.”

  • The opening night of L’Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi is 30 March 2007, at 7.30, and runs until 24 April (7 & 21 April at 7 p.m.)
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content