Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Mansel Stimpson talks to the Argentinean tenor Dario Schmunck as he prepares to appear on the stage of the Royal Opera House for the first time…
A debut undertaken by an actor or musician is defined in dictionary terms as the artist’s first public appearance, so to refer to Dario Schmunck’s second debut with The Royal Opera is strictly speaking a contradiction in terms. But in Dario’s case special considerations apply. What is beyond doubt is that one can discount here his first connection with The Royal Opera because, although he covered a role in Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal when it was given two concert performances on the Covent Garden stage and he was not required to perform. A year later however he did sing for The Royal Opera when he was cast as Léopold in La Juive, a concert version presented in the Barbican Hall. Technically, of course, that was indeed Dario’s debut with the company, but it is only now as Tebaldo in Bellini’s take on the Romeo and Juliet story, I Capuleti e i Montecchi that he is preparing for his first appearance at the House itself. I therefore ask Dario to tell me what he regards as being his true debut.
“Léopold in La Juive is a really difficult part, but I enjoyed doing it and it was important in my career because I had not been heard in London before. Working on it with the conductor Daniel Oren and with all the other people involved was really, really nice. But, even so, I regard it not so much as my debut as an approach to that debut. I like to be on the stage and to act, much more than I like doing concerts, and I am so looking forward to singing at Covent Garden where everybody says that the acoustics are fantastic. Consequently, my expectations are high and, yes, I feel bound to say that this is my real debut with The Royal Opera.”
For Dario to be in opera at all, never mind at Covent Garden, would have seemed the height of improbability to Dario himself when growing up in Argentina, since classical music played no part in his life then. “I did sing, but it was in a rock band. I was very young and had tattoos and the singing was purely for pleasure, not something commercial. There were no musicians in my family and no one who was familiar with opera. However, I did have a teacher who encouraged me to go for an audition for the chorus at the Teatro Argentino de la Plata, which counts as the second opera theatre in Argentina and for that I studied an aria and some other things. When they heard me, they said that I was okay, so there I was at twenty-three beginning my opera history as a member of the chorus. From one day to the next I went from total ignorance of opera to being involved in it.”
Despite this step, choosing opera over rock was not the easiest of choices because “I loved that other music too.” However, one particular experience helped to point him in what has certainly proved to be the right direction. “Before my first concert in the chorus I had never been inside a theatre to discover what the sound could be like. What a way to find out because it was the Verdi Requiem, a monumental work to hear for the first time and my reaction was to regard it as equal to the best music that I already knew: ‘Wow’, I thought, ‘that’s rock, that’s it’. From then on I always wanted to improve my voice, to understand it and to work on technique. I wanted to be better.”
Help in vocal studies came from Andrés Risso and then, significantly, from Professor Nino Falzetti. Training with the professor was invaluable for Dario when four years on he moved from the chorus to take a solo role, that of Lindoro in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. This was in 1992. “I still study with Nino Falzetti. He’s 86 and amazing – still the best teacher that I have. Looking back now, I see that taking on the role of Lindoro when I’d never performed an aria was arguably too big a first step, but in fact I was happy with it and that was due to those studies. It wasn’t the only role they suggested to me but I realised from the start that what really matters is to insist on only doing repertoire that is right for your voice. I never sing Puccini, for example, although I have been offered Bohème many times because I feel that I am more suited to bel canto, to Donizetti and to Bellini.”
Despite his care in accepting only suitable roles, Dario’s repertoire is, in fact, wide-ranging. One person who helped in this respect was Stefan Soltesz of the Aalto Musiktheater in Essen. He came over from Germany to Buenos Aires in 1997 and was looking for a tenor. By this time Dario had followed L’Italiana in Algeri with Barbiere and with Don Giovanni in which he appeared as Don Ottavio. He had also taken a step-up by appearing as Jacquino in Fidelio at Argentina’s number-one opera-house, the Teatro Colón (“my role was not a big one but it was good to debut in that theatre”). Having asked Dario to audition for him, Soltesz offered him a contract, one that took him to Essen for two years as a member of the ensemble and there new and varied works appeared in his repertoire: Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus and Verdi’s La traviata. “The thing about Stefan is that he really loves voices and would never want to give a singer a role that didn’t suit him. Before appearing for the first time as Alfredo in traviata I did a private audition with him to check that it worked as he believed that it would.” To date, Alfredo is the role that Dario has performed more than any other.
After this period in Essen, Dario returned to Argentina but soon found himself back in Europe. “I had a call from Wiesbaden where they needed a tenor for Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, so I agreed. After that another audition came along, this one for the Vienna Volksoper. That’s how I came to Vienna and it was my last audition.” Further broadening his repertoire while there, Dario remained with the Vienna Volksoper until 2004. The fact that he had carried off one of the prizes in the 1999 International Franco Corelli Competition, held in Ancona, had doubtless helped the Volksoper to notice him. “It’s the only competition I’ve ever entered and being 34 at the time I thought it might be my last chance to do well in a competition and to find out what the experience would be like. In fact it was not easy because there were 270 of us but I gained the second prize, the first going to a soprano. Also I had the pleasure of meeting Corelli himself and of getting to know him. He was very, very kind.”
Although working at the Vienna Volksoper did not prevent Dario from appearing once at the Vienna State Opera where he was summoned to finish a performance for an ailing singer, Dario decided in 2004 to cast his net further afield by going freelance. “My wife agreed that it was the right thing for me to do so I found an agent.” This soon brought Dario to Norway to sing in Faust and that in turn led to two contracts at La Fenice, one to sing in traviata again and the other for a Donizetti rarity Pia de Tolomei. “Then came Maria Stuarda in Rome and Donizetti became the composer whose work I sing the most.”
If Donizetti has become central, it’s nevertheless Bellini whose work has twice brought him to London, first for a concert performance and Opera Rara recording of La Straniera and now for the Covent Garden revival of Pier Luigi Pizzi’s production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi. So how does Dario distinguish between these two composers? “Donizetti tended to write regularly for the same kind of tenor, even in works as different as Lucia di Lammermoor and L’elisir d’amore, but Bellini would sometimes write for a tenor that is not really mine. Even in La Straniera, which I loved doing, it’s more for a lyric tenor although it has been adapted for a high tenor and for Opera Rara the maestro made an arrangement that added some high notes. But as written I Capuleti e i Montecchi is far more for my kind of voice than is Straniera, and so is Somnambula but not Norma.”
Felice Romani’s libretto for Bellini’s treatment of the Romeo and Juliet story derived not from Shakespeare but from other versions better known in Italy and if the basic events remain the same the emphasis is somewhat different. “This version heightens the tensions and is in general darker with less relief from more relaxed moments in the love story. Furthermore, the surrounding conflict is there from the very beginning: we are already in the middle of the conflict in 13th-century Verona.” The conflict to which Dario refers is that which has sprung up between the Capuleti led by Capellio and the Montecchi on whom they have sworn vengeance following the death of Capellio’s son at the hands of that prominent Montecchi, Romeo. Unless a peaceful settlement is agreed and is bolstered by letting Romeo marry Capellio’s daughter Giulietta, the Montecchi will attack. “Some people are less keen on this version and, like Gounod, whose opera [of Romeo and Juliet] I would love to sing also, prefer to follow the traditional pattern which shows how the love of Romeo and Giulietta came about. But with Bellini even when Romeo is with Giulietta you can see the end approaching – that’s because there’s really no hope anywhere in this opera. Always there’s tension, and not least when it comes to the scenes involving Romeo and my character, Tebaldo, who is Romeo’s rival because he has been proclaimed as the man to whom Capellio intends to marry Giulietta.”
One of the striking features of Bellini’s opera is that Tebaldo is portrayed as forthright, even heroic. We are a world away from those Hollywood figures, often portrayed by Ralph Bellamy, in comedies of the late-thirties and early-forties who were bound to lose the heroine to the star because they were entirely inadequate. Tebaldo in contrast is allowed to make a strong impression, such as in his contributions to the opera’s opening scene and in Act Two he is only prevented from fighting Romeo when both are brought up short by genuine grief over Giulietta’s apparent death. Tebaldo is no born loser, so how does Dario see this role? “I think that the difference between Tebaldo and Romeo is that Tebaldo is more of my age, forty-ish, while Romeo is adolescent. Bellini chose to have Romeo’s role performed by a mezzo-soprano in order to suggest pure love and to convey that through a sound that stresses his youth .The roles have been done with two tenors, but then it sounds much too heroic: you lose the contrast and it doesn’t really work. As for Tebaldo’s character, it is a political marriage but he may well love her in spite of that. It’s probably both, but I never have a scene that shows me alone with Giulietta and consequently there is no way of knowing exactly what the relationship between them is.”
This is not the first time that Dario has played Tebaldo since he did it last year in Genoa, but approaching the role again and doing it with Mark Elder as conductor and with Elĩna Garanča as Romeo is, as he had anticipated, an invigorating experience. “It’s always more interesting when you do a role again because you are bound to find something new. It’s wonderful to be working with Mark because he’s so fantastic in the way that he works through every phrase going deeper and deeper into it. It’s equally fantastic to be responding to Elĩna because she has such a strong personality and brings so much to her role and to Romeo’s conflict with Tebaldo. There’s fierceness in her portrayal that makes me have to react far more strongly than I did in Genoa. So it’s all more intense and Tebaldo is becoming more of a proud character. All this has helped me to define my role more precisely this time and to make more of the character as an individual.
“In this repertoire there’s always a balance that is required between the sheer beauty of the voice and the realisation of character. Both are necessary. You must sing with eloquence but that must be supported by the sense of personality, not the singer’s but the character’s. Then you get the dramatic intensity too. I’m really happy with the way that things are going and from it I’ve learnt many, many things.”
- Seven performances – from Monday 2 March until Saturday 11 April at 7.30 p.m.
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- Royal Opera