Six years On: Celso Albelo and La sonnambula – The Royal Opera’s La sonnambula [2-18 November 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The Spanish tenor making his debut at Covent Garden talks about his love of Bellini and of bel canto in general…

Celso Albelo © Joan Tomàs para Fidelio Artist

When you look at a singer’s CV it invariably sets out his or her repertoire but tends to be incomplete as regards individual performances. When I meet Celso Albelo at Covent Garden, making his debut there, I ask him if his CV is correct in implying that, a concert performance in Baden-Baden aside, the only previous stage production of Bellini’s La sonnambula in which he has appeared was in Las Palmas. He confirms this, adding “you have to remember that I started my career only six years ago.”

It is therefore striking that he should be making his Royal Opera debut so early in his career and in such a major role – Elvino in La sonnambula. “The dream of singing at Covent Garden was always there because it is the dream of every singer. But I never thought it would be as Elvino: that would have seemed too ambitious”.

Celso Albelo as Elvino & Elena Xanthoudakis as Lisa (La sonnambula, The Royal Opera, November 2011). Photograph: Bill Cooper

For Celso there has been one other musical moment that stands out no less memorably, albeit in a totally different way and only in retrospect. Celso comes from Tenerife where he was born in Santa Cruz. It was there that he approached his first singing teacher. “There is a big tradition linked to the music of that region, music that is part of its folklore. It was that to which I was first attracted and I wanted guidance that would enable me to develop that interest and to express myself better in that idiom. It was possible that something more classical would help me in that respect and in point of fact – and this is what is so amusing to look back on – the very first thing that my teacher presented to me was some Bellini songs. My response was immediate: ‘No, I don’t want this: I want to perform traditional folk music and to sing in Spanish, not Italian’. But, in spite of my reaction, it was this teacher who inspired me to look towards operatic music. That happened because it was through her that I heard a recording for the first time, and it was one which featured Beniamino Gigli.”

If Gigli influenced Celso, so too did three celebrated singers of a later generation. Celso trained with Tom Krause in Madrid and subsequently with Carlo Bergonzi in Italy at the Busseto Academy – and it was at Busseto in 2006 that he had a notable early success as the Duke in Rigoletto. Celso expresses his indebtedness to Krause for the help given in enabling him to find his true voice and for leading him to Bergonzi. However, when expressing thanks Celso gives equal weight to Leo Nucci. “Through Bergonzi I had the great fortune to be introduced to the singing of Nucci. He was in that production of Rigoletto and he took me under his wing as a result of that. He really became my inspiration.”

Some singers start out on a career and then find that they have to change tack either because their voice develops in a different direction or because it was not adequately recognised for what it was in the first place. Celso is lucky to have had no such difficulties: quite the reverse. “From the very beginning it was recognised that my voice was suited to the bel canto repertoire and what had been said initially was confirmed in due course by Krause, Bergonzi and Nucci.”

Celso Albelo as Elvino (La sonnambula, The Royal Opera, November 2011). Photograph: Bill Cooper

Whenever the term bel canto is used, the operas of Bellini and Donizetti, the two composers with whom Celso is most associated, invariably come to mind. It is their works which demand of a singer a fusion of lyricism and agility requiring beauty of tone. But the repertoire is not limited to these two composers. Already Celso’s work has extended to Rossini (Guillaume Tell), Puccini (Gianni Schicchi), Leoncavallo (Pagliacci) and Verdi (Falstaff as well as Rigoletto). Furthermore, in the next ten years or so, depending on what is suitable for his voice at the time, he will build up his Italian repertoire and will look at French works that have affinities with the bel canto style. He mentions Massenet’s Werther and has already appeared in Lakmé, Les Pêcheurs de perles, and La Juive.

But despite this range it is those two Italians composing in the first half of the 19th-century who have inevitably taken pride of place given the nature of Celso’s voice, some Bellini and Donizetti rather more. “I can honestly say that I love all my roles, but it’s good to have variety. So let’s just say that whether it’s comic or serious my preference is always for what I am doing at any given moment.” But how contrasted are these two composers given that they were contemporaries? “The main point about Donizetti is that in his works you mostly find a combination of the comic and the serious. That is to say that even in his comic pieces where you have a character who is essentially a happy person you nevertheless find that there are touches of melancholy. But with Bellini seriousness prevails and we don’t have a single comic opera: it’s not without significance that Bellini’s Norma with its war-like cries of ‘Guerra! Guerra!’ was a work that was regarded as an incitement to action against the Austrians in the time of the Risorgimento.”

The occasion which brings Celso to London is the first revival of Marco Arturo Marelli’s staging of La sonnambula first seen at Covent Garden in 2002. That this production bears a personal stamp is hardly surprising given that Marelli is credited not only as director but as the designer of the set and of the lighting, and his wife, Dagmar Niefind-Marelli, is the costume designer. The Las Palmas production in which Celso appeared was a traditional one. So he is entering new territory here since Marelli’s approach is said to bring out a layer of psychological richness, the opera updated from the rustic setting of a Swiss village at the start of the 19th-century to an Alpine location that hints at affinities with the world of Thomas Mann as expressed in his 1924 novel The Magic Mountain.

My meeting with Celso takes place in the early days of rehearsal and one senses that he is still trying to adjust to what is involved. “With parts of this production I feel fine, but there are also parts where I am having to work hard to understand what the director means and therefore what he wants. However, what everyone involved in opera should remember is the need to understand from the music what the composer intended. Putting a work like this into the 20th-century is entirely acceptable, but it needs to be done so that we are sure that it is in no way a betrayal of the composer but a true expression of the feeling that he put into the music.” If Celso is still waiting for some things to come into focus, he has the reassurance that he is working with two colleagues already known to him. “With the conductor Daniel Oren I have done two productions of Lucia di Lammermoor and one of Rigoletto and in Zurich I did a Rigoletto which featured as Gilda Eglise Gutierrez who appears here in the title role.”

I invite Celso to comment on La sonnambula with special reference to his own character, Elvino, and to the relative importance of all three main roles. The plot is a comparatively simple one adapted by librettist Felice Romani from an earlier work and tightened up in the process. In its Swiss location it introduces us to the heroine Amina betrothed to a local farmer, Elvino. Everything seems set fair but since this is the start of a dramatic opera we know that things cannot stay that way. Sure enough, Count Rodolfo arrives and turns out to be the son and heir of a local landowner now dead. However, his significance in the story lies in the fact that his flirtatious behaviour towards Amina arouses Elvino’s jealousy. This might not matter so much but for the fact unknown to the villagers that Amina walks in her sleep and in that state she enters Rodolfo’s room at the inn and is seen there. This innocent but compromising situation makes Elvino believe that his bride-to-be has betrayed him. Will the truth emerge or are we headed for a typically tragic operatic ending?

The title role is associated with such great artists as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Celso, however, feels that it is wrong to think of this as an opera in which Amina dominates. “In Amina, Elvino and Rodolfo you have three key characters. Each one is important and they relate to one another in crucial ways. Furthermore, the vocal difficulties for the soprano are exactly the same as for the tenor and the baritone. They have to be considered as a team.” That extends to one further character, Lisa the former girlfriend of Elvino. She is still in love with him and plays an important part in spreading talk of Amina’s apparent involvement with Rodolfo. When Elvino is persuaded of the truth of the accusation, his reaction is one of anger. However, his hurried decision to turn back to Lisa and to marry her may cancel the sympathy which he might otherwise gain. “Everybody brings out the character in the way that they feel it and, while I listen to quite a number of recordings and appreciate this singer or that, I do feel that I in no way wish to copy them. Instead I want to put my own stamp on the part through expressing my own ideas of the character in the way that I interpret the role. Sometimes Elvino is portrayed as a somewhat weak character, but I don’t feel that. Because he is a man who is in love he has to show the anger that he feels when he thinks that Amina has betrayed him. He has to give expression to what he feels and when he goes back to Lisa it is a kind of defiance. He is telling Amina that if she has betrayed him and humiliated him in front of everyone, he is strong enough to take it and to accept that reality. It’s that, not a true feeling for Lisa, which prompts him to act as he does. That’s how I see him and I have to be true and honest to that.”

  • La sonnambula – Seven performances at 7.30 p.m. from Wednesday 2 November to Friday 18 November 2011
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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