Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Mansel Stimpson talks to Covent Garden’s latest Gilda, Ekaterina Siurina, for whom the role has a special significance…
The soprano Ekaterina Siurina comes from Russia. When she was born her birthplace was known as Sverdlovsk. Later, however the name was changed to Ekaterinburg and there’s neatness in the fact that she is now ‘Ekaterina from Ekaterinburg’! The harmonious sound to that pleases her and, in acknowledging that, she is speaking from the heart. I put it that way because there is about Ekaterina a simple directness that is immensely appealing. It’s the very reverse of what you get when someone sets out to create a manner that will impress. One specific example showing how natural she is occurs late on in our conversation at Covent Garden. It’s when Ekaterina refers to her pleasure in watching ballet and mentions that she has that day watched a little bit of Carmen. “It’s so different from opera and I’m always amazed at what people can convey without words. Accompanied by music that can break your heart, they can express themselves through some single little movement, the lift of a finger, say, and I love it. In opera I usually prefer a traditional approach and find that, all too often, anything else can be crazy or ugly, but in ballet I like it to be more modern. Isn’t that strange?!”
Growing up as a child in her hometown, Ekaterina quickly became aware of the arts. “My mother brought that into the house because she was an actress who played in dramas, although she eventually gave up her career to look after my sister and myself. She would give me interesting stuff to read and we went to museums and everything. She was the one who really had a belief in me when I was very little, and that was because she noted how I always liked to sing: songs of any kind, pieces I heard on the television, it didn’t matter what. It was she who said, ‘you have talent so you must learn: you need to go to music school’. I was more inclined to want to go out and play with my friends, but she kind of forced me into it – which was good because I really liked to sing in the local choir which was where, for me, it all started.”
Nevertheless, even when Ekaterina’s teacher spoke of her having a beautiful voice, it was by no means certain that singing would become her profession. “I learnt to play the cello and that explains why I love that instrument so much that when I book a seat for a concert my preference is always to pick a place nearer to the cellos than to the violins. In addition I became a conductor of a children’s choir and, having shown that I was capable of doing that, some people recommended me to take that up as being a safer profession than that of a singer.”
This range of musical activity early in her life might have been a sign of confidence, but Ekaterina paints a different picture. “I was always shy and never trusted in what I could do, but luckily I was always finding people who were sufficiently sure of my talent to encourage me to continue. Recognising that talent as a gift from God, I did not resist and did not let my shyness discourage me from my passion to sing. So whereas some singers have that passion but receive no encouragement, I was in the opposite position. All of my people – my mother, my grandmother, my family and my teachers – had enough faith in me to push me, and that was what I needed.”
The next step for Ekaterina was to study in Moscow, but again the impetus came from those around her. “I was scared to be leaving my family and my hometown following my studies there at the Tchaikovsky Musical Academy. But it was my grandmother who said that I needed to try something else and should go to Moscow. We were a poor family and couldn’t afford much, but my grandmother had something put by and bought me a train ticket to Moscow without telling me first, so I went. I remember saying to myself on the train ‘I don’t think that I can do it’. But that was followed by another thought: ‘you must do it, you must try’.”
Despite her shyness, this reaction illustrates well the resolve that exists within Ekaterina. Further proof of her character came from how she handled an unexpected disaster that overtook her even before arriving in Moscow. “On the train I lost my voice and was talking in a whisper. That prevented me from trying to get into the Conservatory as planned because my voice did not get better in time. I was all by myself but I met people who suggested that I should consider the theatre and, despite my desire to sing in opera and my love of musicals, the fact that my mother was an actress meant that I was aware of other possibilities too.”
It was in those circumstances that Ekaterina entered the Russian Academy of Theatrical Arts in Moscow rather than the narrower world of a classical conservatory. If fate had initially been both kind and unkind, 1999 proved to be a key year and one in which Gilda, the tragic heroine of Verdi’s Rigoletto, entered her life for the first time but certainly not for the last. “When I was in the third grade at the Institute my teacher, who was a well-known mezzo-soprano, told me of an audition being held by the Municipal Moscow Theatre. It was for the role of Gilda, and she thought that I would be great in the part. So I went for the audition and was accepted as one of the sopranos for the role. I could not believe that this had happened to me because I had never sung with an orchestra – when studying we just had the piano – and I had never been on-stage before. It was even more unbelievable when I was told that I would be in the production’s first cast and would be doing the opening night singing opposite Dimitri Hvorostovsky. I was just so lucky and found everybody so supportive. Not least I met the conductor Yevgeni Kolobov. Unfortunately, he’s dead now, but he helped me a lot and I really loved him. He was not the only great musician I have known but it’s rare to encounter somebody whom you can look up to and see as someone who is both like a father and like the teacher of your dreams. He was so important for me.”
Ekaterina may have been aware of how competitive it is in Russia for any would-be singer but this success as Gilda settled her career choice and led her to Askonas Holt. Because of Hvorostovsky’s involvement a representative from that agency was present and at once showed interest in Ekaterina. Askonas Holt remains her agent to this day. Ekaterina consolidated her success by winning competition-prizes in 2000 and in 2002, but the experience did not really appeal to her. “It’s one thing to work in the theatre, to study and to rehearse which I love and to be able to talk to people about the production and about the character you are playing. Some of that is probably what I inherited from my mother. In contrast, competitions are more nerve-wracking than rewarding, and some people can be aggressive and make remarks that you have to try and ignore. But in any case, regardless of my wish to do more concerts now that I’m a mother and need time at home, I think that I’m most in my element on the stage. I really enjoy creating the different characters and wearing the costumes. Many artists start with Mozart but I did Italian opera first – Puritani followed after Rigoletto – and Mozart came much later. It’s not really such a big repertoire for me: I’m not sure about doing Donna Anna for example, but Despina suits me, and I love Susanna in Figaro: that’s a role that is totally mine and I will sing it for as long as I can. I’ve appeared as Ilia too, but that’s a bit different, melancholic and really soft rather than cute and energetic.”
In developing her repertoire Ekaterina is keen to choose roles in which her voice is really comfortable and this includes French opera (including The Tales of Hoffmann and The Pearl Fishers and would love to do Roméo et Juliette and, later on, Margarita in Faust) and the less-heavy roles in Russian works (she cites as favourites two Rimsky-Korsakov operas The Snow Maiden and The Tsar’s Bride and is delighted to be including Russian songs by him and by Rachmaninov in her forthcoming London recital, with pianist Iain Burnside, at St John’s, Smith Square on 20 February 2009. Quite understandably she would also like to appear in more operas with her husband since he is the tenor Charles Castronovo. Indeed their first meeting occurred most appropriately a few years ago when they were both in Berlin singing in L’Elisir d’Amore.
But if Ekaterina’s choice of roles always takes account of the suitability of the role for her voice, the character she is playing is no less important to her. Referring to that first Gilda, she describes the character as a young girl who, being exceptionally inexperienced, knows nothing and she suggests that her own lack of experience at the time may even have helped her. “Gilda is locked up in the house of her father, Rigoletto, and knows nothing of the world or of homeless people. She doesn’t know how tough life can be and doesn’t even know much about her loving but secretive father. Consequently, she’s living in her own world, one that she has created for herself and which is dreamy and romantic. Also she’s religious and, of course, very young. So a lot of that I could relate to in creating the character. Actually I didn’t create the character: I was just being myself at that time and finding certain aspects that we shared. That was a long time ago and ten years on I’m married and a mother and that experience gives me something that I can bring to other roles. But in 1999 I was that girl and if I try to put myself into the character today I am still drawing on that in an instinctive way but hoping that my interpretation of Gilda has grown over the years.”
Rigoletto is such a popular opera that Ekaterina is always being asked to sing Gilda again somewhere and, even if she might sometimes prefer fresh repertoire, she is happy to agree because she loves the role so much. Verdi’s heroine who is so ignorant of life and follows her heart ends up sacrificing herself. She does so in circumstances in which only her death will ensure that neither her father nor the man she loves – the Duke who has concealed his identity from her and of whose immoral behaviour she is ignorant – will themselves die. So does that make Gilda a strong character (she does what she believes must be done) or is she a victim twice-over given the Duke’s betrayal and Rigoletto’s obsessive desire for revenge that, by chance, seals her fate?
“I know for sure that she doesn’t know she’s a victim – doesn’t even think of that. It’s the audience that thinks about her in that light. But she’s also a strong personality who, although afraid to die, wants to protect both men and will do whatever is necessary. There’s also the fact that she has had her first sexual experience with the Duke and is aware of the changed feelings of a girl who has become a woman. She’s ashamed to talk about it, especially to her father because that’s something you don’t do, and we never know exactly what happened behind those closed doors. But, in whatever manner the Duke treated her – and different directors can have different ideas about that – we do know that he is not true to her and that Gilda discovers this when he flirts with Maddalena. But I think that women or young girls who have loved can forgive a man for something like that. The man may be horrible but they tell themselves that they love him and that he had loved them and that therefore he can’t be so bad. I’m always surprised how really young, honest, beautiful and educated women can love a man who cheats on them and crushes their heart and even then continue to love him. I don’t get it, but it’s probably down to a woman’s heart being soft and sensitive.”
One last question is linked to the fact that in this production Ekaterina plays opposite alternate singers of the role of Rigoletto: Leo Nucci and Paolo Gavanelli. Does her performance change to fit in with theirs? “In fact these two are very different. The music tells us that after being alone all day Gilda runs to her father wanting to be hugged and with Leo that’s what Rigoletto wants as well, putting the dissolute court life in which he is involved behind him. But Paolo won’t let his Rigoletto hug her. For Leo it’s like ‘she’s my daughter, the only one in the world who cares for me and I want to hug her’, but with Paolo it’s a case of self-disgust on Rigoletto’s part, the belief that he’s too dirty to let her touch him. It works with both of them, but although their approaches are so different it doesn’t affect my performance.” When Ekaterina says this, you feel that, for her, Gilda has to remain Gilda in all circumstances and that if anyone understands this character from the inside it is she.
- Seven performances, from Tuesday 10 February at 7.30 until Sunday 1 March at midday
- Leo Nucci sings on 10, 14 (7 p.m.), 18 & 25 February and 1 March
- Paolo Gavanelli performs on 12 & 16 February
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera
- Siurina recital at St John’s, Smith Square, London on 20 February
- St John’s