The Joys and Challenges of La Bohème – Interview with Nuccia Focile

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Covent Garden’s latest Musetta, the soprano Nuccia Focile, is equally at home as Mimi. She talks to Mansel Stimpson…

What happens when I arrive at Covent Garden’s stage-door is not unlike a Prelude that sets the tone of an opera. Unknown to me, my interviewee is already present and chatting to someone who is no longer often seen there, Pauline the helpful former member of staff and a well established figure at this entry. For the interview Nuccia Focile and I are taken to the press office and en route that initial scene repeats itself – at least two other employees smile a greeting because everyone is glad to have her back.

I think about this at the point in our interview when I ask Nuccia how she feels about Covent Garden. “Every time I’ve worked here beginning with my 1997 appearance as Liù in Turandot I’ve just felt so very welcome. The people are really nice and very professional and well organised, and they have a way of making you feel good. It’s such a pleasant atmosphere and everybody wants you to do well.” In some cases such comments might seem gushing or even insincere, but not from Nuccia whose response to others surely encourages the very feeling that she has described.

Nuccia is equally enthusiastic about London audiences, particularly at Covent Garden. “They really appreciate good singing, and by that I mean not just the big moments but the little nuances, the details and the way that you try to sing in the style that is right for a particular composer. That kind of response makes you feel that it’s all worth it: the energy you put into the rehearsals and all the little things that go into the preparation. At the end when you get appreciation from an audience it’s the most wonderful thing.”

Nuccia was born in Sicily but grew up in Turin and, despite her father as a young man having a passion for opera, she was not expecting to become a singer when she went to the Conservatory there. “I thought I was going to become a pianist but when lessons introduced me to the world of opera I knew that it was the right path for me, the one that I would follow.” She pays the strongest possible tribute to her teacher, Elio Battaglia, who entered her life at that point. She studied with him “from zero” as she puts it, but before long she was winning competitions. One such in Spoleto led to her debut as Serpina in Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, but it was another one that resulted in her appearing at the Teatro Regio di Torino in La bohème. “When I did that competition they asked me to sing both roles, so I made my debut there as Mimi and also did a few performances as Musetta. Another big step was the competition in Philadelphia with Luciano Pavarotti. Again I did Mimi and Musetta, and also Oscar in Un ballo in maschera. It was as Oscar that I made my first appearance at La Scala with Pavarotti, so that was something very special. One after another, doors seemed to open.”

Nuccia’s repertoire does extend to at least one twentieth-century work, Janáček’s Katya Kabanova, but that is included because she sees it as part of the lyrical range that suits her voice. Tatiana (Eugene Onegin) and Micaela in (Carmen) also fit into this scheme of things, but it’s fair to say that Mozart and nineteenth-century Italian opera are at the centre of her stage work. She finds variety by moving between the bigger, more demanding, roles and those like Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro and Adina in L’elisir d’amore. Referring to these lighter roles she says: “I think they’re good for the voice: somehow it keeps it young and fresh: but it’s good for the soul too, because when you’re continually into drama it gets so depressing if you have to die every single time!”

The humour that emerges in that remark is part of her character, but her approach to her art is confirmed indirectly when I invite her to comment on the fact that she has made several complete opera recordings with Sir Charles Mackerras. “I’m a big fan of Sir Charles,” she declares. “The first time we met, to record Così fan tutte I was a bit nervous, because I’d heard how demanding he is and how meticulous. But we got on so well straight away, and I learnt a lot from him about singing Mozart, especially his way of handling the recitatives with appoggiatura embellishments. I like working in that precise way, going into the tiny little details and seeking to get the best out of each phrase.”

Although Mimi is the role in Puccini’s La bohème that Nuccia Focile has taken most frequently, she is clearly pleased to be returning after an interval of fifteen years to Musetta and to be doing so in another revival of John Copley’s much-loved production. “After all these years it feels, to be honest, like I’m doing it for the first time, and in rediscovering this character I’m finding so many things I didn’t notice before, both musically and about her as a person.” I suggest that since Musetta does not appear until Act Two and has much less time than Mimi to establish herself, that this may be the more difficult role to play. “Yes, I think that’s right: it’s all so concentrated and when she comes on she sings almost at once Musetta’s Waltz Song and for that you have to give everything. It has to be very clear, very much straight to the audience, and every phrase, every note, has to be right because there isn’t much time to recover. It’s the same in Act Three where again in that short but very intense moment in the quartet you have to deliver another side of the character: the fighting and jealousy with Marcello – and that in such a short space of time. Vocally as well it’s a very demanding role.”

What’s more, when you enter an opera late on, it is less easy to catch the feel of the performance since all singers recognise that every single performance is distinct. “I always listen to Act One over the speaker in my dressing room. I need the music, the atmosphere and the colours from the voices of my colleagues, from the orchestra and the noises on stage: you have to feel it. In that way, by the time I get on stage, I already feel part of it because I’ve been sharing those earlier moments even though I’m in my dressing room.” A further detail emerges that confirms how important Nuccia finds this approach: “I even asked the costume and make-up people to make me ready for the beginning of the opera because I don’t like the idea of coming into the theatre after the piece has started.”

Given the intensity of the ultimately tragic love story of Rodolfo and Mimi, Musetta and her Marcello are by contrast lighter figures, but Nuccia finds Musetta a rounded and attractive personality. “She’s a strong character and very honest and may be all the more appealing to today’s audiences because she wants to live her life in her own way and not to be told what to do and what not to do. She has other men, too, of course, but Marcello is a central point in her life, and it’s because they’re both very strong characters that they fight all the time. But in Act Four, when she’s looking after the dying Mimi, we can see that she’s got a heart of gold and is a very generous girl. Because the death of Mimi brings tragedy into the lives of these young people, they will all be changed by the experience and the relationship between Musetta and Marcello will never be the same again. I believe that they will definitely get back together and eventually have a good life.”

Although certain critics, and certain snobbish audience-members, too, can be disdainful of an opera as popular and emotional as La bohème, Nuccia does not hesitate to describe it as a work of perfection. Most telling of all, perhaps, as a challenge to their attitude, is what she reveals when, at the end of the interview, she comments on that morning’s rehearsal and on the power that the final moments of Puccini’s masterpiece possess: “However many times you do it, it goes straight to your heart. Today’s rehearsal was just with the piano but at the end as the characters all bond together we felt that emotion and we were crying – you just can’t help it.”

  • The opening night of La Bohème is 23 October at 7.30 with performances until 25 November
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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