The Man who Welcomes a Challenge: Alfonso Antoniozzi on his Covent Garden debut [The Royal Opera’s Matilde di Shabran, 23 October-11 November]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Italian baritone appearing in Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran…

Alfonso Antoniozzi

Alfonso Antoniozzi is one of three outstanding Italian singers currently making their debuts at Covent Garden in the Rossini rarity Matilde di Shabran. The other two appearing in this opera, one described by the house as melodramatic but with its tongue firmly in its cheek, are the basses Carlo Lepore and Marco Vinco. However, it’s no surprise to find that Alfonso has the role that is the most overtly comic because he is noted for taking comedy parts in operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Mozart and for the title roles in Falstaff and Gianni Schicchi. When you meet the man himself he displays a gusto that seems quintessentially Italian (he was born in Viterbo) and no less strikingly he combines a down-to-earth shrewdness about his work with a sense of humour that is never far below the surface.

The transforming moment in Alfonso’s life came at the age of thirteen when he was forced to attend a performance of Il barbiere di Siviglia and found that he loved it. That led to his joining a chorus of amateurs who performed opera and eventually to singing solo parts with them, but his decision to take it all more seriously – he applied to the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome and was accepted – was not altogether welcomed. “There was no opera in my house and my family weren’t very happy about my choice, although they knew that eventually I wanted to do theatre. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to become an actor or an opera singer. The difference there is that you can wake up in the morning and decide to become an actor but you can’t wake up in the morning and decide to become an opera singer because to do that you need the voice. Well, I recognised that I had one, so that decided me. I’ve always loved the theatre as such and still do. Indeed, I find it quite impossible to separate out the theatrical part of my work from the singing part.”

It is partly this attitude that helps to explain why Alfonso, honoured as he is to be at Covent Garden in such fine company, comments in rather unexpected terms about appearing as the cowardly poet Isidoro in Matilde di Shabran. It is, in fact, a double debut for him since he is new to the role as well as to the house. Given that the role involves on the one hand so much ensemble work and on the other an entrance which puts the spotlight on him as a soloist who commands the stage alone, it could be seen as an undertaking formidable enough to unnerve most singers. Asked how he feels about this, he suggests that his response may disappoint me but, in fact, it’s an unusually interesting one. “I feel at home when I am in the theatre, so I don’t make any distinction between one theatre and another. I know that there are singers who are surprised by my attitude, but as soon as the lights go down, I am in a land-free zone where I am simply doing my role – it could be the first time at Covent Garden or the tenth at La Scala or whatever. That’s not there that I come under pressure. In life I have to admit that I don’t always feel at ease, and that’s because life goes on unrehearsed. But in the theatre everything does get rehearsed and when I’m doing my job and the lights are down I lose all sense of the particular location and enter a reality-free world.”

Alfonso Antoniozzi as Isidoro in the Royal Opera's Matilde di Shabran. ©Catherine Ashmore

Given the significant effect that Il barbiere di Siviglia had in Alfonso’s childhood, it’s appropriate that his first major role was as Dr Bartolo in that very opera. But the fact that comic roles have played such a large part in his career to date is something that Alfonso views with somewhat mixed feelings. “There are all too few artistic directors or administrators who hear you and then say to themselves, ‘he’s singing this well, but I wonder if he would also be good in this other role?’. Mostly, it’s a case of if you’ve done Bartolo they hire you to do Bartolo again. Consequently you can get typecast, but don’t misunderstand me: I enjoy comic opera and if I had pursued an acting career instead I would probably have chosen comic roles because I like to make people laugh. Life as it is makes us weep enough!

“But the fact is that I’m now forty-four and I feel my voice isn’t as light as it was when I was in my ‘twenties. The voice gets heavier as the body gets heavier – and, who knows, maybe the mind gets heavier too? – so it becomes necessary to change somewhat and I am going to do my first Scarpia this year. I’ve already done some villainous roles that I enjoy very much, such as the four villains in Les contes d’Hoffmann and, thanks to the man who was the general manager in San Francisco [Lofti Mansouri], I did the seven baritone roles in Britten’s Death in Venice. When I was playing Leporello in Don Giovanni he liked the way that in the scene where the servant has to impersonate his master I took on that other identity, and he had the imagination to decide that it would be interesting to see if I could play seven characters in one night. But I’ve never accepted the view that the comic repertoire is less interesting or less important than the tragic one. It takes extra skills to make people laugh and comedy is the most difficult thing to play. I’ve seen great comic actors do marvellous things in dramatic roles, and I’ve sometimes come across dramatic actors who suck big time when trying comedy.”

If, in spite of these comments, Alfonso welcomes the idea of increasing the range of his dramatic roles, there’s a reason beyond the need to adjust to what now suits his voice best. “I like to be challenged – that’s the point. At this stage in my life I’ve become so familiar with roles like Dr Bartolo or Dulcamara or Melitone, roles that I’ve done repeatedly, that there’s no challenge there any more. I’d love to sing Bartolo again ten years from now and see how I would respond to it then, but for the moment it’s a role that I’ve played so often that I really can’t find any new angles.” One way of finding challenges is to play in new operas and another is to record rare ones. Alfonso has done both. He mentions his pleasure in appearing recently in a work created for the Macerata Festival by Marco Tutini, this being an opera based on Robin Maugham’s novel The Servant. “As for rarities, some operas haven’t survived the judgement of time because they need exceptional casts to bring them alive while others are works with obvious defects. I’m often asked to do this forgotten repertoire and I can only suppose that the reason is that it’s known that I’m not put off by difficulties in a role or by certain weaknesses in a score. I will always try to squeeze something out of it.”

Alfonso Antoniozzi

As for Matilde di Shabran, it’s clear that the rarity value here is down to the demands that it makes of its cast. The opera re-emerged in 1996 at the Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival when the lead role of the militaristic, misogynistic Corradino was played to sensational effect by Juan Diego Flórez. This new production at Covent Garden was first done in Pesaro in 2004 when Flórez returned to the role, which he is singing again here. He appears opposite Aleksandra Kurzak in the title role and with Vesselina Kasarova and Enkelejda Shkosa among the by no means insignificant supporting cast.

“It’s an opera that really needs an amazing team with incredible coloratura agility – indeed the title role is one of the toughest that Rossini ever wrote for a soprano. As an opera that might be restored to the repertoire, it is far more worthy than Il viaggio a Reims which made it back. But it could be that this would not happen due to the number of roles that require incredible singers. Like Il barbiere di Siviglia Rossini called Matilde a ‘melodrama giocoso’ and that validates the possibility of seeing this work as a sort of parody of a serious opera. But it’s really a 19th-century variation on Beauty and the Beast rather than a work with surprises – you just have this mean guy, Corradino, who, to his surprise, falls in love with Matilde and under her influence decides that he’s not going to be mean any more: end of plot”. I suggest that this tongue-in-cheek work can perhaps be seen as The Taming of the Shrew in reverse, since it is Matilde who transforms Corradino into the kind of partner she wants. “Well, yes: Beauty and the Beast is The Taming of the Shrew in reverse, and you can enjoy it for that!”

Alfonso points out also that the role of Isidoro is itself based on a popular cliché. “We have lots of operas where all of a sudden a buffo character appears out of nowhere, makes people laugh and then disappears. You could remove the character from the plot and nothing would change: in fact it is the equivalent of the ballet in grand opera, which entertains but has no plot function.” Certain it is that Matilde di Shabran provides in Isidoro a comic relief character whom the audience much enjoys and in playing this role Alfonso uses the approach that he has made his own. “One should never push the pedal. I like to do comedy, not vaudeville, and comedy has to grow from the situation. That’s something I’ve had to learn because I’m not three foot tall and two hundred and sixty five pounds in weight, not the kind of guy who has only to set foot on stage and people laugh. I leave gag comedy to others, although I’d love to be able to do it.

“Even so, it’s something like Fawlty Towers that makes me laugh and Buster Keaton, not the pie-in-the-face type of humour of Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. When the buffo character has unappealing characteristics then you can play on that too: seeing Bartolo or Magnifico get beaten gives the audience the possibility of laughing at the buffo role but also of enjoying having revenge on the kind of villains they meet in life. Plus one other fact: the comedy should always come from the music and the words and not be added. If I enjoy comedy, it’s because the audience is always such a big part of the show. The more they are with you, the more you are able to win them over; the more you feel their reaction, the more yeast you find in the show: it levitates. So I would say that the comic roles give me the impression of having a dialogue with the audience far more strongly than when you do a dramatic role. You can hear the laughter far more readily than the sobs.”

So, finally, what makes a visit to Matilde di Shabran so worthwhile for the audience? “Well, they should come to the opera first of all because it’s always better to get out of the house and to switch off the television and, secondly, because this opera needs an incredible cast and, thank God, we have that. It will, I believe, be a joy to hear these amazingly talented colleagues all singing together. It so seldom happens.”

  • The opening night of Matilde di Shabran is Thursday 23 October 2008 at 6.30 and runs until Tuesday 11 November
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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