Verdi Writ Large: Ferruccio Furlanetto and Philip II [Verdi’s Don Carlo: The Royal Opera 6 June-3 July 2008]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Italian bass who crowns his recent London appearances with the role of Philip II in Verdi’s epic opera…

Ferruccio Furlanetto

For many an opera-singer’s life seems to begin and end with performing, but the Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto totally rejects that idea and says so emphatically. “I regard singing as a profession to which it is a privilege to belong and it’s wonderful to become these remarkable characters, but the privilege should end the moment that I leave the theatre. After that what I love is to live a normal life catering for my hobbies and interests outside both music and theatre. Golf, for instance, is a game that I have been playing for something like thirty years and I regard it as a fantastic safety valve. Provided that you have no major worries, five hours on a golf course can really clean up your brain. You don’t even need a partner, and it’s a marvellous sport that gives you the chance to walk in fantastic natural surroundings. It gives another dimension to life and – most important of all – it means that you have a chance to be with yourself, and that’s sometimes ideal for putting things together. I’m not merely sorry but could even say that I’m worried by the fact that I have not had a single game for the past six months, and that’s for the first time ever since I started to play. I was constantly taken up and the only time when I was free the weather was ugly.”

Recently in London, Ferruccio has sung in Verdi’s Messa da Requiem in the Royal Festival Hall under Vladimir Jurowski and then started rehearsals for Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo at Covent Garden. Doubtless a game of golf would have featured between these two commitments, but then it happened that for health reasons Orlin Anastasov had to withdraw from all performances of Ian Judge’s production of Simon Boccanegra and, having the role of Fiesco in his wide repertoire, Ferruccio Furlanetto came to Covent Garden’s rescue garnering triumphant notices in the process.

My main purpose in meeting him, however, is to talk about Don Carlo and his appearance in it as King Philip II, another of his established roles. But before coming on to that we talk of his background (he was born in North-eastern Italy in Sacile) and discuss his career generally. In passing I learn of yet another outdoor passion since Ferruccio has a love of nature which, for a while, led him to undertake serious studies connected with forestry. In addition to that he has a real concern over world problems, but that brings us back to music because he received his title of Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations through his involvement in fund-raising concerts. “For example when I was in Austria and we became aware of the war situation in Serbia and Croatia I participated in a few concerts in the hope of sending some help. It is very necessary to do what we can through our profession in that kind of way.”

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Phillip II in the Royal Opera's Don Carlo. ©Catherine Ashmore

One might assume that once singing emerged as a prime interest for him, the future would take care of itself, but Ferruccio’s story is more complicated than that. “It’s true that I grew up with the knowledge that I had been born with a natural gift, and indeed I’m told that I would sing and whistle from the age of three or four. But my teenage years were in the second half of the 1960s, that magic time for pop music. Consequently I started to play the guitar and formed a group and I would sing all the hits of The Beatles and of The Rolling Stones and Tom Jones: everything. I found the music absolutely fascinating, so it was in that sphere that I applied my voice and I was hired by CBS. Some recordings and TV appearances followed, but the world of pop was already a bit rotten, let’s say. Drugs were circulating and for a country-boy it was all a bit scary. In addition certain people cheated me over money and I was disgusted by that, so there I was, a young man who recognised that he had to make a decision and the decision I took was to go to University. It was also the case that various people suggested that I should use my voice in classical music instead. There had been singers on both sides of my family but only one person, an aunt, tried to make a career of it. She started rather too late, but it was she who introduced me to a very, very famous voice teacher. That was Ettore Campogalliani who taught Pavarotti, Scotto and most of the big Italian names and I went to see him for what was a kind of audition. I even prepared an aria, but he didn’t want to listen to it: all he wanted was for me to vocalise in order to establish my range and he promptly said ‘you’re a bass and you should study’. So I did.”

As Ferruccio’s career developed he came to favour three areas in particular: the Italian repertoire, the operas of Mozart and Russian music. “My debut was at a small theatre in the province of Vicenza singing Sparafucile in Rigoletto: three days of rehearsal and on. Bohème soon followed, but in the oddest way because Trieste hired me for a buffo role in Adriana Lecouvreur which had to be changed when Caballé cancelled. When Bohème was substituted, I was offered the role of Colline which I didn’t know. But I learnt it in just seven-and-a-half hours and was found acceptable. Sometimes under certain circumstances you discover that you can do things that you didn’t dream would be possible. Twenty-five years later in November 1999 I was hired to sing Boris Godunov for the first time and it was to be the shorter version. But then the conductor left and his replacement opted for the long version with something like 30-percent more text and music. I had a week in which to prepare that before leaving Vienna for Rome and when I arrived there for rehearsals I knew it by heart. So both occasions were very, very funny moments in my career.”

Having started with some of the Verdi roles that came naturally to him, Ferruccio found that after three or four years his focus had changed. “My ideal became Mozart and, of course, I had a role model in Cesare Siepi. He appeared in Giovanni and Figaro and he was – and still is, I think – a God for every bass. I had the luck to win a competition in Treviso in 1977, which offered the role of Don Giovanni as a prize, and I was then invited to do it again in Turin. It was unusual at that time for a young person – I was 26 or 27 – to get a chance to sing that role and it inaugurated a period of at least fifteen years when Mozart was central to what I did. It was a period of great happiness for me, especially when working with conductors and directors such as Karajan and Ponnelle. To do Mozart is pure medicine for the voice, and afterwards you can bring to your other repertoire what you have done in Mozart – the use of words, for instance. So gradually I came back to Verdi and found it easier than it had been.

Ferruccio Furlanetto

“As for Russian music, every bass who favours important dramatic roles has to end up in the Russian repertoire. That can coincide with greater maturity, with the moment when you reach forty-five or whatever and feel that it is no longer appropriate to play younger roles that require you to jump around like a kid. But it wasn’t really roles like Boris that attracted me to Russian works. It was the pianist Alexis Weissenberg. He had done recitals with Gedda and he flattered me by suggesting that we do a recital together featuring the music of Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky. It was Alexis too who, when he decided to give up playing in public, suggested that I link up with a fantastic young Ukrainian pianist named Igor Tchetsev and that is what is happening now in this field. But the highlight of my career to date undoubtedly took place in St Petersburg when I appeared there as Boris in 2004. I was the first Italian to do that at the Mariinsky Theatre and only the second non-Russian. There was a very warm reaction from the audience there but it must have contained many foreigners so what I remember with the greatest pleasure was not their response but that of my Russian colleagues and of the Russian orchestra after the dress rehearsal. It was absolutely unforgettable.”

Ferruccio likes to sing more-modern works when he gets the chance and he is delighted that yet another change to a planned programme will enable him to appear once again in Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral at La Scala next year. Nevertheless nothing could be more apparent than the fact that the role of Philip II of Spain in Verdi’s Don Carlo is very dear to his heart. The opera is set in the 16th-century and, having been written originally for Paris in 1867, it appeared in its Italian version in 1884. It is this, with the original first act of 1867 restored as sanctioned by Verdi in 1886, that makes up the new Hytner staging for The Royal Opera. Despite having five acts, the opera’s presentation of the king is relatively concise although within that space a role of great complexity emerges. While the figure of the all-powerful Grand Inquisitor is clearly the villain of the piece (and Ferruccio agrees that the opera’s take on the Inquisition, that horrifying conjunction of political and religious power, suggests parallels with religious extremism in the Middle East today), the king is a figure not so easily assessed.

Ferruccio Furlanetto

He is someone who is capable of being ruthless but who in matters of state has persuaded himself however reluctantly that peace can only be a maintained by force. Equally mixed are our reactions to Philip’s personal situation in which he is jealous of his own son, Don Carlo. The latter has won the heart of Elisabetta the princess who, in an arranged marriage, has become Philip’s new wife and who chooses to be true to her marriage vows although Philip suspects otherwise. A more standard operatic figure is Princess Eboli who is spurned by Don Carlo because of his love for Elisabetta, but, in an opera that combines a tragic love story with a complex analysis of state and power, it is Philip who can be considered the most interesting figure and the one drawn in the most detail. I ask Ferruccio if he feels that the text derived from Schiller’s poem simply needs to be followed in its myriad aspects or whether he felt a need to find a particular emphasis.

“It’s a beautiful libretto and words and music together define the character in a very precise way giving the king a human aspect that doesn’t appear in Schiller. There the king is a bigot, but Verdi gives you the opportunity to bring out the sometimes-hidden human elements in the man. It so happened that my second role after that Bohème in Trieste was as the monk in Don Carlo in Turin. Boris Christoff was Philip and, needless to say, I had total admiration for him and for his incredible acting technique. But, as time passes, my own interpretation of the role moves further and further away from Christoff’s because his Philip had little that was human about him and I do believe that you have a choice here. I find it much more satisfying to paint his character in chiaroscuro and there are moments when just a slight gesture can open up horizons hardly anticipated. That is the direction that I want to follow, and I am really satisfied with the way that this production is going in rehearsal. Everything is given such deep thought and our director, Nicholas Hytner, is so well prepared in all aspects. He would never go against the text and the music and that’s so important. In my specific case it means that he gives me the opportunity to do whatever I feel to be natural in this role and spontaneity is the key to success in opera. When you are forced to do something that you don’t really feel, it’s a terrible situation to be in, but here we have an ideal group. Indeed, I’m very happy to be working again with Tony Pappano because we know one another from way back when he was a pianist in Paris for Daniel Barenboim. When I first came to England, to Glyndebourne in 1981, my Italian temperament was sometimes at odds with what I found here, but now I have come to love England and it’s here that I feel serene and relaxed, which is also how I feel working on this opera now. So I love to be here and I love to be doing this. It’s an ideal situation, and that’s not something that happens very often these days.”

  • The opening night of Don Carlo is Friday 6 June 2008 at 6 p.m. and runs until 3 July (the performance on 14 June begins at 5.30 p.m. and the one on 29 June at 3 p.m.)
  • There will be a BP Big Screen relay (live and free) on Thursday 3 July at 6 p.m. to Trafalgar Square and Canary Wharf in London and Clayton Square in Liverpool
  • BBC Radio 3 broadcasts Don Carlo on Saturday 28 June
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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