Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Mansel Stimpson talks to the second tenor to appear as Radames in Covent Garden’s revival of Verdi’s opera as directed by David McVicar…
Anyone who sets out to be a singer has to have an adventurous spirit, but what Carlo Ventre did at the age of twenty seems extraordinarily bold. I hear about it when we meet at Covent Garden where he is making his debut as Radames during the first revival of David McVicar’s production of Aida. For the first three performances the role was taken by Roberto Alagna, but Carlo takes part in six of the remaining eight. As a youngster growing up in Montevideo he would sing in church and it was there that his voice was commented on with such enthusiasm that he was persuaded to attend a school to study singing. “My family background is Italian, my parents being immigrants who settled in Uruguay, but even so I didn’t know much about opera. It was when I started to attend that school at the age of fourteen that I discovered this beautiful world. Now that I’m here at Covent Garden I feel very honoured and excited because it represents the dream of that teenage boy come true.”
As for that bold step that young Carlo took six years later, it stemmed from his realisation that he had no chance of developing a proper career where he was. “I had to travel abroad and that meant taking a trip of hope and gambling on that. Every day for a whole month I would go to the airline company to ask if they had a single spare ticket that they could give me because I didn’t have enough money to pay for it. They said that they couldn’t really do that but I explained that what I was trying to do was to secure my future and that if they would help me I would no longer be there day after day. So in the end they gave me a ticket, to Spain.”
Having reached Spain, Carlo entered the Francisco Viñas Competition in Barcelona and won the Gino Bechi Prize which entitled him to study with Bechi in Florence. But how was he to get there since the prize did not extend to the cost of the journey? At least he now had a specific goal, but it did involve him in travelling by a series of trains ultimately reaching Italy by way of France. “I had a Uruguayan passport and on it, beside the word ‘Profession’, it said ‘Opera Singer’. I would produce this in order to cross borders and it would be noticed. Consequently I would be asked if I really was an opera singer and they would add ‘If so, you have to sing!’. So in response I would perform ‘Che gelida manina!’ and then they would let me through.”
In the circumstances it was something of a triumph to reach Florence where he took to singing in a restaurant to make up for his lack of money. Soon, however, things would change. He found a teacher with whom to study in Milan, Magda Olivero, and once there he auditioned for the Academy of La Scala. There was a temporary set-back when the school shut its doors due to financial problems within two months of his first attending, but because he was known there he was invited to audition for the Chorus of La Scala and did so successfully. Even more important was an audition that his teacher arranged for him with the wife of the conductor Riccardo Muti. She was looking for singers for a staging of Norma at the Ravenna Festival, and this led to more than he could have dreamed of.
“At the audition there came a point when Muti’s wife interrupted what we were doing. She suddenly exclaimed ‘You are the man for Rigoletto. Why don’t you sing ‘La donna è mobile’ for me’. So I did, and she loved it. In consequence I got a proper audition a week later singing for Muti and that led to my debut appearing at La Scala as the Duke. That came first and Norma followed.” A year later Carlo would participate in the Pavarotti International Voice Competition and win and, with his career now gaining momentum, there were many developments in the next ten years. They included an appearance in 2005 in the Frankfurt Opera production of Un ballo in maschera, the role that brought him into the international spotlight. Nevertheless, Carlo keeps going back to that 1994 debut as the most important event of all exceeding even his success in the Pavarotti Competition. “Nothing stands out so much in my memory because, having just been part of the chorus and having never done an operatic role in its entirety, all of a sudden I found myself on the stage of La Scala with Riccardo Muti as the conductor. It was so unexpected.”
Carlo is often referred to as being a lyrico-spinto tenor, a category with many illustrious forerunners such as Gigli and Björling. However, Carlo feels that the boundaries of lyrical and dramatic tenor are no longer rigidly adhered to, which can be a good thing. “At the beginning my voice was that of a lyrical tenor and while there was some depth in it I felt very comfortable in reaching the high notes. Then, little by little, my voice developed in a certain way and in consequence the kind of roles that I get offered today are those in Il trovatore, Andrea Chenier and, as here, Aida, just to give three examples. But I would love to sing Lucia,Rigoletto and L’elisir d’amore which come my way less often now. In short I would like to sing both the lighter and the more dramatic roles”. In point of fact, Carlo’s repertoire is expanding with debut roles in Manon Lescaut, Otello, Don Carlo and Adriana Lecouvreur in the near future. But, just as he regrets not being offered a wider range of roles in the Italian repertoire, Carlo would also like to do more French and German works. He cites Roméo et Juliette, Faust, The Tales of Hoffmann and Fidelio.
As regards appearances in the UK, Carlo has worked with Welsh National Opera in a number of pieces including La bohème, Rigoletto, Tosca and La traviata, but that was about ten years ago. Consequently, being invited to make his debut at Covent Garden is more likely to stem from his having been heard by casting director Peter Katona, and he has been in several productions of Aida, in San Diego, Verona, and Deutsche Oper Berlin. When asked to compare David McVicar’s approach to those other productions, he points to similarities as well as to differences. “I have found a dark element in other productions before this, but sometimes that has been done in a way that did not seem to make too much sense. What is different here is that there is a real logic to the darkness and cruelty, something that creates a connection that goes through the whole production. It makes one realise what a modern opera this is because it contains so much that is relevant to the continuous clashes that you get between those two great powers, the church and the state. Here at the end you sense that the two are united against everything which opposes them. This wide relevance is emphasised by the fact that this Aida is transposed from Ancient Egypt as such to a world that has some echoes of Japan but is not tied to any single country and that is, perhaps, not easy for the singers. Nevertheless having this clear concept at the back of the production helps us to feel comfortable when we are out there.”
One aspect of the role of Radames must always concern the singer, that the aria ‘Celeste Aida’ confronts him within minutes of the opera’s beginning. “I like the fact that it is right at the start. Even so, it is daunting because the audience is full of people who have a favourite recording of it and, while it’s not an impossible aria, the worst aspect is that the tenor gets to it while his muscles are still cold. To warm up more than usual beforehand is no answer because you get cold again in those fifteen minutes that you are waiting to go on.” And what about the ending of it which many tenors like to sing far more loudly than the score indicates? Carlo refers to the different tuning of the orchestra when Verdi composed the piece, so that what worked well for the voice in relation to the orchestra then is no longer the case now. “I remember that when Carlo Bergonzi did it in Parma the audience didn’t like it because he did it very softly, very pianissimo, and they didn’t regard that as successful. But if you do it loud it’s too loud, yet if you adopt a real pianissimo it’s too much. So what is the balance needed to bring it off? That’s the question one must ask. Much depends on your relationship with the conductor and it has been beautiful working with Fabio Luisi in our rehearsals.”
For the rest of my time with Carlo we discuss the character of Radames, the opera’s military commander and war hero, in the light of McVicar’s decision to mirror the tragic nature of the story by stressing the suffering in war and the heartlessness of the authorities both political and religious. They condemn Radames to death by being buried alive after he has unwittingly betrayed military information to the enemy leader, Amonasro, the father of the woman he loves, the Ethiopian Aida. Some productions might see Radames simply as the unfortunate hero, but here his initial enthusiasm for war is at odds with the anti-war stance of the production, so how, when and to what extent he changes needs to be considered in detail. “After the Egyptian victory Radames does ask for mercy for the Ethiopians taken prisoner. But by then he knows that one of them is Aida’s father without yet knowing that he is the leader. But it’s not the only element that comes into it. In this production Radames comes from the battlefield not as a hero as is often the case but covered in blood and clearly concerned by what he has done. So that comes into it too. However, it is the case that this young and ambitious man has, in effect, fallen in love with the wrong person because, even though he is ready to leave his fatherland for love of Aida, that love results in him being tricked into revealing a state secret. So when later, under arrest, he declares that he believes himself to be an honourable man he has in mind the fact that in these fresh circumstances he is no longer attempting to leave the country with Aida as he might have done but has instead chosen to stay. He faces his fate with dignity and in that decision he goes back to being the person he truly is.”
The last scene of the opera reveals that Aida has hidden in the tomb where the condemned Radames is to be placed and thus the lovers die together. The Egyptian princess Amneris, Aida’s rival in love for Radames, puts in a brief appearance at the close of the opera which if the work is seen only as a love story might seem superfluous. But her final words of prayer are for peace and the moment plays magnificently in this production. “It is a complex matter, this asking for peace, because it’s not just peace for herself consequent on her feelings of responsibility for what she has done. It’s also peace for her country, bearing in mind all the wars in which it has been involved and the suffering caused thereby. It’s important too that this humble prayer comes from somebody who is a princess, a person with power. This is what should be happening in our own world today.”