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An interview with bass Ferruccio Furlanetto

F. Furlanetto as Philip (© K. Howard/MET Opera)

In his over thirty year career, Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto has sung the iconic roles of Boris Godunov, King Philip, Mozartís Figaro, and Don Giovanni around the world. Revered for his powerful, gleaming instrument, and absorbing stage presence, Furlanetto brings the little-known role of Thomas Becket in Pizzettiís Murder in the Cathedral to San Diego Opera, opening Saturday, March 30th. The maestro took some time between performances of Verdiís Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera to talk with us.

ConcertoNet: You are singing Philip in Don Carlo at the Met right now. This is a role youíve done quite often to great acclaim. Is this one of your favorite roles?

Ferruccio Furlanetto: Well, yes. I would say, first of all, I have done Philip since 1980. So, itís quite digested by now. I know it inside and out and I can really find all the details that I really want. Of course, at the moment, King Philip is together with Boris Godunov, Don Quichotte [of Massenet], and Thomas Becket [from Pizzettiís Murder in the Cathedral], as my favorite ones.

CN: It seems to me that Don Carlo is unique among Verdiís output. Itís kind of the summit of what Verdi worked at for a long time: politics, family relations, and a real musical maturity. Would you agree?

FF: Clearly Don Carlo is together with Otello and, of course, Falstaff, his very last try. Don Carlo, in my opinion, is the most complete of all the early operas. Musically, he reached sublime moments, absolutely sublime moments and, for a change, in comparison with the rest of the productions, the characters are extremely deep in details and belong to real history. There is no opera in Verdi where you can find this ďtheaterĒ in music. There are marvelous pieces like Simon Boccanegra that belong already to the second part of his life with amazing, beautiful moments, but it still remains melodrama. Don Carlo is really another planet.

King Philip is an historical character, and you must respect that history. The others, Carlo for instance, which is usually the typical tenor lover-role, if you really want to go in details, you can really find amazing possibilities in this role. He should be performed as a character at his psychological limits, and if you really want to play him that way, you can have interpretations that are absolutely stunning. Posa, for instance, is the only character of pure invention in Don Carlo, but nevertheless he has the real Verdi noble vocality, with amazing, beautiful phrases. The allure that he has around him of the ďjustĒ man, in a way, for Philip, is the son that he would have always wanted to have instead of his own son, with a great nobility in his heart.

Then, for instance, you have the amazing possibility, with King Philip, to go into political and religious details, which were very important in his historical life. Don Carlo is a sensational piece and the beautiful thing for an interpreter, in this arch of 33 years from my first performance as Philip until now, is this role really grows up with the artist. Little by little you find every time you face this character, this piece, you always find new intentions, new colors, new possibilities. And this is because of the greatness.

CN: Do you find the subject of Don Carloís germination as a five act French version enlightening?

FF: Well, this production is the five act in Italian. So, I am not involved in Fontainebleau. For the role of King Philip there isnít a big change other than the fact you have to be in the theatre for one more hour. If we make a comparison between the French version and this Italian five act version, which comes from that, they are not exactly alike in music. For instance, the duet between Philip and Posa, it comes 100 percent from the Italian [four act version] of Don Carlo. In the French Don Carlos, the duet between Philip and Posa is very different, much longer, without, I would say, the perfect shape that it has in the Italian version. There is a beautiful line from the beginning to the end, and itís a line that is not supported not only vocally but above all from the interpretation. The duet is built politically and personally in such a sensational way. In the French version this is lost. I did it with Covent Garden many years ago and I will do it again here in this same production in French in two years. Honestly I prefer, very much, the Italian version. The language is more appropriate to the subject. In the French version it becomes full of honey and itís not exactly in the character of these amazing personalities.

From the French version of course thereís the Fontainebleau scene which explains the situation that will go through the rest of the piece. Also I like to do, whenever itís possible, not this time here in New York, but it will be in London in the spring, the ďLacrimosaĒ after Rodrigoís death. Verdi composed it for the French version and as soon as he finished this engagement, he took it out and put it in the Requiem. But, both musically and dramatically, the ďLacrimosaĒ in that scene after the death of this hero is absolutely wonderful and it doesnít make the piece longer because itís a matter of five minutes, no more than that.

CN: So, looking back at the five act French version is more a matter of academics?

FF: Exactly. I did also the French version of I vespri Siciliani, and also the French version of I Lombardi, and they both work very beautifully in French because the characters do not lose their strength and the real passion. In Don Carlos, this doesnít happen. For instance in the duet with the Inquisitor, because of the language, it doesnít have the strength that it has in Italian.

I think that Verdi, when he was thinking about composing, he was clearly thinking in Italian. Then if the commission was coming from another place abroad, he was accommodating this to that. But basically the beginning, the real embryo of the opera, was always starting in Italian in his mind.

CN: Letís move on to San Diego Opera. You mentioned Thomas Becket already. Is that your favorite role right now?

FF: One of the four because itís difficult to create a hierarchy between Boris, Philip, Don Quichotte, and Becket. Becket should deserve more attention than it has. In the first 10 years after its composition in 1953 it had big successes all over, especially in Europe. Herbert von Karajan took it to the Staatsoper when he was in charge in Vienna. There is a recording, but of course at that time they were doing most of the non-German operas in German and this is a big loss. Nevertheless, Karajan himself wanted to perform this opera in his own theater. It was done in the same year in Milano and many other times, most of the time in a concert version. We did it in Milano in 2009 in a glorious, splendid production by Yannis Kokkos. It was splendid, not traditional, kind of abstract, but with such class. In between the mid-60ís and the last decade, it was completely abandoned or forgotten, done once in a while.

Itís a one man show. It goes around Becket from the beginning to the end. For this opera, as in Don Giovanni, Boris, you need not only a good vocalist, but also a good interpreter. Sometimes itís difficult to find these two things together. I donít know, honestly, why this piece has been forgotten for almost 40 years, because itís stunning. Like in the case of Don Carlo, the libretto is so profound. T.S. Eliot himself wrote that he was extremely flattered to have inspired such a piece and his thought was saved so faithfully in the Italian text. The Italian text is an extremely faithful translation from T.S. Eliot which is a greater importance to the entire piece.

I did it the first time in 2002 in Italy. The year before I had done a Don Carlo in Trieste. This is the place where I had my debut so there was, from the very beginning, a special relationship between us. And they asked me what I would like to do next, and I said I would love to try Assassinio nella Catedrale, because when I was growing up as a young singer I always heard about this piece. I always heard how important it was to have somebody not only sing it well, but also be a stunning interpreter like Rossi-Lemeni, who premiered this piece. I always prefer the roles where you need to be a good actor. Of course if you are searching for these kinds of roles singing beautiful phrases is not enough. You need to combine the beautiful singing with something very important in the acting. Becket is nothing less than King Philip, Boris and Don Quichotte. Itís absolutely as great as them and maybe even more.

CN: Itís a relatively short opera.

FF: I tell you, it couldnít be longer. Itís so intense. The opera lasts 2 hours 10 minutes with intermission. Itís so intense. Itís so emotionally devastating that it honestly couldnít be longer for the interpreter, and I think also for the audience because everything is mounting, and mounting, and mounting, that really after 2 hours and 10 minutes, everybody is a bit overwhelmed by it.

CN: Is there anything you could compare it to musically as far as the style?

FF: Not really, because Pizzetti, you know, wrote a lot in symphonic repertoire and not so much in opera and this, for sure, is the best effort that he had. The marriage between the text and his music is so unique. His musical style is based on the declamato pizzettiano. Itís really based on the extreme articulation and pronunciation of the text. Itís unique in its way.

CN: Do you find singing it a challenge?

FF: Oh yes, very much. Itís very challenging, because itís clearly written for a bass, but it needs to be a bass with a long range. In the first part, itís very deep, but when we come to the end of finale primo, itís such a development and it ends in a register that is almost baritonal, because it ends with two long-kept F-sharps, so [laughter]...itís not daily bread for a bass. Then the second part becomes very demanding. Itís vocally for sure a very demanding role. You need to be in your best shape. You need to have that kind vocality in a natural way, otherwise it will be a very heavy effort. And all this must be put together with very intense, believable, and profound acting. So, itís an absolutely demanding role. Maybe this is also the reason why this piece is not frequently done. I think this will be the first time in the States as a production. It was done as a concert version at Carnegie Hall, but never as a production, I heard. The only production that has been done in North America was in Montreal many years ago. So itís quite an event! I believe that San Diego Opera has been quite courageous to propose something so special. They were clever to come to Milano in 2009 to listen to the piece, to have a clear idea what it could be looking like on stage. When they saw it they immediately decided to do it. Nevertheless, itís a very courageous choice.

CN: Well, it challenges the audience.

FF: We are never to forget that opera is a very precise and profound cultural form. And it should approach the audience and give the audience the possibility of growth, and this piece is clearly in that direction. I mean, an opera season shouldnít be only Madama Butterfly, La bohŤme, and La traviata. You have the chance to show that there are amazing, amazing pieces that you will probably never forget.

I saw the sketches of the production because [San Diego Operaís General and Artistic Director] Ian Campbell came to Chicago last fall when I was there. We went through and talked about the possibilities. I think it will be very well done from that point of view. So, it will be a high cultural event.

CN: You talked about Ian Campbell and SD Opera. Youíve had quite a fruitful relationship.

FF: Since 1985.

CN: Thatís remarkable. In the United States you basically sing in New York or San Diego.

FF: In my heart, San Diego is the place that comes first. I know that San Diego cannot do the things that the Met does, but what is happening culturally and musically in San Diego is not second to any of these theaters. It was really, from the very beginning, a wonderful relationship with the administration: friendship, first of all, and then the joy of building events together. I will never forget because I asked for Don Quichotte some years ago, and Ian accepted it although he was very worried that it is not so well-known. And that year it was the only piece that was totally sold out after the premiere. It was an extremely good idea since they have the production, they have everything, so they can really spend very, very little to repurpose Don Quichotte next year after this stunning success that it had. Itís an opera that is amazingly received by whatever audience.

I just did a new production, very beautiful production, in St. Petersburg, at the Mariinsky, conducted by Gergiev. After the premiere we had 32 minutes of curtain calls. The Russian audience hadnít seen Don Quichotte as a production since 1915 when Chaliapin did it. When they finally got it they went out of their minds because this music, the humanity of this role, captures the hearts of the people in a unique way. This was very rewarding. Going back to the courage of San Diego, Iím very much attached to San Diego Opera and to its people because of this, because they like to build.

CN: Is it safe to say youíll be around a few more years in San Diego?

FF: Well, there will be the Don Quichotte next year, so, if they call I come [laughter]! Itís a very special area in the planet. Itís also big, big fun to be there. I have a lot of friends in San Diego, in La Jolla, all Italian doctors, researchers, working either at Scripps or the University, so every time I come back itís like being back at home.

CN: It might be a good place to retire to at some point?

FF: Of course it might be a good place to retire! But the idea of stopping in a place is still far away in mind.

San Diego, for sure, occupies a very, very special role in my heart and in my life. I was very unhappy in the last few years when I couldnít sing what I was hoping to do in Der Rosenkavalier and before that there was a Nabucco that I took out from my repertoire, so I really missed two opportunities that I had to be back there, but Iím counting hours until I will be there. And Iím pretty fed up with winter, I tell you. This year, between Russia, Vienna at the beginning of January, and now in New York, thatís enough for the year.

CN: Itís about 75 degrees out here today.

FF: Wonderful! Please keep it that way!

CN: Tell me a little bit about your voice itself.

FF: Well, I can tell you that everything I do today is much, much easier than ever before. So, it means that my itinerary, vocally, was more than correct because I could really develop in a very good direction physiologically. I think that the secret, if it is a secret, is the good 25 years of Mozart that I have done between my late 20ís and my early 50ís. There is no other way, vocally, to sing Mozart, except with your most natural vocality. You donít need to sound older, nastier, uglier, you just need to be yourself and use your vocality in the way you received it by Mother Nature. Since I did that for a long time in my life, at a very specific moment when I was developing, growing from a boy becoming a man, I think that it was daily medicine that I was taking. I finally stopped doing the Mozart roles because the characters belong to a very specific age. You need to be a young man, or a man, almost a boy, rolling, jumping, running, and at a certain moment, all this became a bit fatiguing [laughter]. I understood that the time of quitting had arrived and I went back gradually into my original repertoire which was Verdi, and then of course, came the Russian repertoire, and so on. When I came back to this repertoire, although itís heavier, although itís more demanding, everything was extremely easy. I mean if I am in normal, good healthy shape, itís simple.

CN: I would say we are in a special time of excellent bass voices between you, Matti Salminen, and Renť Pape. Do you appreciate listening to these other singers?

FF: Well, donít forget that when I started I had around people like Christoff, Siepi, Ghiaurov [laughter]. It was a privilege to be around. My very second opera was Don Carlo in Italy and I was singing the monk and my King Philip was Boris Christoff [laughter]. I am quite used to being surrounded by beautiful voices and itís wonderful! Itís wonderful that we have that, because, for instance, the Verdi baritone is more or less missing today. I only very recently, in San Francisco, when I did Attila in June, finally heard a beautiful Verdi baritone voice in Quinn Kelsey who has a stunning, stunning, beautiful voice for this kind of repertoire. Before hearing Quinn, I thought that the real Verdi baritone voices, Bruson, Cappuccilli, were totally lost and you know, once in a while, somebody comes around and itís wonderful. I never thought about competition with any of my colleagues. Most of my career I had Sam Ramey. We did a lot of things together, we were sharing roles in many productions, but it was always reciprocal admiration. I think it should be that way.

CN: Is there a particular singer that, early in your career, gave you advice or you looked up to?

FF: Well, you know, I will always say that the man, my colleague, that really gave me incredible, good advice, in that specific moment in my career was Bonaldo Giaiotti, who now has just turned 80. And Bonaldo was a stunning bass, amazing vocality, sensational vocality. One day I was here at the Met, I think it was 1982 or 83, I was singing this terrible, lousy role of Alvise in La Gioconda, where a young singer has to sound older. One day I had an orchestra rehearsal and I thought it was good. Bonaldo came and told me, ďlisten, now you have the feeling that you have a big voice, but this feeling is only inside you. I was in the audience and the voice doesnít project.Ē So, we talked half an hour, maybe even less, but I understood a few things that he told me. I understood the concept, and the day after when I had another orchestra rehearsal, everyone was coming around asking me, ďwhat happened to you? The voice is going!Ē And I will never, ever forget this moment.

He didnít have to come to me and give me advice, but he thought it was right do it, and thank God he did it because basically it was just what I mentioned about the Mozart roles. You need to use your natural vocality, what you receive by nature, without adding a forced vocality just to sound different from what you are. And in that very moment, letís say in the early 80s, after this important advice, I started my long period of time in the Mozart repertoire. There wasnít any other way to approach Mozart rather than what he just told me. I believe that combination of meeting Giaiotti, and starting my Mozart years when I was young enough was absolutely fundamental. Otherwise, I believe that today I wouldnít be here to do these marvelous roles, and still be in a good fresh situation vocally. It was really my medicine.

CN: My last question, maestro: you are not slowing down, which is wonderful. What do you find most rewarding? What keeps you going?

FF: Everything is so easy that I can do and I can act in the things I want to do. For instance, I want to underline this: last November I did Boris, at the Bolshoi Theatre and since I already did it few years earlier at the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg with Gergiev, this made me the only Westerner ever to have sung Boris Godunov in the two major Russian operas, which is an enormous privilege. Five years ago I would have never thought that could happen. It happened, it was great, it was a stunning success, and now the Bolshoi wants to film it with me, which will be another amazing privilege. Itís already history, but it will be even more than that.

This career is an enormous privilege. If you have this, you cannot be unhappy or unsatisfied. Of course, there are things that could be better in life or whatever, but I mean how many people can say that at the end of their long, long, career? I donít think so many. And that the fact is that I donít think I am at the end of my career [laughter]. So itís even more optimistic, because I am sure that if I stay in the health I have now, if nothing happens, letís touch wood, whatever, I think that I can be around for a while.

When I met Boris Christoff, he was singing King Philip like a God. He was 66 and had had brain tumor surgery and I will never forget the greatness of this manís artistry and vocality. His vocal technique was a dream. I think nobody was ever at that level. The way he was acting, being the character, he was unique. I had so much luck to start my career and to grow up surrounded by certain people, the great people that I mentioned before, Siepi, Christoff, Ghiaurov, Cappuccilli, Bruson, to be chosen by Karajan in the last four years of his life, to have met all the great, great old superconductors of the past: Solti, Giulini, Bernstein. This is a tremendous inheritance that I received and itís without any doubt the reason why Iím still around.

Matthew Richard Martinez



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