Interview: the Incomparable Furlanetto

There is no great artist he has not worked with. His recent triumph as King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Met was lauded as, “… remarkable… the highest point of the evening.”

He is Ferruccio Furlanetto, perhaps the most renowned basso profundo of our age, and a familiar and beloved presence in San Diego. Since 1985 he has performed here in roles such as Don Quichotte, Boris Godunov, Don Giovanni and King Philip. Fresh from his latest success in New York, he is now back to prepare for the signature role of Thomas Becket in San Diego Opera’s groundbreaking premiere of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Murder In The Cathedral (Assassinio nella Cattedrale).

I was blessed to spend an amazing hour chatting with him, and not surprised to find that his speaking voice is as mellifluous and profundo as his singing voice. He is charismatic, deeply intelligent, and most of all, a total gentleman.

EM: Benvenuto a San Diego, Maestro. Congratulations on your triumph in New York in Don Carlo.

FF: It’s a production that I love very much. It was born with me in London in 2008, and we did it in 2009, then it came to New York. I will do it again in London in one month. I do what I would like in this role. It’s fun, and most of the time when you have this feeling the result is always good.

EM: You’ve said your favorite roles are Boris and Filippo.

FF: And Don Quichotte – and this (Becket).

EM: Do you love them equally?

FF: Yes… there is just a bit more of love in Don Quichotte. It is not an historical character, and there is space for fantasy and for creating what should be a myth for men. Don Quichotte is always in love with everything surrounding him: the air, the sun, the people, nature… it is exactly what men should be once in a while. So to be in this costume and in this character for a few hours is a privilege.

EM: How do you feel about singing in French as opposed to your native language?

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Thomas Becket in MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL. Photo courtesy of La Scala.

FF: At the beginning it was a bit romantic because you think you have to sing French the way you speak French, but it is not the case. I remember talking with José van Dam and he told me we cannot sing in the way we talk because the sound would not be carried. You must project it from a distance. So forget about all these nasal sounds. He told me, “You should sound like an Italian when he speaks French.” (Laughs). It absolutely is the most difficult language for singing.

EM: More difficult than Russian?

FF: Oh yes. Russian is great. Though Russian has nothing to do with Italian, when it comes to singing they are almost alike because everything is based on vowels, and consonants are very smooth. The only sound that is a bit strange for us is (imitates a glottal sound)… but when you sing you don’t do it. But it’s wonderful. The pathos that you find in the Russian soul goes together with the language beautifully.

EM: As a violinist at the Met, I feel honored to have played your first performance and many others, and also to have recorded with you.

FF: You know, my last performance there was my two hundredth. I didn’t know that – they told me, “Did you know that…” (Laughs).

EM: That’s astonishing. How did it feel the first time and your two hundredth time?

FF: Well, there were thirty-three years in between. (Laughs.) Many good things, good memories. For instance, working from the very beginning to almost ten years ago with Jimmy (James Levine) was very wonderful. I think he has been the best opera conductor, everything he does he was always with us. In New York, in Salzburg, it has been a privilege to start as a young singer with people like him. Karajan of course, and all the others. Karajan belonged to another planet. But I will never forget people like Bernstein, Solti, Giulini… and many others with great knowledge, like Patanè. Gavazzeni, the old Italians…it was very important because I learned from all this.

EM: It was a unique age for conductors.

FF: I started to go to Salzburg in ’86 when I jumped in for Don Carlo with Karajan, which changed my life in twelve hours. Today you don’t have another Karajan with a “majesty” touch that can change you into a well-known artist in a matter of seconds. Also Solti was a great man, great conductor. The most amazing Figaros I ever did were with him, with these volcanic tempi, and he was eighty-two.

EM: How did you first become acquainted with Pizzetti’s music and become attracted to the role of Becket in Murder In The Cathedral?

FF: I grew up knowing that this piece was extremely famous for this stunning character. (Bass) Rossi-Lemeni did it for the first time, for the opening in ’53 – he had the reputation to be a singing actor, and everybody was talking about this magnificent role, which actually doesn’t have anything less than Boris or Filippo. It’s really amazing, vocally demanding, stunning. So I grew up having this in perspective for one (future) day. When Karajan was leading the Vienna Opera he took it there in 1964, which gives enormous credit to this opera. I remember it was maybe 2000, I did a Don Carlo in Trieste and afterward they asked me, “What would you like to do here?” I just said, “Pizzetti.” We did it in 2002 the first time, with Renzetti (Donato Renzetti, who is conducting the opera at SDO). It was also placed in the season of Christmas, so it was absolutely perfect.

EM: How was that experience for you?

FF: I realized that for the performer it’s a dream. The audience loved it so much.

EM: When did you next perform it?

FF: In 2009 I was driving on my way to Vienna, and they called me from La Scala. “Would you consider to do instead of Oroveso (in Norma) the Murder In The Cathedral?” After fifty years the piece was missing in Milano. And it happened, with Renzetti and the splendid direction of Yannis Kokkos, who is a man of exquisite taste, class and competence. And it was a dream. We had in Milano eight performances, totally sold out.

EM: And that was when you told (SDO general director) Ian Campbell about it?

FF: I called Ian and I told him, you should find the time and come here. So he did, with two SDO sponsors, and they loved it. And Ian said yes. There is a project progressing to do it with Gergiev and the London Symphony in Canterbury. It would be really like a consecration of the piece. I talked already with high-level artistic priests in Canterbury – the Canterbury Cathedral commissioned the original theater work by T.S. Eliot, so they would be absolutely enthusiastic about it. And you can do it semi-staged, because you don’t need space. I really would like to make it happen.

EM: Absolutely. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. If anybody can make it happen, you can.

FF: Let’s hope. I will try my best.

EM: The first time you sang Becket, did you find the role difficult vocally, or by virtue of the fact it was not well known?

FF: It’s total. Vocally it’s pretty demanding. The first finale is really pretty high, as the second act finale, the death, but it’s well written for the voice. Of course you need a bass with a longer range and quite an easiness on the top, otherwise it would be problematic. Also musically there are difficulties for everybody. In Milano and Trieste, and here with Renzetti, it was quite a problem to obtain a prompter; because this opera needs one, not for the words, but there are so many difficult cues for everyone, chorus, soloists. If something goes “out” it’s a domino effect; the conductor has enough to do down in the pit; he cannot always be cuing everybody, and the risk is too big. If everything goes together, it’s a magnificent puzzle that takes shape; if not, it could be very dangerous.

EM: But what fun. As far as learning the role for the first time, did you find it more difficult than the more familiar repertoire?

FF: Honestly, when you are approached for these kinds of operas and roles, you put more attention, more concentration, and somehow it doesn’t look as difficult as others; but probably I think there is more. And then the shocking moment is when you start to stage the piece, and for the first time you have to leave the score; and you must do it by heart without losing track. But it was fun from the very beginning. I really wanted it, I loved it and it was fulfilling. And now I can tell you that every year it becomes easier and easier to refresh it, and it’s really rewarding.

EM: I remember we did that wonderful Figaro recording with you at the Met. Would you sing Mozart again?

FF: Figaro for many years was my favorite role. The fourth act for me was pure happiness. The giovinotto, Figaro, Leporello… I grew up artistically and vocally for twenty-five years having constantly this medicine for the voice. I found that was the key of everything in that specific time of my life. I sang my last Figaro in 2004 and Leporello at the Met, the year after my last Giovanni in Vienna – last because the joy, the happiness I had before, to jump around and kneel, started to become physical fatigue… to pretend to be what I’m not physically.

EM: And now?

FF: When I came into heavy repertoire again, into Verdi full time, and Boris, everything was much easier than twenty years before. And this was absolutely amazing. It’s fun, rewarding, and splendid. Let’s touch wood… By the way, today, March 19th, is my thirty-ninth anniversary on stage. In 1974 I was in a little theater next to Vicenza, Lonigo, singing my first opera; I was Sparafucile. I would never have imagined that thirty-nine years after I would have done Boris at the Bolshoi and Mariinsky. And the first westerner to have done Boris in the history of this piece in the two major opera houses in Russia, which is an enormous privilege.

EM: Boris is one of the most interesting characters in all opera.

FF: Exactly. You have the politician with this kind of internal pain… the most devoted father, the political fight with Shuisky, the weakness of the beginning of the madness and the prelude to death… the death, and the last advice to the little boy. Boris doesn’t sing more than forty to forty-five minutes total, but it’s a universe; so stunning. He’s very, very human.

EM: It must be difficult for you to say which of the four roles you mentioned is most beloved to you.

FF: Whenever I am in one of these I have the happiness that I had in the fourth act of Figaro. It would be unfair to say I prefer this or that one. I think I am honest with what I am doing on stage, and this is recognized, because I really live the life of these characters when I am on stage.

EM: You have a certain amount of freedom in the way you portray Becket, because there are no expectations.

FF: Yes, of course. There is a lot of history to give you a good track to follow, although the text is very faithful to T.S. Eliot. When you have these four temptations, for example, it’s glorious, but it also depends very much on the staging. When Ian and I were discussing whether Becket’s temptations are physical, I said no, the temptations are in his heart. They must be visible to the audience, but the audience must also understand that everything is rooted in his mind. The temptations are never in my sight; I should feel them but never see them; only if you do so is there the fear that this is just a war happening in his soul. And the last temptation, the martyrdom, is the one he sees is the only way out. Pizzetti wanted the four voices playing the temptations to be the four knights who come in the end to kill him. It’s important that the same voices he was hearing in his mind – telling him to go back with the king, go back to be chancellor, go with the enemies of the king, go for the martyrdom – are the same that come in a very arrogant way from London.

EM: Sounds marvelous. I can’t wait to be there opening night.

FF: I think it will be wonderful. I saw already the sketches and they are the way they should be, and the staging too. Musically I know Renzetti is doing what should be done. So I think the situation is good.

EM: And soon, I’ve heard, you’re going to shift gears a bit, to do South Pacific again.

FF: Yes. And I will continue to do my ‘”little” recitals, Russia, Amsterdam, Winterreise, and like that. Doing basically what I like to do (laughs).

EM: Bravo, bravo, Maestro. Thank you so much for spending this time with me.

FF: It was a great pleasure.

EM: Everybody is looking forward. Grazie infinito.

FF: Grazie a lei.

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