Ferruccio Furlanetto Talks Verdi and Vocality

In part one of my recent interview with international superstar Ferruccio Furlanetto, he shared his insights and experiences about creating the role of Thomas Becket in the San Diego Opera’s premiere of Pizzetti’s Murder In The Cathedral.

In part two, Furlanetto further discusses Murder, recounts his early experiences with great conductors and their impact on the opera world, and imparts wisdom on the joys and challenges of singing Verdi, in this gala celebration year of the composer’s birth.

EM: You mentioned how important it was for you to gain experience from some of the great conductors. Could you elaborate?

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Simon Boccanegra. Photo Dan Rest
Ferruccio Furlanetto as Simon Boccanegra. Photo Dan Rest

FF: Yes, for instance I will never forget some Verdi Requiems that I did with Giulini. Whew. The way he was filtering this magnificent masterpiece emotionally was breathtaking. Today we have many good conductors without any doubt, but somehow there is some… missing charisma, for some reason that I cannot explain. Maybe this hunger of power, being in control of things… Karajan was in control of everything, but the artistic part was coming first. And now it seems the opposite. Being chosen by him (at Salzburg) meant to be known the day after by the world. And then the summer with Jimmy, Ponnelle, with Figaro. Then, I remember, the recording companies were still very important. Every summer there was an outdoors party, in a beautiful villa, organized by Deutsche Grammophon. Karajan was there, inviting everybody. And everybody was there: Bernstein, Giulini, Solti, all these super “monsters” were gathering; and even more important, at the same festival. Salzburg, during the Karajan times, was the Olympus; all the greatest conductors, best stage directors, best singers. So to arrive to Salzburg in those years, where the entire city was full of posters of the conductors and singers… and to see your face in the shop windows, was a kind of proof that something important happened. Most of these things today, for my young colleagues, are gone.

EM: So you were coming up at the right time.

FF: Yes, I was lucky to be on time for the last years of Karajan, all the other names. With Solti I worked a bit longer, he survived longer. A great man, great conductor. There was only one Lenny Bernstein, there could never be another.

EM: I performed with Bernstein many times, as a student at Tanglewood – where you did the Verdi Requiem recently – and at the Met. And of course with Levine, who was the driving force of the entire opera house.

FF: I think the Met orchestra developed to become the best orchestra because of him. What he did there was stunning. Next season he’s supposed to do three operas. I hope so. Today what is missing there is this artistic guidance that he had. I’ll never forget some years ago there was a Gala for his 25th anniversary, something like sixty-four singers, a concert that lasted five or six hours, and he conducted everything. He always has projects he would love to do. We were talking about doing the Montemezzi L’Amore di Tre Re, which is beautiful. I did it only once in the Vienna Konzerthaus in concert version, but I can imagine this piece is so intense, also theatrically, that on stage it could be really something special.

EM: Perhaps Murder In The Cathedral at the Met? It’s very appropriate for them, because of its grand scale.

FF: With Jimmy it could happen. It would be sensational. And also it’s a short piece, two hours and fifteen minutes. They’re always complaining about length of operas; this couldn’t be longer because it’s very intense.

EM: Could you tell me more about Murder at Canterbury cathedral? You mentioned it could be done semi-staged, because it wouldn’t need much space.

FF: The chorus could be easily placed alla Greca and you have the two chorus narrators, and the action can take place in half the space. He (Becket) wasn’t killed exactly inside the cathedral, but in a little room next to the major altar; so since they are extremely well organized – they have two huge screens in the lateral nave and one outside – it could be filmed and shown in the original place. The only difficulty comes somehow with the orchestra; they think it could be expensive.

EM: It’s not an inordinately large orchestra.

FF: Not only that, but Canterbury has its own female and male chorus and children’s chorus. The orchestra could be rehearsed in London, and then it’s one hour and a half by bus. I asked some British friends of mine if the subject is still a bit… controversial for the monarchy, but I doubt it. In recent theater pieces in England, it goes on all the time.

EM: About you and Mozart – when you first started out you won the competition in Treviso, and I read somewhere that you said you were almost channeling Cesare Siepi.

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Carlo. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Carlo. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

FF: When I was starting to move into this wonderful world, of course I saw that Siepi was an idol and he was doing lots of Mozart, one of the greatest Don Giovannis and Figaros ever; so I wanted to point in that direction. Luckily I also had the natural vocality allowing me to do so, because if you had this kind of “deep” voice (imitates), forget it. You can do the Commendatore. I started and participated in this competition, which I think has the best formula for young singers, because it doesn’t just give you a prize or money, it gives you the possibility for a debut in a specific role. And I tell you, nowadays they will give Giovanni to just a baby. In ’77 no theater would have given the role to a young guy because it was still considered like a final target in career, as it should be. And I won. I remember at the final concert of the competition we did all the operas; and there was the artistic director of Torino, who hired me for Giovanni. Pier Luigi Pizzi, splendid. And I started to get into this world of Mozart. I did some Così Fan Tutte’s (’77-78), and my first Figaro came only in ’84 in Paris with Barenboim and Ponnelle. The fourth act especially made me feel really happy, and that happened for twenty-five years. Recording, videos, movies. And I found that was the key of everything, this twenty-five years of Mozart in that specific time of my life, because there is no other way to sing Mozart than using your natural vocality. You don’t have to make it darker, nastier. You don’t need makeup, you can go out with your face. But now, physically…

EM: You wouldn’t do Mozart anymore.

FF: Not on stage, but I just did it in Amsterdam in a Christmas concert with Maris Jansons, these arias again after all these years, Figaro and Giovanni, Leporello, Count, and it was better than ever. Now with Verdi, the heavy repertoire, I find everything much easier than before… absolutely amazing, because I remember when I was a kid I watched these great predecessors like Christoff, Siepi, Ghiaurov; in their late fifties they were already fading down, so I thought, that day would come. On the contrary, it’s easier than ever.

EM: Regarding that repertoire, can you elaborate on Boris as a character, compared with Philip in Don Carlo, and on the various productions with the Bolshoi and the Met?

FF: Boris was so beautiful in Moscow. They have two productions, one a very bad one, modern; the coronation happens on top of a tank, à la Boris Yeltsin. And I said, no, I would like to do the old, famous one, also filmed, from 1948. Beautiful. It should be that way. It’s a historical character we are talking about, not Putin. In Chicago Lyric I was asked what I thought of doing Boris in this modern version, and I said I was not so happy because we are talking about special person in history: a great tsar, probably the best ever, because reforms during his reign were good for the people. He was unlucky to live in the years of devastation: floods, famine, natural disasters; when this happens the fault is always of the government. And I said, we’re talking about somebody who is extremely clever and good in his profession because he was prime minister with Ivan the Terrible, he knew politics. And he’s a politician who dies from remorse; whether he did or didn’t command the killing of the boy, historically could never be proved, even if you look at the historical documents of the time; just a lot of conspiracy and this kind of thing. And I said it’s impossible to transfer this kind of drama to today, because if today’s politicians would start to die from remorse, it would be carnage.  So it’s not interesting at all.

EM: Yes, I agree; that can’t be shown in a modern setting.

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Carlo. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Carlo. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

FF: It also would be stupid to do the same effect in Don Carlo. Carlo’s character is romanticized. He was kind of a monster, handicapped, nasty, ugly; here they make him sort of a hero. But all the rest with the exception of Posa are real characters with a lot of history, with proofs that must be respected. The only thing I don’t like in the London production is the auto-da-fé, where King Philip comes out completely dressed in red. This could have never happened because historically we know he was not only wearing black but compelled the entire court to wear black. I don’t know why they fell into that silly mistake. When you have documents saying  Philip wore black, that’s what happened. But I like this one from London because dramatically, theatrically it’s very well done, beautifully done.

EM: Then there’s the music.

FF: Yes, Don Carlo, it’s all there. And the rest (Verdi) are wonderful. I love Boccanegra, it’s a great piece, I do it quite often, and Ernani. For thirty-one years I did Nabucco, but now it’s… basta. And Vespri I love very much. I did it also at the very beginning with the Met. But Don Carlo, King Philip… I am doing that for thirty-three years, my debut was in 1980 in Germany, Cassel, and it really grew in all these years. And every time you do it you can find new things, details – the colors, intentions that you didn’t think of before. It’s fascinating. As a creation Philip is kind of a signature for me; it’s under the skin. And the aria! I think it’s probably the most beautiful in the entire romantic repertoire.

EM: It must be amazing for you to just get on stage and “own” it.

FF: It’s a privilege, because when you are there… whatever is the direction you can find the right reason to do what you are doing. But it (the costume) should be done properly, and it’s important, fundamental for the audience the vision of the most powerful man on earth, alone in his solitude, and his human problems. Jealousy, sadness, because even the son is a traitor, the wife doesn’t love him, he realizes he’s surrounded by jackals. I remember immediately after I did Colline in Trieste, with Carreras and Ricciarelli – that was something – I went to do the Monk in Torino in Don Carlo, where my King Philip was Boris Christoff. And I was fascinated by this icon, he was sixty-six – and after brain tumor surgery! – he was singing and acting like a god. But if I look back the way his Philip was presented, for me it was dry, you didn’t see the possibility of the kind of human weakness he had. It was his choice, he was doing that beautifully; growing up, I wanted to be the king, surrounded by people; but when you are alone in your studio it’s more interesting to play by contrast. And to have the possibility to also show the human side of this amazing character who could decide death or life for anybody. Nonetheless he was unhappy. And I think that, in theater, it’s more beautiful, more interesting, to work with colors, to show every angle of these characters.

EM: There’s an unanswered question in Don Carlo at the very end about what really happened. Was it different in the French version?

FF: No, it was the same. There’s what you call in Latin the deus ex machina; to solve a difficult situation and finish the piece somehow. The French version doesn’t have the perfect shape as the Italian version because Verdi did it first, for the money; it was commissioned from Paris Opera, he had to put in twenty minutes of ballet, all those things. And I’m sure when he did that, and the French version was presented in Paris, he had already in mind the Italian, and the reduction. Because Fontainebleau is lovely, prosaic music, it helps somehow to understand, but it’s just the two fiancés meeting in the woods; you know what is going to happen later. When he starts the French version in the cloister, with this dark, Inquisition atmosphere, it’s really Don Carlo from beginning to end. The production we did at the Met has the Fontainebleau but it’s in Italian; next month for London I told Pappano if you do the Italian version but basically of the French one, let’s put the Lacrimosa after Rodrigo’s death. It’s beautiful, five minutes of music. Of course Verdi took it out and put it in the Requiem; but dramatically and musically it’s so perfect in that moment. I did it very often, in Milano, in Salzburg, and years ago with Maazel; it doesn’t prolong the opera that much, just five minutes, and it’s beautiful.

EM: Wonderful idea.

FF: In two years we will do it again in New York, in French, and there will be the Lacrimosa. Also in London in ’99 when Covent Garden was under restoration for the summer, we did it in a strange semi-modern production. It was important to have done it, but like it? No. The language disturbs the characters a lot, which doesn’t happen in the Italian. I did the French version of Vespri, of Lombardi, and there it works, it’s fine. But the beautiful aria becomes kind of a chamber aria, it loses the essence; it’s too “honeyed,” too sweet. It’s not Latin, you cannot feel the Inquisition, they would have never spoken that way. From a singing perspective, French doesn’t have the same effect. So it’s not my favorite. Once in a while you do it.

EM: Again, Maestro, I thank you for so generously sharing your insights.

FF: My pleasure.

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