EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH:
It’s hard to know where to begin when one speaks of Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. My personal experience with him was seeing “Simon Boccanegra” at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden alongside Plácido Domingo. The performance I’ve heard the most about, and watched the most myself, must be his Philip II in “Don Carlo” alongside Eric Halfvarson’s Grand Inquisitor at RoH in 2008. As far as outstanding basses go, Ferruccio Furlanetto is the true maestro of his age. Now he’s back at the Met, his 32nd year running, in “Ernani”.
"I performed my first Fiesco and my first Procida in “Vespri Siciliani” here," he begins.
"There were many opportunities for me, and I started to work here very early, receiving more offers from the Met than from my own country – and I keep going back to the Met. This theater was always extremely well managed and organized. For instance, if they say one or two years in advance that on this precise day you’ll have a rehearsal, you can be sure that you will have it. My feeling about the house was always very positive. Of course, there were some moments of difficulty because if you come in today’s house as a young person, they give you roles proportioned to your career and sometimes it is hard to make a jump of quality, let’s say. It happens to everybody and when it happened to me, I simply didn’t accept any proposals for three years, until they understood that my career in Europe already was on the certain level. I believe that things like that happen everywhere."
Why do you think that Ernani isn't as popular and often performed as many other Verdi operas?
"First of all, it is quite a demanding opera in comparison with other Verdi operas, because you need four singers who are really capable of performing Verdi’s music – and now we don’t have so many of them around in each register. Also, this opera can’t easily stand on its own feet without the right voices and proper productions. This unfortunately happens in many cases. My role is also a very demanding one. Silva is a difficult, stubborn old Verdi guy who, from the very beginning to the end, shouts “Vendetta, vendetta, vendetta!” Think about the difference between him and Fiesco who also starts with hate and revenge but then, towards the end, has the moment of reconciliation when his character completely changes. The final duet between him and Boccanegra is amazing because of this.
Silva is, in contrast to this, just going in one direction. For instance, in the final moment I like to put my feet between the dying characters, not allowing them to unite even in death. It is a difficult role, because the aria is followed by a cabaletta and all young Verdi cabalettas are between the bass and baritone registers. In most cases they are more [written] for a baritone than for a bass. Remember the cabalettas in “Attila” and “Nabucco” (Zacharia). Verdi probably wrote these roles with some specific singer in mind. The other reason of popularity for the opera is a matter of modern fashion. For instance Boccanegra, a few decades ago, was almost never staged and now it is everywhere. I must say that major opera houses have always done “Ernani”, but maybe not so frequently."
NEARLY STEPPING IN FOR NIKOLAY GHIAUROV
"I remember “Ernani” in Milano in the eighties. Actually I learnt the role because of that production. Nikolay Ghiaurov, who was supposed to sing Silva at La Scala, didn’t want to sing the cabaletta, complaining that it wasn’t originally written. However, the true reason was basically that the cabaletta isn’t beautiful and is unnaturally high for a bass. It is strange because the rest of the piece, as well as strong and demanding, is written for a bass. Basically, because Ghiaurov didn’t want to do it, Riccardo Muti asked for somebody else who could play the role. So, I learnt the role, went to Milano, Muti heard me and liked it. Then what happened was that at the moment it became known that there was a young singer who was ready to step in, Ghiaurov –who was at this time on the top of his magnificent career – accepted to do it. I must say that for me it was pure luck that he did this part himself, because it is one of these roles which is better to sing later rather than too soon. You really need all your vocal resources to know how to do it. So, it was important to learn it at that time and digest it for better times."
In “Ernani” he plays an older man attempting to marry his niece. Basses tend to play older men such as kings, father figures, men of authority and status even at quite a young age. I want to know how challenging he has found it to do this through the years, and how he maintains his outstanding instrument.
"It is usual for basses, with the exception of the Mozart roles, to sing old characters. Even when you are nearly a “baby”, you must convert yourself into the old character and makeup is very helpful for that. When you look at yourself in the mirror and think that you are believable, you put your voice and attitude in the right position.
The voice grows with you as a person and it is extremely important during this growth to do the right repertoire. My big luck was that I sang mostly Mozart for 25 years and it was a pure medicine: my voice grew up with my body and mind in a very healthy direction. Today I’m singing key roles like Don Quichotte, Philipp II and Boris with the freshness which I didn’t have 20 years ago. I was lucky to be advised by a very good manager, great conductors of past times like Karajan, Gulini, Solti and great directors such as Ponnelle, Faggioni, Chereau – and to grow up for these years, doing the proper stuff, which means I can now sing what I want and enjoy the privilege to be an interpreter of magnificent roles."
THE IMPORTANCE OF PROFESSIONALISM
Considering Furlanetto has been in the game for 38 years, I want to know how someone who’s an interpreter of such experience feels when he meets a producer or director who wants to manipulate his interpretations of a role, and how far he’s prepared to adjust his interpretation to their vision.
"I always have clear ideas of what I want to do, the way I want to look and how I want to be heard. The rest depends on the intelligence of the director. If he is a real professional in this business, why not follow his ideas, as you could learn a few new aspects of the roles. When I was offered to do “Don Giovanni” in Salzburg with Chereau I was a bit skeptical at the beginning, because I knew he was coming from the theater and that he was much more involved in the movies as opposed to opera. Barenboim understood my doubts and organized a meeting, which happened for half an hour at an airport in Berlin. He was brilliant and I understood that he would create something extremely intelligent and wonderful, and I wanted to be a part of it.
I have had great experience with people like Faggioni, with whom I did my first Boris, and Ponnelle, but unfortunately today there is a big risk of falling into the hands of unprofessional people. Sometimes, since they are unprofessional, it is rather easy to make them understand that they are mistaken and you basically move them in the direction that you want. However, there is also a possibility that you meet somebody who doesn’t want to listen. In that case you have a choice: either you stay, simply for the contract and for the economical advantages of it, or you go home. Usually I’m very careful when I’m accepting an offer by knowing in advance who will be directing. I was wrong only once and I learnt the lesson."
What's the process of learning/re-learning a role like for you?
"What I do normally is that I start studying the role quite a while in advance and then I leave it alone until I feel that it is the moment to start again. What’s amazing is that while I didn’t study it, the brain has processed what it learnt and when I start again I find that it is more present than the day I left it. It is extremely important for me to start in advance, go through it, leave it, start again, and repeat the process until I’m ready for the stage. You must learn it by heart and there are roles which are easier and others which are more difficult. For instance “Assassinio nella Cattedrale” wasn’t easy at all, but the result was so beautiful and so rewarding that it was extremely worthwhile to do it – but it took an extra dose of study."
MODERN VS TRADITIONAL
His repertoire, like many opera singers of today, is based around 19th century grand opera. I want to know his opinion on why so many singers prefer not to sing modern opera.
"I’ve sung Britten, but you can’t live on Britten. I did the “The rape of Lucretia” in Italian, which was nice, and I’ve done other modern operas like Pizzetti’s “Assassinio nella Cattedrale” which was composed in 1953. Basically it is not a choice of doing repertoire of a certain century. You do the repertoire that nature wanted you to sing. I do not know the reason why other singers are making their choices but I supposed that they are basically the same as mine."
I can’t possibly interview Ferruccio Furlanetto without mentioning “Boris Godunov”, a role which has been described as the "Hamlet for basses". As the first Italian bass singing Boris on the stage of the Mariinsky Theater, where the opera was born, what does he think it takes to sing Boris?
"For this role you need to be not only a singer, but an interpreter. If you haven’t the combination of these two qualities there is no way of doing it. A beautiful voice doesn’t make a believable Boris on stage. In this profession you can never say that you’ve made it until the day of your retirement and even then…, he rounds off with inspiring humility."
You can catch Ferruccio Furlanetto “Ernani” at the Metropolitan Opera, NY, between 2nd and 25th of February – as well as on LIVE HD on the following dates:
February 25, 2012
U.S. Encore: March 14, 2012
Canada Encore: March 31
This interview has also been published in Spanish here.