Ludovic Tézier is one of today’s great Verdi baritones, celebrated for his burnished tone and silky legato, a nobility of sound that makes him a great Posa in Don Carlos, di Luna in Il trovatore and the title role in Simon Boccanegra. Yet, the French baritone is only just singing his first Verdi role in London, the vengeful Don Carlo in La forza del destino in Christof Loy’s new production at the Royal Opera House. During rehearsals, we meet to talk Verdi, villains… and Wagner.

Ludovic Tézier
© Cassandre Berthon / Opéra national de Paris

Tézier exudes French charm, warmly reflecting on his childhood in Marseille, having a “hazy memory” of listening to music on the radio. Recorded music was “in the air from the very early morning to bedtime” and he recalls his father, who was a big opera fan, relating opera plots. “He was a great storyteller and I had a child’s imagination so it was quite spectacular. It was probably the stories more than the music itself which fascinated me.

“My family didn’t have the means to go to the opera. There is no shame in that – it was expensive – but when I was 13, I asked my father to buy me a ticket to Parsifal.” Why Parsifal? “I sensed listening to a recording of the overture that this music was special,” he explains. “I asked my father about the possibility of getting a ticket, even up in the gods. And he said, ‘Come on, Parsifal is over five hours and you don’t speak German!’ But I was young, optimistic, and replied ‘No, I’ve listened to the overture. I love the music. I love Wagner.’ I was convincing enough and, as my father always did, he tried to get us the best. It was not easy. It cost 80 francs, which was quite an amount in those days, but he found me a seat, front row, first balcony, in the middle – I was the king! Here I was, a teenager surrounded by old people wearing beautiful clothes. A whole world opened to me. I remember the atmosphere, the sound of the hush descending before the maestro comes and the applause… and then nothing, and then you listen to this first chord of Parsifal and you say ‘Wow!’ There are no words in French or in English to describe that feeling!

“Because Marseille was not very familiar with German music, Jacques Karpo, the former boss of the Opera, hired the best Wagnerian singers. No joke, it was really good, Bayreuth standard! It was a fantastic present, a beautiful poison and I’m still dying from it!”

Tézier hadn’t read the libretto beforehand, but he was steeped in the medieval legends of King Arthur, Percival and Gawain. “I knew every corner of this world. It’s also fascinating to listen to an opera without understanding perfectly what it says because it allows you a kind of freedom. I’m not in favour of surtitles,” he explains disdainfully, especially when a punchline lands too early. “I remember singing Almaviva at the Met and the audience, instead of listening to one of the most beautiful moments Mozart ever wrote – ‘Contessa, perdono’ – they were laughing at the surtitles, missing this most beautiful moment because of the bloody translation!”

Jonas Kaufmann (Don Carlos) and Ludovic Tézier (Posa) in Don Carlos
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra national de Paris (2017)

The only Wagner Tézier has sung thus far is Wolfram in Tannhäuser – “he’s special, an outsider, not a typical Wagnerian role” – but Amfortas in Parsifal is a distinct possibility. “It’s probably the first real footstep; the whole of the Wagnerian Da Vinci Code is inside Amfortas, so to begin a true path into Wagner with this character is a beautiful way to see if I would be able to go forward or not.”

Don Carlo in Forza is the first Verdi role Tézier will have sung in London, but he’s rightly regarded as one of the world’s leading Verdi baritones, that rare breed of singer much in demand. What are the qualities required? “First, you have to have the voice, which is not such a stupid answer because sometimes you hear someone singing Verdi and you ask yourself ‘What the hell are they doing in this role?’ They are in vocal danger. And Verdi is too, by the way.

Ludovic Tézier (Don Carlo) in La forza del destino
© ROH | Bill Cooper

“It took me a few years to begin in this repertoire. I first ‘touched’ Verdi – you try not to burn yourself too much – after 30. It was young enough. I sang Germont like this,” he says, reaching out tentatively, “which was really successful… and then I left it for eight years.” He runs his fingers through his tousled hair and warms to his theme. “And that leads me to the right answer to your question ‘What is the best quality needed to sing Verdi roles?’ Age. Once you have the voice, you should wait. You should be patient. And if it comes that you are able to express the whole palette that you need to sing Verdi, then you can sing Verdi. In fact, to sing Verdi is not enough. I would say to express Verdi because there are so many layers in his characters. Of course, it is based on a perfect vocal technique but then, if you sing it perfectly technically, you are lacking the point. It is not enough. You should use the technique to get rid of the technique. So,” he chuckles, “that’s a stone in your garden!”

Ludovic Tézier (Simon Boccanegra) and Maria Agresta (Amelia) in Simon Boccanegra
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra national de Paris (2018)

We pause to admire the psychological depths in Verdi’s baritones. “Verdi was fascinated by theatre,” Tézier enthuses. “Victor Hugo with Ernani and Rigoletto, or Shakespeare – such a pity he never wrote Hamlet. Or King Lear. It could have been something unbelievable. Listen to Macbeth, a beautiful homage to the darkness of Shakespeare’s play. The discovery of the dagger is so powerful, really theatrical. You can go into another voice, a spoken voice. He was a genius.”

In Forza, Don Carlo is forever chasing vengeance. Tézier sees few redeeming features. “I think he is one of the real villains. We often try to find a human side to our characters, but to Don Carlo? He has everything that we hate: he’s a racist, he’s macho, he’s arrogant, a liar, violent.” And yet he gets this great aria ‘Urna fatale’. Tézier nods. “Maybe this is the only moment where he could choose the right path, when he meets Alvaro, before knowing who he really is! He has been seeking vengeance for years and suddenly he is considered by somebody as a friend. He has this chance to be the good guy. For a few minutes, we see a different side to his personality, but destiny tells another story. It’s tremendous music, but demanding – legato, high notes, power, diction, character… and then you’ve got this exciting cabaletta, which can be vocally dangerous, but we are on stage to face this kind of challenge.”

Jonas Kaufmann (Don Alvaro) and Ludovic Tézier (Don Carlo) in La forza del destino
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Tézier has sung the role opposite Jonas Kaufmann before (at Bayerische Staatsoper) and clearly loves working alongside him. “He is an amazing guy – really passionate and spontaneous. When I started out,” he muses, “one of the great things about being a singer was to share the stage with great singers. Now, I would revise that to say it’s about sharing the stage with great people. When I get to share a moment with someone like Alessandro Corbelli or the giant Ferruccio Furlanetto, I mean come on! It was a great honour to sing Posa opposite Monsieur Furlanetto. When he sings ‘E nulla ancora hai domandato al Re?’ you get goosebumps. This is more than a pleasure, it is an experience. To be with Jonas on stage is very special because he is also a friend. We can laugh together and shed a tear and watch a football match.”

Last year, Tézier sang his first Boccanegra and it’s already a favourite role, “definitely part of my pantheon. You can add Rigoletto and most of Verdi’s father roles, maybe because I am a father too. As you know, Verdi faced such tragedy and he puts his best music into the fathers’ lines. Think about the recognition scene in Boccanegra: this is not just music, it tells you something – precious music, holy music.”

Rodrigue, Marquis de Posa in Don Carlos, is another favourite. Tézier sang in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production in Paris last season, a staging I found cold and austere. “Austere is the perfect word. But have you been to the Escorial, to Philip II’s court? It is huge and cold.” Tézier found Posa’s death scene beautiful. “Warlikowski and I thought about what would be the cruellest way for him to die and we decided it would be with Posa unable to reach his friend, unable to hold his hand.”

But away from the fathers, what about the villains? Last Easter he sang Scarpia in Salzburg, where the chief of police is portrayed as a mafia boss. I remark that he must be a great character to play. “Exactly as you say. He’s a great character to play. You cannot make this character yours. To play a villain is much closer than we think to comic characters. As a funny guy you have to build up your character, your gags. To play a villain, of course you have to build up something because if you don’t…” he taps the side of his head, “you’re in trouble and need to see a doctor!”

In Act 1, Scarpia references Shakespeare’s Iago, substituting his use of a handkerchief with a fan as his means of trapping Tosca. This autumn in Munich, Tézier looks forward to singing his first Iago. Another villain? The baritone disagrees. “He’s not a villain. He is evil. I told you about having to build up a character as a villain. With Iago you have to do nearly nothing. Just like the way he kills Otello at the end. How? He just says ‘no” – easy – and Otello is broken. The shortest word in the language. He isn’t physically capable of having a sword fight with Otello so he has found his own way to kill him, a long poisoned way, just to have the pleasure to look him in the face and say ‘I screw you’. ‘Sono un critico.’ You know, ‘I am a man of books’. How can a man of books kill? Not with a sword, but with a word.”

Verdi writes the role so well. Of course, when you sing ‘Ciò m’accora’ or Iago’s dream, he is putting on a mask, but when you are alone on stage, you are evil. I am not choosing the bad, I am the bad. And – thanks to the Credo, which is basically Arrigo Boito’s creation – he says the evil is coming out of me and I have no control over it. And you know what? I’m happy with that because we all finish like worms anyway. Wow. This is a massive character, really nasty. He’s a snake.”

Roberto Tagliavini (Ferrando) and Ludovic Tézier (Conte di Luna) in Il trovatore
© Charles Duprat | Opéra national de Paris (2016)

Who, I ponder, were his baritone heroes on disc? “They are plenty and I wouldn’t want to miss any out. I cherish the sound of Piero Cappuccilli, not only the length of his phrasing, but the high notes, the characterisation, the diction.” Or Italian baritones of the 1950s like Giuseppe Taddei and Ettore Bastianini. “Bastianini was a beautiful singer, a beautiful colour and that sense of grandeur.” He also cites, from an earlier generation, Apollo Granforte (“a monster, I love this guy”) and French baritone Michel Dens, urging me to listen to “Salomé ! Demande au prisonnier” from Massenet’s Hérodiade. “How can people sing French like that so effortlessly? Perfection.”

Returning to Wagner, Tézier has no hesitation in naming the role he’d want to sing if he suddenly woke up and found himself a tenor. “Siegmund. I love that. I want to pull the sword out of the tree!” he whoops with delight. “It’s still kind of baritonal, so it’s not so foreign. Why not? I could sing ‘Winterstürme’ tomorrow, it is not a big deal. In the whole role, there are two or three points where I would have to find a solution, but it’s absolutely possible. I love this music. ‘Winterstürme’ is a magic moment, but there’s also Wotan’s Farewell. Walküre is a really strong piece.”

Does he ever see himself singing Wotan? Tézier shrugs. “This is for Wotan to decide!”