Ahead of the première of Il trovatore at Vienna State Opera, the tenor who crosses borders between France and Italy and between opera and chanson talks to us about the role of Manrico, about Cyrano, being a gypsy, being a hero, when he might return to Italy, his family and more.
DK: We can’t wait for Sunday’s Il trovatore. What can you tell us about the role of Manrico?
RA: The dress rehearsal has gone really well. Dominique Meyer [director of the Vienna State Opera] has brought together a fantastic cast, I think the production is good as well as the orchestra and conductor. We’re very lucky to have this kind of opportunity.
The role of Manrico often gets focused on the character’s heroic nature. With “Di quella pira”, he gets turned into something of a warrior, a rebel, a person with a fiery nature. In fact, when you look more closely, the title is The Troubadour: he’s a poet, a singer, a travelling minstrel of the period. You realise that this is a bit of a mystic who is continually appealing to God and the hereafter; he hears voices which hold him back from killing his enemy. So he’s a more sensitive character, who in truth does everything for love. He’s far from a pure warrior, and even this notorious “Di quella pira” is sung in reference to his mother, to save her from the captors who want to burn her at the stake.
His rivalry with the Count is once again due to love, for Leonora. There’s a strange thing about the entrance trio: the Count and Manrico give the appearance of addressing Leonora, whereas what they’re actually both doing is using Leonora to say things to each other. Without his love for Leonora, I think Manrico would be some kind of minstrel, singing his poems here, there and everywhere: I don’t think he would be a warrior at all.
Does [stage director] Daniele Abbado agree with all this?
Yes, absolutely. At the beginning, he wanted to make Manrico some kind of soldier or rebel in the Spanish revolution. But I told him my views and he agreed. In fact, Manrico doesn’t give a damn about the rebellion. He has his own major identity problem, since he doesn’t feel like a gypsy, he’s ill at ease in his community, he’s ill at ease in society and he’s continually wondering if he’s really Azucena’s son. So this is a tormented character, one whose own problems are more important than political engagement.
When did you first sing Manrico? It must be a good while ago…
Yes, it was in 2000, 17 years ago. It’s interesting because one really evolves as one gains experience of life. When you’ve sung a role like that for a couple of decades, you’ve reached a level of singing ability, and the interpretation changes: now that I’m a mature man, I see the tragedy in this tormented character, his sensitivity – whereas when you’re younger, you go more towards the exuberant, extrovert, warrior side. Later on, you become more tolerant, you realise that youth makes one behave in a particular way.
There are legends that surround Il trovatore, because it’s a legendary role, so there are spectres from the past, of the great Manricos. When you’re mature and you’ve sung the role when you were very young, you acquire your own demons, so it’s a strange thing: you feel a great weight on your shoulders.
At the same time, these are roles that are dramatic but need a youthful voice; that’s the musical nature of the character. Whether it’s Manrico, Romeo or Don Carlos, you need a kind of youthfulness, but at the same time, there’s a dramatic side that requires experience of singing – and that’s the most difficult thing to reconcile, for example in the stretta, which is Manrico’s most difficult moment. By the way, the concert pitch here in Vienna is very high, so the high C turns into something closer to C sharp.
Verdi’s rhythms are insistent, stressed, demonic. In the entrance trio with the baritone and Leonora, the excitement means that you can’t breathe normally. The difficult thing is to retain that excitement while keeping an inner calm: if you don’t, you’ll never be able to make those high Cs.
Still, many critics, including us, have commented that your voice is still that of a young man!
And I’m delighted by it! There were several singers at yesterday’s general rehearsal – Ramón Vargas, Plácido Domingo, some of today’s young singers – and everyone told me “it’s strange, your voice is getting younger”. It’s a nice compliment because it’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve. When I’m working on the voice every day, I’m constantly looking for youth, clarity and simplicity, and you can’t imagine how hard it is to find simplicity.
I’m afraid not, but I’m delighted to have had the chance to sing it twice in my career. It’s a work that’s very difficult to cast. It’s hard to find a Chimène and it’s hard to find a Rodrigue, a role which, in my opinion, is more difficult that Manrico. Also, it’s an opera that isn’t an obvious box-office draw, which is a pity, because these are legendary roles, it’s a magnificent work and when you dive into the score and discover Massenet’s genius, you fall in love with the work straight away. But it’s true that it’s a work that needs a lot of things to go right to be a success.
I hope to be able to sing it at the Met one day, which I think would be great. I’ve already been given the chance to sing Cyrano there next May in the original version, which I’m the only person to have sung so far. It’s an exceptionally difficult score, but an opera that I love and a character who always moves me deeply.
Cyrano is a hero in much the same vein…
Cyrano is something else altogether: a character who contains every character from literature. He has something of Don Quixote, D’Artagnan, Romeo. He’s a really rich character, almost Shakespearean but with something of Molière. And more than any other, Cyrano needs his character to be developed during the course of the opera.
Another opera that’s rare because it’s new: your brother’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man [based on a Victor Hugo novel]. Are there any plans to stage it again?
After events in Italy [ed: where Alagna walked off the stage in 2006 after booing by the La Scala loggione], I did not want to go back. Since then, the Italians have tried everything to get me to return, including La Scala who keep asking. At some point, the Puccini Festival asked me if I would like the idea of putting on my brother’s opera. Now that touched a chord, and I have to say I’m interested, so we’re now at the negotiation stage. If I get the chance, I would be thrilled to return to Italy with this work. By the way, we’re going to stage it in Marseille, in September if I remember correctly.
You’ve just signed a new recording contract with Sony…
I think it’s important to change teams from time to time. I did 10 years with EMI Warner and we did some exceptional work, because I had the good fortune to be there at a time when a lot of CDs were being made in the studio, so I was able to do major operas. Afterwards, at Universal, we were still doing operas but I was also given the chance to explore the popular genre, which is very dear to me. I’m very proud of those recordings, on which we worked hard and over which we took a lot of care. The latest, Malèna, was highly successful: it’s one of my loveliest recordings.
Now, with 15 years at Universal behind me, it’s time to change teams once again. Especially since the record market has changed so much. It’s a new world, with streaming and subscriptions… It’s important to have new colleagues at one’s side when entering this new era.
You’ve had a lot of success with the chanson style, but it’s not a style that goes down so well in English-speaking countries…
We mainly worked this repertoire in France and not overseas. But still, if we launched those CDs in countries like England or Germany, I’m sure that they would be very successful. These aren’t just chanson, this is traditional music, and tradition touches all peoples: everyone finds their place. In France, The Sicilian has been incredibly successful. But there aren’t many Sicilians living in France now: it’s French people who have bought this record, because it spoke to everybody.
You’re very unusual in being both Sicilian and French.
Let’s come back to Manrico. When I told you that he doesn’t feel at ease either in his gypsy community or in polished society, that’s something that I’ve experienced personally. When I used to go to Italy, I was told that I was French; when in France, I was told that I was Italian. I’m only too familiar with this kind of identity problem. Today, however, thanks to my profession, my country has grown to being the whole world. I’m spoilt: my wife [Aleksandra Kurzak] is Polish, so that’s another country to add. My daughter was born in Poland, and it’s broadened my horizons. I’m trying to learn the language, customs, habits. Like Manrico, everything that I do is for love!
You and Aleksandra are obviously very happy. But it can’t be easy, with both of you having big international careers.
Of course, it’s difficult, especially when we’re apart. We do everything we can to always be in the same place together. At the moment, we’re being lucky in this, and we have more and more projects together, which is wonderful. These days, I’m not good at separation; I’m terribly unhappy when I’m away from my loved ones. We try to protect our family life by trying to sing together, or at least to be in the same place at the same time.
Your daughter Malèna is three, so she will be at school soon. Surely that’s going to make things more difficult?
Yes, but you know, I’m 53 years old. Maybe at that point, I’ll be singing a lot less and I’ll be with her to do the school run. Perhaps I’ll leave Aleksandra to develop her career: after all, she’s a lot younger than me. We’ll see. Of course it’s difficult, but then I don’t want to make the same mistake of being always far away, and to lose the chance of being available for my daughter. [ed: Alagna’s first daughter Ornelia was born in 1992; her mother died of a brain tumour in 1994].
Today, I want to take full advantage, and I feel I have the chance to do so: I’ve had my career and I can’t ask for more from it. I still love singing, I still love the profession, but I also need some private life, to be with my daughter, my children. I’m even a grandfather now. That’s what’s important.
And you’re learning Polish. How’s that coming along?
I’m learning it in spite of myself, since my daughter spends a lot of time in Poland and speaks Polish. By now, I can understand most of the daily conversations in the family, whereas at the beginning, I couldn’t even make out the boundary between words, I just heard a sort of background noise. But for sure, it’s a difficult language, not being a Latin language like Romanian, which I learned in six months because it wasn’t so far off French or Italian. What’s surprised me is that thanks to Polish, I’m often finding that I understand things in Russian. Yesterday, at Anna Netrebko’s, I was hearing words and managing to pick up some of them, so I’m thrilled!
Does that mean we’re going to hear you singing Szymanowski ?
It does – we have two operas in the works. We’ll see how they go. I’ve already sung a Christmas song in Polish – which I learned on my own, by the way, because I wanted to astonish my wife and my mother-in-law, in which I succeeded! Polish music is very lovely, the operas are magnificent and all that interests me. Besides, the person that I’m playing in one of those operas is a gypsy, there’s a bit of Manrico in him.
You’re doing many projects with Aleksandra…
Indeed. When you called me, I was just working on an opera programme that we’re going to be putting on in Palma de Mallorca. There are going to be some big duets, and I’m trying to do something a bit out of the ordinary, which is interesting and not just a few scenes.
It’s a treat to work with Aleksandra. She’s a person with a real artist’s temperament, which undoubtedly comes from her mother, who is still a great singer today and has had a huge career in Poland. Aleksandra is highly talented. She’s also in instrumentalist – she played the violin for a long time. It’s very pleasant to sing with a person who is so well-rounded, who takes risks, who also likes to discover new works, who studies hard and has a sense of how to sing duets: because often, duets can turn into duels.
I also hope to do some recording with her. It’s also important to me to leave a kind of testament for our daughter, who can be proud of her parents and say one day “Hey, that’s what my parents have done”. Aleksandra doesn’t have any recordings of her mother apart from some Youtube things – there’s nothing properly documented in a studio. I want to be sure that we have that chance.
If you were able to get into a time machine, go back to the 19th century and ask Giuseppe Verdi one question, what would it be?
I would really struggle to ask him anything: I’m too shy and respectful. When I met Pavarotti, I wasn’t able to say a word, so just think! If I could meet Verdi, I would just look at him from a distance, I’d view him like some kind of living god.
Perhaps I would have asked about suffering, of how he was able to keep going after the deaths of his children and his wife. I haven’t lost any children, thank heavens, but I have been widowed very young, and then having to leave my child and my parents was a horrific parting. Without that suffering, I don’t think Verdi would have been the composer that we know today. I would have asked “How were you able to overcome that pain and suffering”? But I’m sure he would have answered “By means of what you hear”: I think his music and compositions saved him and allowed him to overcome everything.
Finally, if you woke up tomorrow morning and found that you were a baritone instead of a tenor, what would you choose for your first role?
Oh my goodness. That’s not a straightforward question! I’ve always wanted to be a tenor, even if I adore the baritone voice and listen to it a lot. In French operas like Thaïs or Herodias [both by Massenet], there are roles where the baritone has fantastic arias, a superb character and a very surprising type of voice. But still, if I were a French baritone, I might not be able to sing Verdi baritone roles… All things considered, perhaps I would prefer to be a Verdi baritone.
In any case, if I were a baritone, I would want the voice of Manuguerra or Zancanaro. There you go.
English translation by David Karlin