This article was a joint collaboration between David & Francisco Salazar.
“I like playing the villain.”
That quote, as generic as it is, has been uttered in some variation by numerous actors throughout history. There is an excitement that comes with being the bad guy or girl. Of committing acts onscreen or onstage that you could never imagine doing out in the real world. It is an opportunity to experiment being someone diametrically opposed to yourself, even explore a different facet or your own being.
But there is something else that makes being evil fascinating – that there is no such thing as pure evil.
“The people that are truly diabolic are not pure evil. There are reasons why they behave this way and that is always exciting to explore,” Bass Andrea Mastroni recently told OperaWire.
Being a Cool, Chique Villain
The Italian basso is making his debut at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday, Jan. 20 in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” as Sparafucile, one of the most vile character in all of opera. The hired gun is paid by Rigoletto to murder the vile Duke, but Sparafucile ultimately winds up killing the innocent Gilda to please his sister Maddalena.
For Mastroni, this is the role he most relishes singing at the moment, citing a beautiful mix between vocal comfort and dramatic complexity.
“The role is perfectly written for my basso profundo,” he explained. “Every note fits like a glove because Verdi wrote this part with such an understanding of how the voice works.”
Taking on the role requires a bit more exploration, though he notes that he already has an advantage on transforming into a villain.
“Being evil is easy for a bass,” he proclaimed. “The deep voice requires you to find the voice of the murderer. You have to find the darkness in the sound. You have to control your emotions and instincts. The more refined you are, the more dangerous you seem. It’s like a horror film. The tension builds from the absence of seeing the danger. That’s how I approach this role.”
That push-pull between refinement and violence is something that he particularly likes about the interpretation of Sparafucile in the Met’s Production by Michael Mayer. Set in mid 20th century Las Vegas, Sparafucile’s big duet with Rigoletto takes place at a bar and the climactic one at his tavern where his sister Maddalena is a stripper.
“This Sparafucile is a Mafioso. He is aggressive and yet very gentlemanly. He has style,” Mastroni enthused. “When a character is diabolical and pure evil, it is so easy to design him as brutal with the sharp teeth and the cackle. It is more interesting to sing this with elegance. It is more snakelike, just like what Verdi wrote in the duet with Rigoletto. You have sing softly at mezza voce. It’s like a dance between the two men. I think the Met’s production captures that feeling.”
Committing Murder with Familiar Faces
Mastroni took on the role for the first time in 2002 when the 38-year-old claims he was “simply a child.” Since then he has taken on the role over 220 times in his career, more than any other work in his career. As he puts it, “it been on one of the roles that has given me my career.” Taking on a role so many times all over the world undeniably leads to numerous valuable experiences, with a performance alongside Leo Nucci as the title character at the Arena di Verona the most memorable of the bunch.
“It was magical. The whole place was sold out and the environment was electric. That duet with Nucci had so many colors,” he reminisced.
That performance also featured Olga Peretyatko as Gilda, the soprano that he will get to murder in the third act of the Met’s new production. The remaining cast members, Željko Lučić as Rigoletto, Stephen Costello as the Duke of Mantua and Oksana Volkova as Maddalena, are also familiar to Mastroni as he has worked with them in other productions.
All of those singers are veterans of the Met, something that comforts Mastroni greatly on his debut. “It’s like being with my family,” he related. “When you know your castmates, there is always a stronger connection and that will help me get into the moment when I finally step on that historic stage.”
He will also be seeing a friendly face in the pit. Mastroni worked with Pier Giorgio Morandi on this very opera a year ago in Paris. The experience was unforgettable for him, the learning more so.
“He taught me how to to breathe deeply and calmly,” the Italian bass revealed. “It is so crucial because when you sing Verdi recitatives or ensembles you need energy and strength. There is a lot of tension and intensity in his music. As a singer you need to pace yourself because otherwise you will find yourself constantly falling behind without any rhythm, voice or even drama when things get truly intense.
“Morandi is wonderful at understanding the pace of singers, the ‘temperature’ of the drama,” he added. “He knows how to accommodate the dramatic temperature with such ease to make the singers comfortable.”
Taking an Unusual Path
Being an Italian usually leads outsiders to perceive a long career in the great Italian operas. But this could not be further from the truth when it comes to Mastroni. While he is scheduled to take on “Simon Boccanegra” and “Don Carlo” in coming months, the bass revealed that he doesn’t always feel particularly comfortable singing in his native language because they don’t quite fit his voice.
“Italian, with its more open vowels, is actually less comfortable for a darker voice. It works really well with brighter timbres,” he explained before noting that his preferred language is actually German. “German’s darker tones and the phonetics of the language are actually more accommodating to my deeper voice. Russian also works that way”
Mastroni noted that German music was his first true loving, explaining a particularly affinity for Schubert’s work. He recently released a music video of the composer’s “Erlkönig” and emphasized that one of the proudest moments in his career came in the German repertoire.
He was singing his second-ever run of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote in the role of Sarastro. The venue was Hamburg. The challenge? Being an Italian singing an iconic German role in a German theater.
“It’s not common to see an Italian singing a new production of a German opera in a German theater. There are a lot of prejudices over Latin singers. People don’t think we should be singing German roles for example,” Mastroni explained. He garnered a strong response from the audience.“Some people actually thought I was German. It was a true honor.”
His hope is to explore more of the German repertoire moving forward noting that Fasolt in Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” was in his future.
“I really want to do Hagen [in ‘Götterdämmerung’] but my big dream is King Marke [in ‘Tristan und Isolde’]. That might be the greatest basso role in the repertoire and would be a dream,” he exclaimed.
Mastroni’s unique perspective derives an unorthodox background. His musical education started on the clarinet and his collegiate studies were in aesthetic philosophy, neither usually associated with opera singers. But he credits the decision with helping shape him into the artist he is today.
“The clarinet allowed me to really understand how to phrase from a different perspective. We think that instrumentalists must imitate singers, but it is the singer that must look to emulate the musical sense of the instrumentalist.”
“Learning philosophy makes you think constantly about everything you do and why you do it. You discover things from a different perspective. For example, I am not a lyrical singer that also acts. I am an actor that sings, which is something very different. I am constantly looking at the music and considering the intention, its marriage to the text and every perspective on how to bring the art to life. This kind of thinking is so essential to evolving myself as an artist.”
But the philosophical discourse allows him to play a different role in the artistic role – the hero.
“Art is dead when you aren’t constantly looking at it from a new perspective and dialoguing with it to find new reasons to keep on doing it. This is how we transform melodrama and opera. This is how you save it.”