When is it the right time?
That is the question most singers ask when choosing to explore new repertoire. There is always a risk in singing heavier works at a young age because it can damage the voice. And then there is a risk of being pigeonholed into singing one role.
Ever since her breakout in 2009, Anita Rachvelshvili has been the go-to Carmen and has slowly explored the works of Verdi, Saint-Saens, Massenet, and Cilea.
Now at the age of 33, the Georgian singer has found the right time to take on Azucena, a role that she had been looking at ever since she started singing Amneris in “Aida.” “After I did Amneris for the first time and I started to do Verdi repertoire I knew Azucena was something I wanted to do because it’s an interesting role and it’s good for my voice. I think Azucena was the next step after Amneris,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview.
Upon making the decision to interpret this iconic figure of Italian opera, Rachvelishvili knew that there would be a ton of work to do to make her interpretation unique and compelling.
“I think the biggest challenge is to try and make her sound crazy. It is very difficult to be a crazy person and to control yourself on stage and to have control of your movement, the voice, the technique, the words, the phrases. I think the biggest challenge is to find the right way to control her and at the same time seem crazy.”
But the challenges don’t just end on the technical side of things. It goes far deeper than that.
“I think its very difficult to make her sympathetic because she is crazy and she killed a baby and she did some terrible things. But she has a little excuse,” the mezzo noted. “She watched her mom die as she burned violently. She suffered because it was not fair to do that to her mother and all her craziness happens as a result of this.
“That is a big excuse and I think it helps you feel sorry for her. Of course, I won’t say she’s right because being crazy is not an excuse. I feel sorry for her because she had terrible experiences and she burned her own baby by mistake. And I think if you manage to bring the story in the right way, I think the audience will feel very sorry for her.”
The Right Production
One of the big challenges today as an artist is finding a production that suits your interpretation of a character, especially when you are performing the role for the very first time. With directors dominating the opera world, especially in Europe, many artists find themselves creating a character for the first time in an interpretation that is at odds with the score and libretto. That is why Rachvelishvili was so adamant about waiting for the right offer to come along. She finally accomplished that feat last season at the Royal Opera House in David Bosch’s production. While Rachvelishvili admits she is not always the biggest fan of some modern productions, she found Bosch’s direction of Azucena to be revealing.
“I think he found a right way of putting her craziness on stage. That crazy stuff with dolls and her way of being with the dolls, they are her children,” Rachvelishvili revealed. “I think he did great work and he made my Azucena very easy. With her obsession and her movement, it was understandable and it helped me. I was very lucky to do my debut in that production.”
Working on the production also revealed numerous moments Rachvelshvili cherishes in the work.
“The last act duet with Manrico is the most beautiful moment in the opera and that is the only moment when she is sober,” she added. “She knows she’s going to die and she spends her last seconds telling him how much she loves him and how difficult her life was and how many mistakes she made in her life. That music is absolutely beautiful and its one of the best moments in Verdi operas.”
Now she returns for her second production in David McVicar’s Spanish Civil War interpretation, which is beloved by audiences and critics alike. While Rachvelishvili has never worked with McVicar in New York, she is very familiar with this direction of the story.
“I saw it when I was in New York and I think it’s very beautiful and very interesting and there are some interesting things that are added to Azucena. It’s going to be very interesting to make that kind of Azucena as well.”
Verdi & Another Gypsy
Now that she has accomplished one of her most challenging feats Rachvelshvili notes returning to Amneris will be a much simpler task.
“It’s the same composer but the music is completely different. Azucena is more detailed work and there are more colors and more possibilities of fraseggio and more possibilities of creating moods. It’s probably because she is a little bit crazy so every time she sings something it is is always in a different mood and always in a different meaning for her. Every time I do Azucena I have to feel that way too.
“Amneris is more one type of singing. Of course, there are colors and the text is very important but Amneris is a princess from the beginning to the end and she is always very powerful and she is always very much the same mood. Even when she is angry she tries to be very calm and Azucena changes every second.”
She also notes that after singing Azucena her technique will have improved because it is a role that requires her to use all her resources and it will undoubtedly help her for upcoming roles.
“Azucena has everything. All the difficulties and if you manage to do all the things the way they are supposed to be then all the rest of the repertoire sounds easier. But there is one thing she does to you. You start to realize there are so much more possibilities in the voice that you never realized.”
She also believes that returning to Carmen will also allow more musical possibilities. While Rachvelshvili will not compare the two gypsies, the mezzo believes Azucena has opened up more possibilities for her signature role.
“Now I see Carmen from a different point of view musically speaking,” Rachvelishvili explained. “Now I look for more colors and dynamics. I think the research never stops and even if I have done more than 200 performances of ‘Carmen,’ I think there is a lot of stuff I can find. Bizet also gives you a lot of possibilities and I am still looking for more.”
A New Journey
As she continues to explore new repertoire, Rachvelishvili is gearing up to release her first solo album for Sony in March. It is a CD that the Georgian mezzo feels will show the different colors of her voice and will also bring music from her home country to the fore.
“It has Georgian repertoire that’s never been recorded before so that makes me very happy because it’s very important to make Georgian music recognizable and have people listen to it. We also have some classics like Carmen, Dalila but also some new stuff like Eboli and Santuzza, which I have never done.
“The recording process is very difficult and it’s 100 times more difficult than a stage opera or a concert. It was very difficult because we wanted to record in one take so that is what we tried to do,” she added regarding the recording process. “We had to sing and play arias from the beginning to the end a couple of times and sometimes it was three or four times. And of course, you start recording right away without rehearsing so you start to learn the orchestra sound at the same time as you are recording. So you have to sing three-four times before it comes to the form and shape that you want it to be. I had to sing Azucena four to five times and the same with Dalila, Eboli, and Santuzza. I felt pretty tired by the end and the last day I was very tired.”
And Rachvelshvili also learned a new way of working the microphone. Having sung crossover and jazz, the Georgian artist realized that the microphone was a different animal in the studio.
“It’s very weird. I have some experience with the mic because I also do jazz and crossover but this is completely different,” she stated. “You are in the middle of the orchestra and you feel this powerful sound and the microphone is a thing in front of you and you never know how it’s going to take your voice. The impressive thing was to hear my voice recorded for the first time. Of course, my voice has been recorded but not with these really great microphones and with these engineers. It was very impressive and something I would really like to do again.”
Now that the album is finished and Sony has released the cover to the album, the mezzo took two very special things away from the process. The first one is hearing her voice in a different light.
“I think I can tell the difference. You have more experience and you have something that you didn’t have before and maybe you do things more carefully after you record. Now you hear every single sound and probably you’re more cautious about every mistake you make.”
The second thing she learned was all about teamwork.
“We had a beautiful team with Maestro [Giuseppe] Sagripanti and Sony engineers were great. And the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai was unbelievable and they sound amazing. And I am very lucky to have this recording process with them. I am very happy and I think it’s going to be a very interesting CD and I hope people will like it.”