While the bel canto repertoire is among the most popular in the operatic canon, most people are quick to dismiss the genre’s overall quality, noting that the works themselves are simply a vehicle to show off a singer’s virtuosity.
But Irina Lungu could not disagree more. The Russian soprano, who has dedicated the first five months of 2017 to immersing herself in the repertoire with role debuts in “I Puritani,” “I Capuletti e Montecchi,” and the title role of “Anna Bolena,” absolutely adores this repertoire.
“What I particularly love about Bel Canto, besides of the glorious music, is the strong personalities of the Bel Canto heroines. Singing Bel Canto roles is a wonderful opportunity to really show what you are able to do as an interpreter, and to show everyone your vocal possibilities. There are many possibilities to find very personal accents and colors, according to how one drafts the different characters of the roles,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview.
The start of 2017 was a major challenge for Lungu as she dove deep into the pool of Bellini roles, starting with Giulietta and following it up with Elvira. Both roles come from different moments in the composer’s young life but are iconic for the lush melodies that the composer offers the soprano.
And Lungu found that to be very true as she noted that “both roles require a singer who is able to shape and sustain all these beautiful long Bellini lines.”
However, the composer’s development was obvious to Lungu who found Elvira more of a challenge and more interesting as a character.
“Elvira requires more virtuoso coloratura singing than Giulietta. Also, Elvira is more diverse as a character, the role encompasses a wider range and more extreme of emotions than Giulietta,” she noted. “At the beginning, she is exuberantly happy about her upcoming wedding, then the rug is being pulled out from under her when Arturo leaves her, with her descent into madness and the mad scene and her regaining mental sanity after Arturo’s return. There are so many emotions she is going through throughout the opera!”
And while most people would point to the extended mad scene as the centerpiece of the role, Lungu noted that the greatest challenge for her comes right from Elvira’s first entrance.
“I need to process the tension and make sure the voice runs throughout the hall,” she revealed. “In the specific case of ‘I Puritani,’ Elvira’s duet with the bass that introduces her to the audience is not vocally very comfortable.”
Lungu’s third role debut came in the form of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” just a few weeks ago. By taking on the role Lungu has now sung two of the Tudor queens, having previously interpreted “Maria Stuarda.”
However, “Anna Bolena,” the first opera written in this trilogy of works, is more complex and challenging than “Stuarda” mainly due to its length. The soprano is forced to employ the extremes of her voice, singing in virtually every scene of the opera. And after hours of vocalization, she has to take on the final mad scene, which clocks in around twenty minutes of nonstop singing.
“This is one of the longest and demanding operas, lasting well over three hours like ‘I Puritani.’ Anna Bolena is a path not only of studies but a vocal path as well during the performance because one needs to have the mental skills to be able to assess one’s strengths.”
At the climax of the mad scene, with the soprano likely drained from all the singing and the tragedy she has to personify, Donizetti ups the ante even more. This time he calls for her to take on the opera’s most famous solo passage, the extremely heavy cabaletta “Coppia Iniquia.”
“‘Coppia Iniquia’ is where the fullest vocal, scenic and artistic concentration is needed,” Lungu added. “It is a moment where many paths meet. In rehearsals is where I begin my personal preparation and I must join forces and work together with the singers and conductor to understand how I get to this moment.”
But despite these mammoth-sized challenges, Lungu loves diving into the psyche of this historic figure.
“In these operas, I am fascinated by the characters themselves, women that are both regal and frail at the same time,” she noted. “I find they are congenial to my vocality and stage temperament. Musically speaking I think there is a wide color palette, there are endless possibilities for one’s vocality, timbre, instrument, and technique. They require the interpreter to express so many things in a very wide and varied language. Something that I find very stimulating is to play with your voice. It’s a game, albeit a very challenging one.”
After the difficult task of “Anna Bolena,” Lungu will move on to another Donizetti role, “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which she considers one of her favorites. It’s a role she last performed in 2014 and will return to in Bologna next month and will take on again in Oslo in 2018.
“Lucia’s writing is not at all suited to a light soprano, to an evanescent voice,” she explained. “The soprano must be able to modulate her voice throughout a wide range and even coloratura always has a deeply expressive meaning, so as to convey her moods and feelings such as rage, fright, dismay, bewilderment, all the way to her descent into insanity.”
Finding the colors to express these emotions provide an ever-fascinating musical dramatic journey for the soprano, who remarked that the cadenza at the end of the mad scene requires endless discovery.
“The famous cadenza does call to mind a light and celestial voice, a truly magic moment,” she stated. “For my next ‘Lucia’ in Bologna I would like to perform a slightly different cadenza from my latest version. It’s like a game, a continuous challenge.”
But her sense of adventure with the role goes even further.
“I’d love to sing it with the glass harmonica! I haven’t heard it often but it’s very thrilling.”
Part of singing Bel Canto means going mad. Most operas of this period have some type of mad scene, whether for a brief aria or a whole 20-minute scene. As noted, “Anna Bolena” is one of the lengthiest and most difficult in the repertoire, but it’s Elvira and Lucia’s that are most famous. Performing both roles in one season has given Lungu an ability to compare both mad scenes and really understand the difference between madness and depression.
“Elvira’s madness, in my opinion, is depression, a deep sadness after she has been left by Arturo. Lucia is unhinged from the very beginning of the story, when she talks about the ghost in the fountain, and her madness has no point of return. Even if she didn’t die, she would live the rest of her days insane,” Lungu assessed.
Another difference that Lungu sees is that Bellini’s music is written more as an aria while Lucia’s is more of a scene.
“I believe Elvira’s madness to be musically perfect, while Lucia’s scene is perfect from a musical as well as dramatic point of view.”
And this distinction informs the way she approaches her acting.
“I would say that it is fundamental to act a madness happening on stage rather than enact a crazy woman, because each phrase must be delivered and sung with great conviction in the most authentic manner. Thus, such phrases in such a context are truly spine-chilling and give the impression of true madness.”
An American Return
As she conquers the European scene with these Bel Canto heroines and continues to grow in status, it comes as somewhat of a shock that Lungu has not been more of a mainstay in the United States. But that will change next season when she returns for her Los Angeles Opera debut in the role of Gilda from Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” the part with which she triumphed at her Metropolitan Opera debut.
The role is iconic for every light lyric soprano and one that most relish for its beauty. However, it can be a hard character to get into and for an actress like Lungu, this was the biggest challenge when she first sang it.
“I must say that it took me a while to be able to like this character. I just didn’t really understand her and found her stupid, and just didn’t get why she sacrifices herself for someone who is taking up with another woman,” she admitted. “For some years I sang the role because it fits well to my voice, and because I loved the music, without fully understanding her.”
But all it took was going back to the source to find the insight she so desperately craved.
“It was just after re-reading ‘Le Roi s’amuse’ by Victor Hugo, [the original source material for the Verdi opera], that I understood that she is sacrificing herself out of fanaticism. It is easier for her to sacrifice herself than to admit the mistake she made with falling in love with the Duca.”
Lungu has since dug deeper into Gilda and Rigoletto’s relationship because for her it is the basis of the entire role and the core to understanding why she is the way she is.
“One has to understand her relationship with her father, who loves her but doesn’t give her any space to develop,” she analyzed. “For him she is the eternal little daughter. It is only through love that she discovers her femininity. And when she finds out her lover is betraying her, there is nothing else for her to do. She can’t go back to her life as it was before she got to know him. She can’t be the idealized child anymore. That is why death is the only solution for her.”
As Lungu’s status has grown internationally, so has her schedule, forcing her to take on yet another major challenge – the eternal struggle to balance the personal and professional.
“It is almost impossible to find that balance! Or better, it is extremely difficult. It’s an incessant attempt at trying to make everything fit in your schedule. I have a seven-year-old son, Andrea, who fortunately has a good disposition and has always adapted to the traveling, sudden changes and every type of situation. I can say Andrea helps me and doesn’t hinder me in this endeavor.”
Knowing that her son is comfortable with her lifestyle has allowed her the freedom to consider how she wants to grow further in her career.
“I’d love to sing Amina in ‘La Sonnambula’ and hope there will be a possibility to sing this role very soon. And apart from other Bel Canto roles that I haven’t performed yet, there are several works of the French repertoire I’d love to finally sing, especially ‘Manon’ which is planned for Bilbao, and the heroines of ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann.'”