Massimo Cavalletti is one of the most accomplished baritones of his generation, singing in every major opera house in the world including the Teatro alla Scala, Salzburg Festival, Bayerische Staatsoper, and Opéra de Paris, among others. For years, he has performed many of the great lyric baritone roles to strong success and has recently begun to add heavier roles to his repertoire, including Renato in “Un Ballo in Maschera.”
Next season he will take on his first Germont in “La Traviata” at the Palm Beach Opera, as well as his first Conte di Luna in “Il Trovatore” at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.
As he prepares to reprise the role of Enrico at the Metropolitan Opera in Mary Zimmerman’s production, Cavalletti spoke to OperaWire about his interpretation of the character, his excitement of returning to the Met, his upcoming role debuts in two Verdi roles.
OperaWire: So let’s kick things off talking about your return to the Met. How does it feel?
Massimo Cavalletti: I am certainly very happy to return to the Met, as this opera house has very particular taste. It’s always been a dream for me to be able to sing here, and I can say I fulfilled it quite early in my career, in 2010 first with Schaunard in “La Bohème” and subsequently several more times again with the same opera but as Marcello. Twice in 2014 with my wonderful experience of my first HD cinema broadcast and later in 2016; with “Carmen” in 2014 and with the new production of “Manon Lescaut” early in 2016, also broadcast in HD all over the world.
The Met must be considered one of the most important [opera companies] in the world, arguably the only one together with the Teatro alla Scala that can still be considered as a reference point for how opera should be performed and preserved; therefore singing here at the Met requires huge professionalism and attention to every detail.
OW: Let’s talk about Enrico. He is an antagonist but at the same time, he is trying to save his family from ruin. How do you view his character and how do you sympathize with him? Do you sympathize with his circumstance and at any time do you agree with his actions toward his sister?
MC: Enrico Ashton is a character originated from the libretto adaptation of the great Salvatore Cammarano, undoubtedly the best librettist of his time and I’d say the whole Romantic era; however it wasn’t easy to adapt Walter Scott’s historical novel and he was forced to summarize three characters in Enrico: Lucia’s brother as well as her mother and father. So Enrico in Donizetti’s opera becomes both strong and weak at the same time, an ambiguous and insecure character who allows himself to be manipulated by the cunning Normanno, who insinuates doubts and wrath in Enrico’s hearth speaking about Lucia’s and Edgardo’s love. He is a man who witnesses the loss of glory of his family due to Scottish and English royal dynastic events, and so his only hope is to give his sister Lucia in marriage to Arturo Bucklaw, who can bring Enrico back to power and glory through his own family, which has remained faithful to Queen Mary.
I always see Enrico as someone who during the course of the opera keeps losing authority and strength, until his sister’s mad scene when he finally understands how much he has wronged her and remains mortified. The tragic love between these two young people is certainly one of the most powerful moments of the early Romantic 19th-century Italian opera.
OW: The core of his relationship with Lucia is seen in their grand duet. How do you view that musical passage?
MC: I particularly love the wonderful duet between Enrico and Lucia, written with an almost Shakespearean force, with its game of will powers and the beautiful phrasing. At first Lucia seems to yield to Enrico’s demands, and then in the second part (the cabaletta “Se tradirmi tu potrai”) Enrico exploits his sister’s psychological weakness to terrorize her and prepare her state of mind for her subsequent meeting with Raimondo, who uses God’s word to finally submit her.
OW: Lucia goes mad in the opera and in a way so does Edgardo as he kills himself at the end. Do you think Enrico goes mad at any point in this work?
MC: Enrico is already mad at the beginning of the opera. One should remember that in this tragedy madness is what saves the characters: when they abandon their bigot view of life they find peace and their real nature. At the beginning of the opera, Enrico is confused and defeated due to the political events endangering his standing and his wealth, and neither his defeating the Ravenswood was very helpful because of the political situation. His madness originates in his hatred towards Edgardo and his family. During the course of the opera, while Edgardo moves towards explosion, Enrico shows an increasingly implosive behavior and Lucia finds herself in the middle of those two very strong personalities, serving somewhat like a dividing line between these two rivals. It’s a tug-of-war leading everybody to their demise: a defeat for Enrico, madness and death for Lucia and death by suicide for Edgardo. Enrico, during the mad scene and in the following recitative, which is almost always cut, says “mea culpa,” realizing that he has been wrong all along and that he should have behaved differently.
OW: This production by Mary Zimmermann is now a classic at the Met. What elements are you looking forward to working with?
MC: I am lucky because I have already performed this staging at La Scala in 2014; it’s a La Scala / Met co-production and it will remain in the La Scala repertoire for the next several years. It’s a mise-en-scène with very Romantic and classic shades recalling the places where Walter Scott set “The Bride of Lammermoor;” the sets – especially the outdoor ones – are grandiose and evocative, nocturnal and appropriately dark, but also lavish like in the beautiful wedding scene with the photographer taking a picture of the family that originates the great sextet. This production requires modern acting which however harks back at 19th-century theater with an appropriate use of the stage diagonals – that are perfect for operatic singing – and of the triangulation, which are ideal to highlight the difference in power among the characters.
OW: What are Enrico’s vocal challenges? What are your favorite vocal moments in the work?
MC: Enrico has been handed down to us by many interpretations, particularly those of many baritones who can be called “Verdian” in the modern usage of this word. But we can’t forget the historical moment when Donizetti composed this opera, that is in 1835 in Naples, with the Romantic period in full bloom. Just a few years later Giuseppe Verdi composed his first opera “Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio,” at La Scala, and it’s safe to assume that at that time baritones singing Enrico did not know what a “Verdi” singer was going to be.
However, in 2018 we can certainly try to give this character a more reasoned reading, perhaps by emphasizing his personality with a more marked pronunciation without however losing the beauty of the singing line and legato typical of Donizetti’s time.
Its tessitura is very awkward: it’s not a high baritone tessitura but neither is it for a bass. It’s all centered around the passaggio, which at the time wasn’t as high as it is today, and undoubtedly it was more comfortable. The traditional interpolated high notes, including those at the end of a set piece, made Enrico more similar to Count Luna in “Il Trovatore,” and in general to baritones parts of the second part of the 19th century. I have also sung Severo in “Poliuto,” a character who is in love with the leading lady and therefore more positive and lyrical than Enrico, one which Donizetti enriches with extraordinary singing lines and puntaturas, and that happens because these two characters are so different from each other. In my opinion, Enrico expresses his rage and insecurity through his central and shifty tessitura.
OW: As you move into heavier repertoire what are you doing differently technique-wise? What are you doing to maintain your voice and how do you pace yourself?
MC: I am moving towards a different repertoire, it’s true, but I don’t want to abandon the one I’ve been doing all these years. I want to take this step very gradually, keeping the roles that have been giving – and still give me – so many satisfactions. The voice must never be forced: even the most dramatic repertoire must be sung “sul fiato,” supported by the diaphragm and never with excessive pushing. One needs to sing with a more stressed accent and more attention to the text, which becomes increasingly important as the repertoire gets more dramatic. I acknowledge that by playing with colors and chiaroscuros as well as with supported pianos one can achieve excellent results in a repertoire like Verdi, with its much more defined baritone tessitura which fits my voice much better compared to other repertoire that sits on the low and central register too long, only to add interpolated high notes that perhaps had its performing reasons at the time, but today they are too stereotyped and feel the pressure of the “tradition.”
I keep singing with my own voice, without trying to darken or to change my vocal production, giving more importance to the text, and every indication written in the score.
OW: How do you cope with the pressure of so many new debuts?
MC: Pressure in this extraordinary profession is at the basis itself of our singing: without pressure, one wouldn’t have the right stimulus and the right intensity while performing. But I also try to remember that I love this profession and that I love being able to express myself through my voice. For instance, I was very nervous during the rehearsals of “Barbiere” last month for my Paris debut, but this tension morphed into the energy I experienced during the performances.
Today the pressure is particularly intense, because the expectations of the critics and audiences are very high, perhaps because they are used to hearing commercial CDs and DVDs where there are hardly any mistakes, and on the contrary live performances are something completely different, depending on so many factors.
OW: What excites you about adding Luna and Germont to your repertoire next season?
MC: They are among the most beautiful Verdi roles, belonging to the so-called “popular trilogy.” Luna undoubtedly fits me not least because of his age, while Germont is a role that in my opinion should be sung – regardless of age (I’ll be 40) – when the voice is in its full expressivity, and then it will grow until it reaches complete artistic maturity.
Germont is truly a two-faced character: his bigoted personality and initial coldness, due more to the demands of society than a true love for his son and daughter, are shattered when he gets to know Violetta’s true feelings, and he forgives her and accepts her love for Alfredo when it’s already too late. He is a Verdi father but not yet one of the “absolute” fathers as Boccanegra would soon be. I think that in the popular trilogy these “normal” people, who are not the kings and queens of the great repertoire, are moved by both low and high impulses which capture them and make them face the impossibility to go against their fate.
Even Luna’s great love for Leonora makes him hate Manrico to such a degree that he fails to recognize him as his own brother, though Verdi gives both of them several chances to recognize themselves. This happens when Leonora mistakes him for his brother, or when the two siblings – in the Act two finale – sing one phrase in the same tessitura, which for me means that they are two brothers with the same voice. “If you live and want to live flee from her and from me.” “But a God confounds the wicked! And the God succored me!”
These three characters, as well as Azucena, are moved by impulses which will lead all of them to their tragic destiny, including the Count himself who admits in the recitative right before his Act IV duet with Leonora “Perhaps I’m abusing the power that the Prince freely gave me! That’s what you drive me to, o my fatal woman!” This shows that the Count is, after all, a vassal of the king, just as Leonora is the Queen’s lady-in-waiting: they are two ordinary people and it’s precisely in this normality that Verdi finds the strength to elevate them to the highest ranks and gives them immortality.