For Luca Salsi, there is no composer better than Verdi. No one.
Salsi, the Italian baritone, who is slated to sing the role of Amonasro at the Salzburg Festival starting in early August, has repeatedly professed that no composer in the history of Italian opera was able to fuse music and text with the same level of conviction and depth.
And while he supports his opinions quite prominently, Salsi admitted in an interview with OperaWire that his love for the Maestro of Busetto was greatly influenced from his youth.
“I was born in Parma. The city where he was born,” Salsi said. “Since a child, the people would sing Verdi arias. People would talk about Verdi all the time. There is a street named after him. Cultural centers named after him. Even the theater. Everything was about Verdi. So in that respect, it is normal that one would grow up thinking that he was the best.
Salsi’s early love for Verdi pushed him onto the path of becoming an opera singer. And fortunately for him, he was one of the rare breed of singers that can truly profess himself to be a true Verdi baritone. To this day, he has already sung 17 baritone roles including “Macbeth,” “Rigoletto,” and “Nabucco,” among many others.
Verdi Vs. Everyone Else
So what exactly makes Verdi such a master for Salsi?
Salsi has sung a wide range of Italian repertoire including the great bel canto operas and even some verismo. He recently came off a run of “Andrea Chénier” in Munich. And while he loves these different works, they all lack when put up against Verdi.
When looking backwards toward the bel canto composers, particularly Donizetti, Salsi noted that the style is very similar.
“I sing Verdi like I sing Donizetti,” he noted. “They have similar vocal lines and require different colors and similar phrasing.
“But the only major difference for me is that Verdi has more blood and passion. The words are more important because the libretti in Verdi are more complex. Aside from talking about love and death, Bellini and Donizetti’s libretti don’t really have much more to say. Verdi’s text digs deeper into the characters. The music is more descriptive.”
He has a similar feeling with regards to many of the Verismo composers, including Giordano, the composer of “Andrea Chénier.”
“Verdi is actually harder than Giordano or other Verismo operas. First off, the libretti in Verismo are not as interesting as those in Verdi. The text in Verdi is more important. In verismo the sound is more important.”
He noted that with larger orchestras, developing an opulent sound that could ride over the large ensemble becomes a priority when taking on the works of late 1800s Italian opera.
“Singing Puccini requires technique and a big voice, but I think it requires more sonority and weight. But with Verdi, you need to be attuned to more than just your vocal technique and sound. It always has to be noble, elegant and full of phrasing. But the sound has to ring in a special way so that you don’t lose the elegance and text.”
He went on to note that after singing “Chénier,” he had to jump into the role of “Rigoletto,” a challenge that he found exhausting.
“I struggled with it because finding the small sound in the high range was hard. I sang with full voice in ‘Chénier’ all the time. There are colors in those operas, but it’s different from Verdi.”
True Verdian Style
One of the roles that Salsi feels embodies the greatness of Verdi’s art is the one he is about to perform in just a week – Amonasro. The Ethiopian King doesn’t sing all that much in the epic opera of “Aida,” but when he does appear, his presence is potent and captivating. As Salsi notes, most baritones approach this character from his warrior side, singing it with a full-bodied tone that dominates the proceedings.
But the Italian baritone is having none of it.
“He’s often sung like a warrior, throwing his voice around,” Salsi noted. “But in reality he is a king. So as with all Verdi roles, the writing is noble. And so Amonasro requires nobility.”
He added that Verdi actually wrote in quite a lot of softer dynamics for the role, which would come as a massive surprise for those accustomed to most traditional approaches to the role.
“This character has a ton of pianni in the score. That’s what Verdi wanted,” he said. “Tradition asks you to sing strong always, but that’s not what it is in the score. Same for ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Nabucco.’ All those traditions need to stop. It’s time to revolutionize how we sing Verdi and sing what the author asked for. That is how it should be today.”
The Verdi Maestro
One of the mentors that has influenced this line of thinking for Salsi is none other than Maestro Riccardo Muti, one of the greatest interpreters of the composer’s art in all of history. This would be the eighth production for Salsi under the Italian conductor’s baton.
Muti, of course, is renowned for sticking to the score and eschewing any traditions that are not contained within it. Under his watch, he has used the second version of “Otello’s” third act concertato and has also disposed of interpolated high notes, such as the high C at the end of “Di Quella Pira” in “Il Trovatore.”
According to Salsi, Muti cares about Verdi’s intentions and because of this, he provides some of the greatest insights one could possibly imagine.
“He is a true maestro with a capital M. He knows so much about Verdi’s music and he explains it in a way no one else can. You can construct the character with everything that Verdi tried to do with music. More than just the notes,” he noted.
Salsi went on to explain that while he was working on a passage from “I Due Foscari” with Muti, he came across the first recitative for the Doge in the opera. “Dove de’Dieci non penetra l’occhio,” reads the Italian.
“Verdi wrote a long note on ‘penetra (penetrate),’ and Maestro asked me if I knew why it was a long note. He went on to explain that with that word you need to show that the Doge is afraid of the advice of the council. This note needs strength and a diminuendo and a wider vibrato to help the listener feel these things. That’s what it’s like to work with him.”
The baritone will also be taking the stage alongside superstar Anna Netrebko in her first attempt at the title role. The two worked together in “Le Nozze di Figaro” in Washington in 2001 and will join forces yet again in “Andrea Chénier” in Milan later this season.
“She’s a great woman. She’s a diva on stage but in real life she is relaxed and very nice,” he noted before expressing his excitement at singing the famed Act 3 duet with her. “I love that section. It is one of the most beautiful phrases in all of Verdi, perhaps in all of his operas. It puts together everything great about Verdi – the phrasing, the musical line, the characterization. It’s all there. And to sing it with a great artist like [Netrebko] will make it really special.”
Upcoming Verdi+ Projects
After “Aida,” Salsi’s schedule will have a dose of Puccini as he makes his role debut as the villainous Scarpia alongside his life partner Virginia Tola.
“I love the role and I am happy to be able to debut it in Rome, where I have sung many times with [Tola],” he noted. “I have joked with her that she will have her chance to kill me right then and there if she really wants to.”
From there, he takes on “Chénier” before heading to the Metropolitan Opera for three different works, two of which are from his beloved Verdi.
The first of these is “Il Trovatore,” which he will perform under Music Director Emeritus James Levine and the latter will be in “Luisa Miller,” where he will get a chance to engage in a few performances, a prospect that excites him greatly.
“I love that role. The musical writing is very similar to Rigoletto because it is high for the voice,” he noted. “And to go from Muti to Levine is quite an honor.”
He expressed a further passion for portraying Verdi fathers, acknowledging that the composer had a rich relationship with them in part because of his own tragic fatherhood.
“I love all Verdi fathers because they are always so deep. You can find greater depth and color in the character. And they always have these long legato phrases. Miller’s duet has some of the most beautiful pages in all of Verdi.”
The Verdi Pinnacle
But of all the Verdi roles, his favorite is none other than “Macbeth.”
“It is the role where I can find more color and do more acting. The role demands it. And in ‘Macbeth,’ Verdi wrote so many details. More than in any other opera. Like he writes ‘voce soffocata.’ He never wrote that in other operas. I did it twice with Maestro Muti and he taught it so well to me. Every time I do it I find new things.”
He loves the opera so much that he has performed every possible incarnation of the work, including the original 1847 version in 2013 at Florence.
“It is so much higher and difficult. And you sing a lot longer,” he emphasized. “The end of the third act, instead of a duet, you have a cabaletta. And the section with the witches is a half-step up.”
And while it presents a massive challenge, he was adamant that he wouldn’t mind doing it again.
A Verdian Future
Perhaps most shocking is that the baritone still has a few roles to conquer in the Verdi canon, including “Simon Boccanegra,” which he believes will be a “warhorse” in days to come. And he is also slated to sing his first Iago in Verdi’s “Otello,” but could not reveal when the auspicious debut would take place.
He also wants to engage with “Stifellio” and Montfort in “Il Vespri Siciliani.”
He loves Verdi so much that he couldn’t help but wonder about the roles he would love to sing if he had a different voice type. At the top of his list is Filippo II in “Don Carlo” and the title role in “Otello.”
“If my voice ever drops enough maybe I can sing Filippo someday. You never know,” he joked. “As for Otello, that’s not going to happen though that role has so much musical depth and I absolutely love it.”