A Tale of Two Seasons – David Portillo on ‘Fidelio,’ ‘The Exterminating Angel’ & Contributing to the Evolution of Opera

By Francisco Salazar

David Portillo’s career at the Metropolitan Opera got off to an expected start. As a lyric tenor, he sang the lead role in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” an opera that he and most tenors of his FACH are quite familiar with.

His debut was a huge success, the tenor earning rave reviews for his lush vocal quality and fearless coloratura.

So as you might expect, the Met Opera brought him back again for two straight seasons in roles that tenors like him rarely ever sing – Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and Thomas Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel.”

The former is Beethoven’s lone opera, but it hasn’t been at the Met for a decade. The latter? It is making its Met premiere and only came into the world a year ago.

“I’m very fortunate to sing different types of repertoire at the Met, and it is a confidence builder to know that they trust me with various types of music, languages and styles,” he told OperaWire in an exclusive interview.

Close Encounters With One of the Greatest of All Time

Portillo’s role debut as Jaquino took place on March 16, 2017, and he is already on his way to his third performance of the opera. Beethoven, one of the greatest musicians in the history of civilization, was a master of the symphony and chamber music. But for whatever reason, the opera never quite suited him so well. Not only was “Fidelio” his only effort, but Beethoven labored over revisions of the opera, with the work getting three different versions.

Despite that, many great musicians still had their mixed views on the work. During a Young People’s Concert, Leonard Bernstein noted that the work was received poorly by critics and remained a “flawed masterpiece.” But he notes that when it comes to music, Beethoven is at his best, an opinion Portillo whole-heartedly agrees with.

“It’s such a grand piece of music because it’s Beethoven’s only opera,” Portillo noted. “It’s masterfully written for the orchestra and the voices are definitely highlighted so well. It is brilliant and so great for the orchestra.”

For Portillo, the opera represents an incredible musical challenge because “this role is lower than most music that I get to sing.” His biggest passage of music is a duet that kicks off the opera before he does a great deal of speaking.

“It’s a beautiful duet but it is a third to a fifth lower than most of the things that I sing,” he noted. “The highest note that Jaquino sings is a G which is not very high. I mean it definitely shows the texture of his frustrations. He is frustrated because Marzelline does not love him so textually there is a lot of speaking German.”

Of course, he also gets to sing in the famed quartet, which he considers “one of the best pieces of music ever. That is when Jaquino gets to sing kind of the more of the textual speaking part of it. Where the ladies have these lush lines. But in general, the whole role is lower,” he noted before comparing the role to other operas by German composers that he has performed. “I think it’s closer to the role of David [from ‘Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg’] in terms of text. But you get pretty lines. It’s not like Mozart in that you don’t get to sing long lines. But it is still instrumental in that way. Whereas Wagner is a little bit more vocal.

Taking on a new role is a challenge for any young singer, but having a good team around you is usually the key to success. For this production, Portillo got to work with Maestro Sebastian Weigle in the pit, an expert in the classical repertoire.

“Weigle is a master at German music and I worked with him in Frankfurt on ‘The Magic Flute’ and he is amazing with Mozart’s music,” he remarked about the conductor. “It’s really good to sit in rehearsals and see how he gets the texture of the orchestra. Of course, he is good at the language. He is good at getting each word that he wants and good at showing while we sing.  He is also a really nice person. He has a very good energy to be around and it is a nice process.”

The current production of “Fidelio” has been at the Met since 2000 but it has only been revived once before this year’s run. Fortunately, a DVD was released of the initial run of performances, something that Portillo found extremely useful.

“I saw it first a few years ago and I think it’s a gorgeous production that is super detailed and has become even more evolved and even more detailed because of Jurgen Flimm,” he stated.

Flimm returned to direct the revival of the opera, something that rarely happens at major opera companies, especially not 17 years after the premiere of a production.

“[Flimm] is a very playful personality and he put a lot of interesting things into it,” Portillo noted about working with the director, who has altered his vision, giving Portillo greater insight into the character of Jaquino. “He is adding more things for me and he’s been very nice in adding a lot of things for Jaquino to show who he is. I get to carry more weapons and have a little more danger in it. That’s great. He is letting us explore and I am very lucky to do it in this sort of situation.

“You can tell the experience of his theatrical knowledge and all of the stories that he has are really great. It’s encouraging because you know that he loves theater and he is working with us and is playing and trying new things out. He is having a lot of fun and he absolutely loves the process.”

Entering the Void

Beethoven’s “Fidelio” is defined by its themes of fidelity, love, freedom and political outrage against tyranny. Next season at the Met, Portillo will enter into a different world – the surrealist one.

“The Exterminating Angel” is based on the famous 1962 opera by Spanish director Luis Buñuel. In that famous film, a group of friends meet for a party and then suddenly come to the realization that they cannot leave the room. Try as they might, they simply cannot find a way out, leading to a series of unusual interactions between the group.

In the opera, Portillo will take on the role of Eduardo. He admits to not having seen the famous Buñuel film but is familiar with Adès’ music and his conducting style.

“I actually sang a concert version of ‘The Tempest’ with the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia. That was in 2013 and so I had worked on that whole role under him,” he stated. “I really love the music and I think he has a special ear for the percussion and for the texture of the low-lying orchestra. So I am really excited even though I have not seen the Salzburg Production of it. There are so many characters and it will be great to see that many people on stage all singing a new piece. I think this is going to be a lot of fun.”

Portillo sees his opportunity to sing new operas as an honor and crucial to the growth of the art form.

“I think opera, like every art form, needs to be changing and I think our composers who are writing now are just as exciting as the composers we’ve been singing for 100s of years,” he expressed. “That should be a part of the conscience of our art form. It’s making sure that we appreciate and attend performances of new operas and that we produce them more.

“As a vocalist, we should be learning more new opera. So when I work on a new opera we have the composers right there, we’re hopefully setting the tone for future masterworks for many many years to come,” he added. “I think there are a lot of amazing opera composers that are doing things so differently. You can tell Thomas Adès has an English background through his music. You can tell that he love popular music as well and he uses those textures. His work is actually inverted through culture, through society and what’s happening. And of course, these are stories that audiences need to experience.

“We’re part of a change.”

In moving forward with his career the tenor is looking to mix the unknown with the known. Among the roles he hopes to take on is Tom Rakewell from “The Rake’s Progress” and Peter Quinn in “The Turn of the Screw.” He also cited an interest in singing “Idomeneo,” in both the roles of Idamante and eventually the title role.

But there is one lyrical tenor standard that he has yet to take on that he hopes will come his way in the future.

“I have not sung Nemorino [from ‘L’Elisir d’Amore’] and I really want to do that one,” he revealed. “I’m really lucky that I get to sing a lot of roles that I really love already.”


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