Q & A: Annalisa Stroppa on ‘La Favorite,’ Bergamo & the Donizetti Opera FestivalBy Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Michele Monasta)
On Nov. 18, the Donizetti Opera Festival will open its 2022 festival with “La Favorite.” The opera is rarely performed but has been a showcase for many mezzo-sopranos in the history of opera.
For this new production, Annalisa Stroppa will return to Bergamo and make her role debut as Léonor. The mezzo, who first sang with the festival in 2020 will finally get to sing at the historical Teatro Donizetti in front of an audience after singing “Belisario” in a closed theater.
For Stroppa “La Favorite” is a dream role she has been preparing for since University when she sang the aria “O Mio Fernando” for her juries. Now years after taking the opera world by storm, she will sing her first Léonor in Donizetti’s hometown, the city where she also studied and where she dreamed of an operatic career.
OperaWire had a chance to speak with the mezzo in anticipation of her role debut about the character and the Donizetti Opera Festival.
OperWire: What does it mean to sing the role of Léonor for the first time at the Donizetti Opera Festival?
Annalisa Stroppa: For me, it is a great honor to be able to sing this marvelous role in the hometown of the great Gaetano and it is happening at the right time. He was Bergamasco and I live in this area. I am between Brescia and Bergamo and that gives me even more emotion. It is emotional to sing this role, which is symbolic for the mezzo-soprano. Of course, to do it in a land that I love is even more incredible. I went to University in Bergamo and I remember my time in University when I walked past the via grande and I would see the Teatro Donizetti. I would always say “I hope one day I will sing here.” It was a dream of mine when I was a student. And after years, I am arriving with this very special role. I am here after 13 years of career and after singing at many great theaters in the world.
“La Favorite” is also special because when I graduated, I sang “O Mio Fernando” in Italian. That was the aria I did for my juries and I obtained an honorable mention. It’s very significant for all these moments and I am very happy that the Donizetti Opera Festival and Riccardo Frizza thought of me. I hope that I can honor Gaetano who I love so much. I love Bel Canto and it is a great joy. I have been preparing for this role for a long time.
OW: This will be your first time singing with an audience at the Teatro Donizetti. What does that feel like?
AS: This year will be my role debut as Léonor but also my real debut at the Donizetti Opera Festival. I did “Belisario” with no audience during the COVID-19 pandemic. I did not get to see the Bergamo audience on this occasion. I did see some of the audience when we did the Donizetti Revolution which was the presentation of the festival. I did a small piece but this Léonor will be my real debut.
I also must say that the first time I sang in Bergamo was for the Donizetti Requiem in front of the Bergamo cemetery to honor the victims of COVID-19. It was really painful. I will never forget it. It was also with Maestro Frizza. All that we lived through during this period was terrible. This is where the first phase of COVID-19 happened.
OW: Tell me about working with Maestro Riccardo Frizza, who is a specialist in Donizetti.
AS: I have great admiration for Maestro Frizza because he is one of the best interpreters of the Bel Canto repertoire. Working with him in “Belisario” was spectacular and I think it will be marvelous to work with him. It will be great to shape the character of this opera together because this is a very difficult work and musically it has a tessitura that is incredibly difficult. For example, the aria is for a pure lyric mezzo and other parts like the duet with Alphonse are almost for a contralto mezzo. It has a tessitura that is heavy and long. We will do the complete version in French. That is why I am happy to have this possibility and to sing it with Maestro. We have a lot of the same thoughts and we are very in tune with each other on the music. That is why it will bring great collaboration. We will give this Léonor something special.
OW: What has your process been in preparing this character?
AS: Léonor is a very complex character and she is the title role. Finally! I have waited for this role for so long. My voice has matured and my experience in the theater will allow me to interpret this character which is so complex and difficult. Therefore it is always important to wait and take baby steps. I always think this way and that may be a thought of the past because today everything is going so fast. But the voice has a memory and it is an instrument that is marvelous but unique and fragile. You have to know how to use it. We only have two vocal cords and we have to protect them. We can not substitute them like violin strings. That is why this is coming at the right time. It is destiny.
Before I began looking at the score I started doing some reading. I wanted to contextualize the character and wanted to look at the history to discover it and to be able to deepen my understanding of the character and the time. When I debut a role I want to discover whatever has to do with the role and things that you may not know. I think of the metaphor of a blank canvas that you start constructing with different colors. You create it and you have to work with that.
OW: What have you discovered about Léonor?
AS: The first thing I do is to know who she is. Are there literary works or history surrounding the character? In this case, there is history. These characters actually existed. Alfonso was king of Castilla and Leon. This story takes place in Spain and Alfonso really was in love with Léonor who was a noble. She was the only one who could get something good out of this despot who was cruel. Alfonso was married to Maria in an accord with the King of Portugal and when he met Léonor he was already married to Maria. He decided to continue his marriage but he always had his lover Léonor. She gave him 10 illegitimate children. While the historical events differ from the opera, it is so important to understand what happened. Maria eventually left and her father got furious with Alfonso and stopped giving him support. As a result, Alfonso sent Léonor to the convent and obtained the help of his father-in-law again and Maria returned. When Alfonso died, Maria tortured and killed Léonor as vengeance.
Knowing this story, I now have the context to create my interpretation of the opera. When I sing the duets with Alphonse, I will sing them as someone who is truly in love with the character as it is in history. I will respect that part of the story. But the story in the opera is not as heavy and Fernand is an invented character with whom Léonor falls in love with. It’s a bit more romanticized in the opera.
The libretto is about a woman who is divided between love and power. She is a victim of herself as well as her position. She didn’t choose this. She was chosen to be the favorite of the king. It is her destiny. I also see her as an unhappy woman because she can not do what she wants. She is also mistreated by all because she was not an official and simply a lover of the king. Her only joy is what she feels inside.
I am discovering so much about this character. I love this character and I see her as a very contemporary woman.
OW: Tell me about the edition that you will sing and the music of this opera.
AS: This is the complete version and we will open a cabaletta that was cut after the premiere of the opera in 1840. It is a cabaletta after the duet with Alphonse in the first act. It is an important aria because here she questions “who is the queen?” This is where the church enters the opera. She questions Alphonse about leaving his wife and how that will be seen. This explains Léonor’s character and how she reacts to Alphonse’s proposal. It shows her sensibility. Therefore this helps to show her intelligence as well as her suffering. She doesn’t want the power. All she wants is happiness. Fernand is her light and love. He is pure. And the music in this opera explains everything about her.
Before “La Favorite,” I was doing “La Forza del Destino” in Parma and when I was looking at “La Favorite” there are some pages that were very Verdi-like. But of course, without Donizetti, there is no Verdi. The finale to “la Favorite” is all Verdi and it is very dramatic. Donizetti is the precursor to Verdi. You can hear the connection between the two composers.
OW: This will be sung in French as opposed to Italian. What are the differences?
AS: The sound changes. The consonants and vowels are different in the languages. Words change and the orchestral accompaniment has a different sound. You can hear it in the way we speak. The French version is also very faithful to the way the music was written. The way you sing the lines of the work also changes.
OW: This production is by Valentina Carrasco. Tell me about her style and what you are excited about working with her. It is also a chance to work with a female director which is still uncommon in opera.
AS: I met her at the premiere of “Simon Boccanegra” in Parma and she gave me very little information but I am very happy we were able to work together for a month. She has some very interesting and innovative ideas. Together we will finish painting my canvas. I have always been open to the director’s ideas. That is a way to construct the characters and this is always beautiful.
I had not reflected on the fact that my first Léonor will be with a female director. It is wonderful to construct this character with a female view and it is very valuable and a great opportunity to show the female perspective. It will give us a new view of the character. The female sensibility is also important. That will make “La Favorite” very modern.
OW: After “La Favorite,” what other Donizetti operas would you like to do?
AS: I want to do Giovanna again in “Anna Bolena” and then I want to do all three Tudor operas. That way I finish that trilogy. Another role that I want to sing is Orsini in “Lucrezia Borgia.” I love pants roles. And I want to sing more Léonor, which I love very much and which I know I will enjoy a lot and discover more as time goes on.