Q & A: Daniela Barcellona on Falstaff, Mozart, Verismo & Her Dream for the Future of Opera

By Francisco Salazar

Bel Canto, Verismo, Verdi, baroque and French are all the variety of repertoire that Daniela Barcellona has performed throughout her legendary career. It is with Rossini where she began and which has led her to become one of the great interpreters of the Verdi works such as “Falstaff.”

The mezzo recently finished a production of “Falstaff” in the role of Miss Quickly at the Festival d’Aix en Provence and is set to reprise her turn at the Berlin State Opera, where she created a production by Mario Martone.

This season she will also sing her first Mozart role in “La Clemenza di Tito” and will return to the Teatro alla Scala where she will premiere a new production of “La Gioconda.”

OperaWire spoke to Barcellona about “Falstaff,” Verdi, Mozart, Rossini, and the verismo.

OperaWire: How does it feel like to return to live performances after a whole year?

Daniela Barcellona: For me to return to live performances was like making my debut. When I stepped on the stage for the premiere, it was like the first time I sang especially after one year. I did do some productions last year but we had lots of months without anything and I was excited like I was when I first sang many years ago. And to feel the audience live is priceless and it is amazing to feel the audience and in this case, at the Aix-En-Provence, the fresh air. There is nothing like a live orchestra, live chorus, and to have everyone work together is amazing. I think opera should be played live and it is an emotion that you can smell the theater, feel the audience and their reaction, and you can feel colleagues and everyone. It is something that you cannot have in a stream or broadcast. Live productions are irreplaceable.

OW: You returned with Miss Quickly, which is a role that you have done many times. How did you feel to come back with this role and in a comedy after such a dark time?

DB: It is a great moment because I think people need to have some fun and see a buffo opera. It is my pleasure to hear people laughing and to be this character is fun. You can explore all types of comedy.

OW: You did this opera in Berlin and you are returning this fall in the opera. How is the production from the Festival d’Aix en Provence different from the one you did in Berlin?

DB: It is completely different because it is based all on comedy. Barrie Kosky wants all of us to have energy in every moment of the show from beginning to end. That is difficult to do throughout the performance but we have many things to do on stage and we also have real cakes to eat on stage. And that is very good. It is very colorful and the concept is completely different. In Berlin, Mario Martone has a different concept of Falstaff and the staging is in a place for people who are unadapted to society. You can have fun there but it is a different staging. Kosky is all about the gags and we have felt people laughing throughout the opera.

OW: The interesting thing about “Falstaff” in comparison to other Verdi operas is that this is an ensemble work and there are really no arias. Tell me about Verdi’s writing for this work?

DB: Verdi composed a choral work and the voices are treated like instruments and there are lots of ensembles. There is no big aria outside of Ford, Fenton, and Nanetta. But the amazing thing about this was that Verdi was studying the fugue and he immediately wrote the fugga finale and that is one of the masterpieces. That is very difficult but very effective. The difficulty of Falstaff is that all the roles, even the small ones, are treated like instruments. Miss Quickly goes from the very low notes to the upper register and it is very difficult even if I sang Rossini for many years. To think he wrote this opera when he was 80, just shows how much strength he had and I think this is a masterpiece.

OW: Miss Quickly is very much the mastermind of the plan against Falstaff. Tell me about your interpretation of Miss Quickly and what are some of your favorite parts of this role?

DB: I think Quickly manages everything and I think that when she was young she had a relationship with Falstaff and she has this confidence with him. So on stage, I must be buffa and seductive with Falstaff to try and convince him to see Alice and Meg. She is smart and a leader in many ways. I love when she goes to Falstaff and sings “Reverenza.” This is a very famous passage and at this moment she wants to be nice to him and at the same time, mock him. I also love the final scene with Falstaff where she tells him to go to the forest and prepare him for what is going to happen. It is beautiful and I love the ensemble work as well.

OW: In this work, the text is very important because it is very dialogue and recitative heavy. Tell me about playing with this text and working off the rest of the cast?

DB: It is very similar to Rossini because it is quite similar to recitative and some of the parts I just speak them. I do not sing them because Verdi wrote them so particularly. There are notes in some of the parts but I just speak them. The text is sometimes at the service of the effect. For example, when the women are singing together, everyone is singing different words. So the effect from the outside is nonsense. He wants you to speak and for the audience to hear noise and not understand. He wants you to feel that sensation of the four women speaking together and having fun.

In the scene in the woods, “Spizzica, Spizzica,” you feel this needle punching Falstaff and it’s very instrumental. The words are not important and the final effect is. It’s very particular and the funny thing is the acting is sometimes in the words and you don’t need to do much. Everything is written in the music and that makes it is much easier and it is more efficient to just sing. And that is the genius of Verdi.

OW: How does this role fit in with the rest of the repertoire that you sing?

DB: It is very different and it is an easy role because she doesn’t have arias. But the difficult thing is that it is a very low role and is written in the passagio of the mezzo-soprano. So it is very difficult to sometimes focus the voice and to have the right color of the voice. For this reason, I am doing Quickly one after the others. It is difficult to sing Quickly and them Amneris because the texture is so different and for me, it is important to sing a role and then have an intermediate role to pass to the next one. If I sing a very low role, I cannot do a very high role immediately after. I have to pass from a medium role to a high role. So I have tried to do this for my entire career and of course, sometimes it is not possible. In this case, I stay with Quickly until the end of October and then I have one month free and I’ll sing Sesto in “La Clemenza di Tito” in Bilbao. That is completely different and I think it is important for the health of the voice to have a calendar that you can manage different roles.

OW: Tell me about this role debut in Bilbao and why did it take so long to sing your first Mozart?

DB: This will be my first Mozart. I only sang one of the Ladies in “Die Zauberfl√∂te” and then I was asked to sing a Mozart role by Daniel Barenboim. But then they canceled the production because of COVID. So I lost that opportunity.

So I am happy and emotional. This is why I took one month off just to concentrate on that. Mozart’s music is so pure. Everything is in the right place at the right moment. The orchestrations come from another world. I fell in love immediately. And of course, the coloratura is pure and not like baroque which is on time and dry. Mozart is not like Rossini. The coloratura is ethereal. You feel in harmony and it is something mystical and I love this composer so much.

OW: Are you still singing Rossini and how did the Bel Canto works help you in these bigger roles? Does it come easier?

DB: Yes. When I am home I continue to sing Rossini because I think it is very important for the voice and for your technique. It also helps to keep my voice in shape. I always sing with my voice and it remains very elastic. When I started singing Rossini, I had no coloratura so I practiced for six months. I practiced breath control and I practiced not to put pressure so it could come out natural. You have to be relaxed and at the same time use all your muscles without pressure and flow. You have to be healthy, go to the gym, and eat well.

Rossini is an amazing school for training the voice and you must be very concentrated on the technique. You have to be able to sing very quickly because of these millions of notes and you have to pay attention to what you are doing. If you make a mistake, you pay several notes afterward. You don’t have time to recover from the mistake and you always have to think in advance. Rossini also does not ruin the voice. When I sang Verdi and other repertoire, it was easy because I have all the time to sing what I have to sing because the notes are so long and everything is so quiet. What helped me was in Rossini you pay attention to the single word to give it the right meaning and this happens in Verdi. It’s also helpful to understand that you don’t always sing forte from beginning to end. There are interesting phrases between these notes and Rossini was a great teacher for that. In fact, I always tell my students to begin with Rossini and then develop into other repertoire. Rossini is great training, for the mind, for the body, and voice.

OW: Next summer you will be returning to the Teatro alla Scala in a production of “La Gioconda.” This production was canceled last fall and it is a rarely performed work. Tell me about this work and what it means to sing it at La Scala?

DB: “Gioconda” is so beautiful because it is very difficult for all the voices and I am happy to be back at La Scala with this role. I love it so much and it is very dramatic and very difficult. But Gioconda productions have been successful when I have done the opera. It is a masterpiece and to be at La Scala with it, which is so Italian, is amazing. I am happy to be back at this theater which I love and I have sung at so much.

Ponchielli is a Verista but when it was performed during the Fascist period, it was the culture of the superman. It was the way of performing it at the time. Verdi was also sung like Verismo even if he wasn’t. This type of singing was accepted and Ponchielli’s music is very powerful. And that is why we are used to hearing it as verismo. The music is from the 1800s and it is very powerful and we think it is verismo. But in reality, it is from a period before verismo. I think this work is closer to bel canto than verismo even if the music is powerful and dramatic. It’s very much like Verdi. Of course, the music is powerful and sometimes it’s hard not to be dramatic on stage but I always sing it in my bel canto way.

OW: With such a diverse repertoire, is there any dream role that you haven’t sung?

DB: At the moment, all my dreams have come true. I hope to work again with Riccardo Muti and I also hope to return to the United States after this pandemic. My other dream is for every opera lover and every singer to be able to enjoy opera for many years to come. I also want everyone to know that opera is not obsolete. Opera is something you can dream in where you can live experiences in other worlds. I hope everyone can continue to go to the opera and that beautiful voices can enjoy their public and be united. Music has no boundaries and it unites all of us. This is my dream!

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