Q & A: Erika Grimaldi on Puccini, Verdi & Her Growing International Career

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Victor Santiago)

Erika Grimaldi is quickly rising to the top as one of the most acclaimed Verdi and Puccini sopranos in the world.

Her voice has been praised for its rich and round voice and has been heard at such theaters as the Teatro alla Scala, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Deutsche Oper in Berlin, Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, and Opéra National de Montpellier.

Up to this point, she has sung 12 Verdi and five Puccini roles with many more in preparation. In the lead-up to her Opernhaus Zürich debut, OperaWire spoke to Grimaldi about her relationship with the two composeres and her growing International career.

OW: Your repertoire comprises a lot of Verdi, Puccini, and Verismo. Why does this repertoire fit your voice so perfectly?

Erika Grimaldi: It isn’t easy to find a rationale to explain why these Verdi, Puccini, or Verismo roles suit my voice, because there are several elements to be taken into consideration that intertwine with each other and then create the ideal conditions that make it possible for me to feel comfortable both vocally and as an actress. In the various roles that I have undertaken so far, I have found a very comfortable compositional writing that suits my vocal instrument very well. Yet, at the same time, they also have something within the character, interpretatively, that attracts me to such a degree that I am then able to technically express to the best of my ability what that character arouses in me at the moment I am singing it. So, many elements fit together, intersect with each other, and give birth to a character written by these composers that suits my voice and personality.

OW: You are going from Tosca to Desdemona which are two very different characters and two different styles. How do you shift so quickly between roles and what are the biggest challenges of a quick shift?

EG: Certainly, there is often a particular difficulty in interpreting roles that are distinctly different and very distant from each other character-wise. But they are not insurmountable difficulties because, in any case, every character the moment I have studied it becomes a little bit mine and doesn’t leave me anymore: my Desdemona always remains latent in me until I dust it off. It comes back out, and this is also true for other characters. So, the most extensive work is done when you get to know and build a character for the first time, and then you have to create it. Once I’ve made the character my own, nuances have to be implemented depending on the demands of the various directors and conductors. Still, by and large, the composer wrote a character in a certain way, from which you can only deviate a little. Once I have made a character my own, perhaps the most significant difficulty is to move from one style to another. In this specific case, we are talking about Verdi and Puccini, who have two completely different compositional writings and, therefore, must be approached differently from a stylistic point of view. There is no particular secret: I try to deviate as little as possible from what was written by the composer. In Verdi’s case, his writing has perhaps more rhythmic stylistic rigor than Puccini’s. Verdi writes precisely what he wants; there are so many signs to respect with this kind of writing that is a little tighter and more rhythmic. I see Puccini’s writing as not so much vertical as more horizontal writing, a flow. These are typical characteristics of the two composers that must be respected. Still, the most important thing is to appreciate precisely what they wrote and what they wanted at that moment.

That way, a character comes out that is precisely what they wanted. So, let’s say there is a subjective aspect of the performer, which is about expressive choices, but you cannot deviate from what the composer wanted.

OW: What is the key to singing Verdi and what is the key to singing Puccini? Do you approach it the same way?

EG: As I mentioned, they are two completely different writings. To say, as I did previously, that Verdi has vertical writing is not perhaps entirely correct, but his kind of writing is undeniably more rhythmic and tight. Therefore, you can play less on rhythm or tempo, which is more possible in Puccini. Puccini has so many rubatos, so many rallentandos, so many accelerandos: no two bars are the same, and if you look at the score of any Puccini opera, every two, three, four bars, the tempo changes. It even changes within the same metronomic indication where we always find moments of suspension or, on the contrary, of acceleration. This is not present in Verdi, which begins in one way and ends in more or less the same way, with within it instead a series of indications, from the accent to the dotted note that is so present in Verdi and which is very much related to the meaning of the word. What should always be present in both cases is legato, which I always try to do and study perfectly, but I leave for last when I take on a role because it’s like the final chisel of the character. Both should always be sung with great elegance, great taste, and excellent legato, which is typical of our Italian school, but respecting, of course, the style of both of them. In conclusion, I do not approach Verdi and Puccini in the same way, but equal is the way I respect the writing and the demands of both. To finish, we need to find a more expansive space of performance within Puccini and, instead, a moment perhaps tighter and more rhythmically respectful of the writing in Verdi.

OW: As your career continues to grow, you are making more debuts. What excites you about the upcoming season and is there a debut that you are most looking forward to? As you leave Italy and go to more international houses, do you see a difference in the audience?

EG: “Un ballo in maschera,” because Amelia is a role I’ve been dreaming about for a long time; I already know the opera, and now the time has finally come. It is a very challenging role because she sings so much. The writing is difficult because of the stamina required, the way it is written vocally and technically, and the story is compelling and distinctive.

There are differences between Italian and international audiences. Still, I would say that whether in Italy, Europe, or elsewhere, each theater creates its audience a bit, which also responds differently depending on the opera being staged. However, the international audience is generally very involved and enthusiastic, especially when listening to a title from the most famous Italian repertoire. I often see a passionate, engaged audience ready to support the artists. This happens in Italy as well, but perhaps for an Italian audience, it is more taken for granted to listen to an Italian opera, and this is probably the reason why sometimes, in some theaters, Italian audiences may be less warm and responsive, even if in the end they appreciate our work very much. This is, of course, a generalization; I think of the red-hot audience in Parma and the enthusiasm with which they welcomed my recent Tosca.

OW: Tell me a little about the way you see Tosca.

EG: Tosca is a very modern woman of our times, and this is something I have said many times for other Puccini roles as well. We can see this from so many aspects, all present within her character, who presents herself first and foremost as a singer, so a woman who is used to being on stage, who loves to be at the center of attention. Then, however, at the same time, we also find in Tosca a woman who likes ordinary life, who also likes to carve out a moment of personal, quiet life, and this is glimpsed when, for example, she, in the Act I duet talks to Cavaradossi about their little house, where it is obvious how she wishes to have a moment of her own, private, normal life with him. We also see a woman who is very religious and devoted to Our Lady, and above all, we see a woman in love, an absolutely all-too-everyday theme of our period as well, and as a woman in love, she is also a jealous and suspicious woman. The theme of jealousy is also current: any woman has experienced it at least once. Finally, we find a pure woman, who does not submit to any blackmail, so much so that in the scene in Act II with Scarpia, in order not to betray her purity and her self-love, she goes so far as to take a knife and kill him. So there is also this aspect of integrity, of honor, which is very important. And then, last but not least, she sacrifices her life in order not to remain alive without her beloved after being, among other things, deceived. Tosca, therefore, is a well-rounded heroine who has within her all the elements to be considered a complete, topical, and very modern woman.

OW: What excites you about singing at the Puccini festival this season and how special is it to sing at the festival during this Puccini anniversary?

EG: In general, the great excitement of this year is to sing a Puccini role right on the 100th anniversary of his death, which is a worldwide event; all the theaters are honoring this great composer by staging mainly Puccini titles. I’m very close to Puccini. I started my career precisely singing Puccini, and I’ve been connected to him for many, many years, always, however, with the same opera, “La bohème,” which was the title of my professional operatic debut in 2008 in Turin, as Mimì. Then as the years went by, I also approached other kinds of roles, such as Liù and most recently Manon Lescaut, not least precisely that of Tosca. So, singing Puccini is a great emotion; it is a great honor. Singing it at the Puccini Festival, of course, is particularly exciting. I’ve never been to the Puccini Festival, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it this year, and I’m honored sincerely. Indeed, from what colleagues who have already been there have told me, it’s a very atmospheric place, so I’m looking forward to performing my Tosca for the 100th-anniversary celebrations and what’s more fitting in a festival dedicated to him.

OW: You will also make your Zürich debut. Tell me about this and what excites you about this debut.

EG: I had partly answered this question. Amelia in “Un ballo in Maschera” is a long and complex role, written in a challenging way. It is an opera I knew I had to debut some time ago, so I have had a chance to study it and delve into it properly. By now, I already know how I want to do it. I still need the final touches, and it is ready to be brought to the stage. I look forward to it because Zürich is a paramount theater with an equally prominent conductor like Maestro Noseda. I am also curious to know what kind of production it will be, traditional or “modern”: this I still don’t know and will see when I arrive in Zürich, and I will, of course, be open to chiseling and shaping my character according to the choices that will be made.

OW: What are your dream Puccini and Verdi roles?

EG: My dream roles? Let’s say this was the year I fulfilled many Verdi and Puccini dreams. As far as Puccini is concerned, the role that thrilled me the most this year was Tosca, while the most complex one was Manon Lescaut, which gave me great satisfaction. As for Verdi, my biggest excitement now is to debut “Un Ballo in Maschera,” although several of his roles have fulfilled me as an artist. Speaking of future roles, one Puccini role that I would love to sing is Suor Angelica, while in Verdi, I very much hope sooner or later to perform Elisabetta di Valois in “Don Carlo.”


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