Q & A: Mezzo-Soprano Daniela Barcellona on the Differences Between Verdi & Rossini

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Studio Amati_Bacciardi)

Few singers have dominated the Rossini repertory in recent years the way Daniella Barcellona has.

She debuted at the Rossini Festival in 1999 in the title role of “Tancredi,” and has since appeared in recordings of such works as “Sigismondo,” “La Donna del Lago,” “Il Viaggio a Reims,” “Adelaide of Borgogna,” and “Bianca de Falliero;” she has also performed nearly all of these works at the Rossini Festival.

But Barcellona is not just a Rossini specialist and in recent years, she has widened her repertory to encompass more bel canto and romantic roles.

OperaWire recently spoke to Barcellona during the rehearsals of “Un Ballo in Maschera” at Teatro Real in Madrid as she prepares to debut the role of “Ulrica.”

OperaWire: How was the transition from bel canto roles to Verdi?

Daniela Barcellona: From my point of view, I felt that my voice needed to open up to different repertoire. I looked for new styles as my voice grew and developed.

From a technical point of view, it felt quite simple and easy for me, because coming from Rossini, which is really complicated technically and everything is fast and in “punta del fiato.” Meanwhile, Verdi gives you more time for singing and emotion with long legato phrases. It seemed less demanding for me, although I had to look for an adequate style for Verdi.

OW: You began singing Verdi roles like Amneris and Eboli, and now you are incorporating contralto roles like Miss Quickly and Ulrica. Is this a natural progression for your voice?

DB: Yes, absolutely. I have been offered the role of Ulrica many times and I always declined it until now. I think it is important to choose the roles well if you want to have a long career and maintain the voice healthy and fresh. Some roles not only need technical and vocal development but demand some artistic maturity. These roles demand a stronger interpretation and a big voice to project over the big orchestration. You need the vital experience and the correct technique to sing a dramatic role like Ulrica while feeling like you are singing a Mozart role.

You can’t get carried away with the emotions of the drama and you must know how to separate the emotional parts from the technical side of the score. This is my way of conducting a singer’s career: everything happens at the exact moment. And I have seen many careers ruined for choosing the wrong repertoire at the wrong moment. You need the plan and space out the roles.

If I have just sung a Rossini role, I need to sing a transition role in between to sing, for example, “Amneris.” I can not jump that easily from Rossini to Verdi.

OW: Ulrica’s role is quite short and the tessitura is extremely low. What challenges do you find in this character?

DB: For me, it is really important not to force the voice, because when you sing in the low register you have the impression that your voice will not be able to pass beyond the orchestral sound. So I have to sing with my own voice, portraying all the intensity and drama of this music. But I never push the sound and I always sing “sull fiato” even when it is in a big theater with a big orchestra.

OW: How do you prepare a new role? 

DB: I always begin studying the libretto and then do a deep musical study of the role, with musical theory paying attention to the tempi, the dynamics, and the rhythms. Then I spot the difficulties in lower or higher vocal lines and notes and then I begin to put the role “in gola” by singing with intention and emotion. I then always imprint, under the guidance of Alessandro Vitiello who happens to be my vocal coach and husband, my own personality and ideas on the role.

Then when you start musical rehearsals with the conductor (Nicola Luisotti in this production), you have to find commonalities between my own ideas of the role and Luisotti’s in this case. Not to mention that before you arrive at the theater, you need to memorize the whole score. I always learn my roles by heart before the first rehearsal. You might make some mistakes, but I deeply appreciate it when my colleagues know their roles perfectly, which is not always the case.

OW: Do you find vocal similarities between the roles of Miss Quickly and Ulrica?

DB: From a vocal point of view, Miss Quickly is an instrumental role, as you sing mostly in Ensembles and parlatto lines.  Ulrica, even maintaining the same low tessitura, is a soloist role where you have a whole scene for yourself with lots of singing.

OW: Do you consider both roles the lowest parts of Verdi’s repertoire?

DB: They definitively are. You have low notes in Azucena too, which I will debut next year at the Paris Opera, but in this case, it feels more like a Rossini role because you use the whole extent of your tessitura, moving fluidly from low to high, as you have several high B flats and a high C with long sustained low notes too. The “mordentes” written in “Strida la vampa” remind me of florid Rossini passages.

But in Verdi’s case, this “fioriture” have dramatic content as they describe the flames of the bonfire. In Rossini’s compositions, the ornaments form part of the vocal line which describes the drama, love, and joy, being present during the whole score, while Verdi is very precise and has a strong meaning for the few ornaments that he writes.

From a dramatic point of view, all contralto Rossini roles are “pants” heroes’ roles or “buffi,” while in Verdi, they are strong dramatic parts. Amneris, Eboli, and Azucena are strong women but deeply tormented. And you have to study the multiple layers of the characters because you might for example consider that Amneris is an evil woman because she, in an unconscious way, sends Radamès to his death. But she is a woman in love who has been betrayed by her lover. Ulrica is an exception as she is a psychic that understands what is going on around her, I would say, and Luisotti agrees, that she is like a psychologist.

OW: Is this a natural progression for you to debut Azucena after Ulrica? Did you plan this ahead?

DB: To be honest it was by chance, by destiny. The role suits my voice pretty and it is good to sing this role after Ulrica. I strongly believe in destiny and things happened at the right moment and at the right place. This has been a common fact in my life.

OW: Are you at a point in your career, where you decide what roles to sing?

DB: Yes. I was once asked to sing “Arsace” after a run of performances of “Adalgisa,” and I declined the offer because as I explained before that I need some space between these two roles which are vocally so different and demanding.

So I adjusted my calendar of performances during the year to sing the roles at the precise exact moment, which, in my opinion, keeps my voice healthy. And I have the luck of being in a position where I can decide what to sing, while there are lots of colleagues who are forced to accept everything that is offered because of the lack of work when they are beginning their careers. It happened to me around the year 2000, because after my interpretation of “Tancredi,” lots of offers arrived and I found myself debuting nine roles in a single year, which was crazy. But those are the kind of things that you can do when you are young. I am fortunate now to be able to choose.

OW: Have you found a role that you know you would never want to sing again, or which you considered a mistake?

DB: Not really. I have enjoyed lots of good moments, and when things have not worked out as they should have, I try to learn from those experiences. They have made me grow as a person and as an artist. I do not regret anything that I have sung.

OW: Now that you have expanded your repertoire into verismo works and Verdi, do you intend to keep singing Rossini?

DB: Absolutely. Just before I came to Madrid, I was rehearsing with my husband, Alessandro, Rossini’s “Giovanna d’ Arco.” That is a beautiful cantata and it is a pleasure singing it. Rossini is a good school for me because despite it being gymnastics for the voice, it is a pleasure to sing. If I continue singing “Tancredi” or “Malcom,” I always discover new things, or I find myself able to do things I could not do when I was younger. I enjoy discovering new ways of singing old roles. I find different expressions and deepen my interpretation. The moment your work becomes routine it becomes boring.

OW: Alessandro Vitiello was your first voice teacher and became your husband. How have you balanced your personal and professional life?

DB: The most difficult thing for me is mutual trust. This leads you to talk in a very honest way. Alessandro is not subtle when he has to correct me or make me aware of some mistakes. We have always tried to separate when we are husband and wife from when he is the teacher and I am the student. It is not always easy.

For example, I might be singing for fun while driving with him in our car and he always tells me which passages I have to cover and how to use breath support and I just want to sing for fun. Then there are times when I suggest going for a walk and he says that we have to study first and then go for a walk. That is what happens when you have your teacher home. But we have found a balance between work and our life together.

OW: Which roles would you like to sing in the near future?

DB: I have to say that I have sung everything I wanted to sing. One of my dreams was to sing Dalilah which I debuted in Torino. I have sung Charlotte in “Werther” and Carmen many times. Santuzza was a dream come true as it was my parents’ favorite role. I am happy all my wishes have come true.

OW: Have you considered singing Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, a role sung by both sopranos and mezzo-sopranos?

DB: I have been offered it and I have always declined. I was not ready and I am not sure if my voice would ever be. Looking at the score, it does not seem too different in tessitura and coloratura to some Rossini or Bellini roles. But there is a difference in the way it is written. It is really high and low and with fiendish coloratura and I don’t feel comfortable with the way it is written, even if it has often been sung by mezzo-sopranos. I believe I will never sing it.

OW: The opera world has been through a few rough months. Why do you think music is so important in our world?

DB: I would like to send a message of calm and hope to musicians of all kinds of genres that have been affected by the lockdown imposed by COVID-19.

There are so many currently unemployed with no job perspectives in the near future. I understand their situation and fears and I would like to send strength to them to go on and not abandon their goals, even if they might have to look for another job at the moment. The world needs music, and the future of music is in the younger generations of today. There are so many talented artists. Music transmits emotions and culture. We cannot stand without music, classical music especially as it carries the weight of history and tradition, which is full of emotion and has always reached all generations.

I hope that theaters begin to reopen and continue to follow safety measures as they do here at the Teatro Real so we can get all the artists back to work and offer the audience an enjoyable evening. I strongly believe music helps with mental health and emotional moods. The closure of the theaters is creating a huge financial deficit which will be difficult to overcome, but it is not only a question of money.

Human beings have souls too that need to be fed. We need music. I believe can live with less, even if we live in this frenzy consumerism. We need to find the true value of life and learn from this experience. 


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