Q & A: Soprano Francesca Aspromonte On Her New CD, Singing Baroque Music & The FutureBy Alan Neilson
This week Italian soprano, Francesca Aspromonte, a rising star in the early music scene, will see the release of her first solo CD, “Prologue.” At the age of only 27, she is standing on the threshold of a glittering career, with critics running out of adjectives to describe her performances. Aspromonte made her professional debut as La Musica in Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo,” a role for which she still holds a deep affection, in 2013, and has since gone on to perform in such renowned venues as the Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Musikverein, Vienna, La Fenice, Venice and Opéra Royal de Versailles amongst many others.
Following her recent successful performance as Angelica in “Orlando Furioso,” OperaWire met up with her in Bologna to talk about her career to date, her forthcoming CD and her hopes for the future
OW: When did you realize you wanted to be a singer?
FA: It was on April 2, 2006, I was 15 at the time. I was doing a concert with the conservatory choir and the programme was a little weird: Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate” and Schumann’s “Requiem fur Mignon” and an orchestral piece by Shostakovich. So it was a very weird programme, and when I heard the soloist singing I thought I want to do that too. I wanted to sound like her. I didn’t think I had the strength to be up there singing in front of an audience, but I wanted to sound like her.
OW: Your reputation is growing rapidly. You are already well known in the baroque/early music world, you consistently receive excellent reviews for your performances, you are headlining a production of ‘Semele’ in Innsbruck this August at the Early Music Festival and this week your first solo CD will be released. And you are still only 27. Is it an exciting time?
FA: Yes! It is both exciting and full of responsibility because when you are so young you have to maintain certain standards whenever you give a performance, and it can cause you a bit of anxiety. When you step into a new theater, or into a theater in which you have already worked, but with a more important role, you have to keep proving yourself again and again because at some point you won’t be cute and very young anymore. As the years go by, you need to continually reaffirm your talent, and support it, make it more durable, and long-lasting. So it is exciting, but I don’t want to sing for five or ten years and then burn myself out. I want to keep this thing going. Maybe sometimes I am too cautious, but I think it is better to have a long-lasting career.
OW: What made you choose to start specializing in early music? Was it that you feel an affinity with the music or is it that your voice is particularly suited to the genre?
FA: Well, once I started studying and really enjoyed singing I made very short concerts of about ten minutes at conferences, with music taken from “I Parisotti,” a book written in the 19th century. It is a collection of ancient arias with a piano setting of very romantic titles, supposedly for the little girls of the time. So basically it was arias from Scarlatti and Vivaldi, among others. In my conservatory, there was already a small ensemble doing baroque music, and I was studying harpsichord and so we started working together as well, and it just came from there.
OW: You have just finished a successful run of performances of “Orlando Furioso” under the musical direction of Diego Fasolis. What were your impressions of working with Maestro Fasolis?
FA: It was not super easy to step into a performance that had already been done with essentially the same cast, especially as we had only a very short rehearsal time. It was a reprise. I don’t sing much Vivaldi I have to say, but I tried to enjoy this type of coloratura writing. Maestro Fasolis is incredibly sympathetic and he made working with him a very enjoyable and calm experience. We discussed with him, for instance, the appoggiature: he wanted every recitative to have an appoggiatura wherever possible. It was nice to have such a sympathetic conductor who would explain the reasons why he wanted to or didn’t want to, do a certain variation. The most beautiful part was hearing how beautifully the orchestra could play a piece from a repertoire they don’t play much, in a very sensitive way. Also following him from our perspective is a great experience, for when he conducts we see a very passionate man communicating with his whole body, jumping and moving his hands in a way so that everyone is engaged, whether you are an orchestra player, a singer or even someone at the back of the stage you see on the monitor a person who is trying to capture the fire in the music, and this makes every performance, even when you’re tired or agitated, so alive and makes Vivaldi’s music, which sometimes is over three hours long with da capo arias, and can be a little boring, very very lively.
OW: One of the notable characteristics is the fine detail you bring to your singing, every line seems to be have been crafted with utmost care and thought. How do you prepare for a role?
FA: First of all I go over the score and see what is most urgent. If I see something with a particularly hard technical passage that I need to study I underline the text and then I put the score on my harpsichord and start from the beginning and play it through to the end to have an overview of the whole thing, then I focus first on the closed pieces, the arias, duets and so on. Recitatives are, of course, the last thing because they are in my mother tongue. Of course, if the opera was in German I would need to prepare in another way, but in general, I prioritize the difficult parts so that I have more time to learn them, and then it depends whether it is a concert or a staged performance and whether or not I must learn it by heart.
OW: Your first solo CD, called “Prologue” is about to be released. Would you like to tell me about its themes?
FA: “Prologue” as its title may suggest is an excursion into 17th-century opera through its prologues. Well, not all the operas of course. It was necessary to do quite a lot of work on it because in prologues you can have one character, you can have three, five, you can have arias, duets or people who keep talking to each other. For instance, there was no way to fit in the prologue of “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” which is very well-known, because the characters keep talking to each other, so there was no way to cut the conversation, and at the same time retain some music.
There are characters that can be gods or allegorical figures. There is the painting, there is the music, there is the tragedy. So it’s a world of allegory, things you cannot touch. They talk about many things, whether it is “happy birthday to the King” or “congratulations for the wedding” or “today the weather is a little cloudy.” So they can talk either about nothing or about something specific and political things because, of course, the composer had to thank the person who gave him the money to compose the opera. On just a few occasions they talk about what is going on in the opera. They give you a prequel or some hints about what’s going to be seen in the opera. The very last stanza of La Musica from Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” says you are going to listen to a play about Orfeo who did this, this and that. But mostly it is a CD of untouchable or intangible figures talking about nothing.
OW: How was the choice of tracks made? Was it based purely on the suitability of your voice or did you select them according to your tastes?
FA: The starting point was “L’Orfeo.” What I really wanted was that the CD would start not with a prologue, but with a symphony so that when somebody put on the CD they would have the feeling that an opera was going to begin. And then I already had some prologues I knew because I had performed them in the operas, and which I really loved, and wanted to include on the CD. Then came the research looking for Operas of the 17th century. I wrote down a lot of titles and then I researched the scores. Of course, there were a lot of prologues where the music didn’t exist anymore, just beautiful texts without music, or there were too many characters and I was unable to cut them. There were also some that weren’t for soprano or were too high. So I made a selection, then I had to decide which ones I could really sing and then, of course, which ones I liked. Maestro Enrico Onofri brought in three pieces, “A Symphony for Two Violins and Continuo,” which is played towards the end of the CD, the prologue to “Sant’Alessio” by Landi, which is an oratorio not an opera, and then the very last piece, Scarlatti’s prologue which ends the cycle that started with Monteverdi. The whole 17th century is covered from Monteverdi to Scarlatti.
OW: Do you have a particular favorite track?
FA: Yes, but more than one maybe! I think its track number five, Cavalli’s “L’Eritrea,” and of course the prologue of “L’Orfeo.” What I have to say is that the CD is very beautiful from an orchestral perspective because the musicians were really the best I could ever possibly dream of. They enjoyed making the CD so much and they showed great sensitivity and respect in creating a period-informed performance. What I like the most is that there is a lot of instrumental music, it is not just an introduction to an aria followed by the aria. Every prologue is a symphony, so every track has a bit, sometimes a substantial amount of instrumental music, and the musicians I had made gorgeous improvisations. The most beautiful thing about the CD is that we had an incredible musical understanding, and I think and I hope that people listening to it will realize how much we enjoyed making it.
OW: You will sing Hasse’s “Semele” in Innsbruck this August. What challenges does this role present?
FA: It’s a very long role. All the arias, duets, all the pieces are with da capo, which means they aren’t four-minute arias. The first part can be up to four minutes, then there is the second part and then there is the da capo, meaning that an aria can last between six and ten minutes. So the length is very challenging. Hasse also writes a lot of jumps, which all the composers of the period did. Haydn did the same thing, but Hasse, in particular, writes a lot of jumps, a lot very tiny coloraturas, and sometimes doubled with the strings which means that you have to be perfectly in tune all the time, and you need to come up with nice variations that don’t bore the audience. There are five arias with da capo. So the biggest challenge is to get to the end of the opera singing the work well both vocally and musically.
OW: You have already established a reputation in the early music field. Do you see yourself specializing further in this area or do you wish to move into new areas? For example, I noticed you have a recital planned in Modena which will include Schumann lieder, which doesn’t seem to be typical of your repertoire?
FA: Well, what I would like to do is go step by step, because at my age there is no need to start singing romantic operas as I would like to keep singing for as long as I can. So, for now, baroque doesn’t hurt the voice and helps develop the coloratura and the extension of the voice. I would like to sing more Mozart and start settling into a period from mid 18th century to the mid 19th century. I am doing the Modena recital because I love chamber music. I love Schumann, Schubert and everything that is German lieder and I would love to do more of it. In Italy, it is not so easy to find people that will sit down for one hour and listen to you sing in German. I think it is something cultural, it is in the blood.
OW: Are there any roles you really want to sing at present?
FA: It depends on what moment we are looking. In the immediate future, I would like to do a lot more Handel. I am going to sing Almirena in “Rinaldo.” I would like to do so many soprano roles from Handel operas, and I would love to start singing more Mozart roles: Susanna, Despina, Zerlina, Ilia, all the ones I can at my age and with my technical skills.
OW: You still have a long and no doubt successful career ahead of you. What are your medium-term goals?
FA: Let’s define medium, say ten years. Hmmm.. …If we are talking within the baroque field then Cleopatra, Rodelinda, and the big soprano roles. If you ask me if I have the notes to sing Cleopatra, then yes, I could sing it tomorrow, that isn’t a problem. I can sing an aria or two or three in a concert, but I think that sometimes for some roles, such as queens like that – we can compare Cleopatra, for sure, to Norma in the bel canto; I mean as a character – at 27 years old it is a little too early to try to impersonate somebody who was reigning over Egypt. Then there is Ilia, Pamina, maybe Donna Anna. I want to develop, step by step, and sing some of the classical lyrical soprano repertoire or whatever roles exist within this fach, and of course what suits me at that moment, so who knows? After a child some sopranos find their instrument changes completely and they suddenly become altos.
OW: What is your dream role?
If you really want to know, my dream role is Lucia. I think this requires a specific path. I want to sing that role and in order to do that, I must do this, this and this. When I achieve the goal of singing Lucia I will be proud of myself, but I am already very happy and a very lucky person because I am doing what I want to do. There are many people my age who work hard, who are still struggling and still studying and will maybe never do the job they are working towards. I am really aware of the amount of good fortune I have had.