Twin Peaks – Soprano Marina Rebeka on Saying Goodbye to ‘La Traviata’ & the Psychological Power of ‘Norma’By David Salazar
While soprano Marina Rebeka has taken on a slew of roles in her career, it is fair to say that few have had as big an impact as that of Violetta in “La Traviata.”
It is a role that she has dominated in over 18 different productions over the better part of the last decade. It is one that she knows so well that she could tell you where the exact musical midpoint happens and the opera itself becomes an inverted musical shape (“Così alla misera – ch’è un dì caduta”). She can describe not only every psychological beat as described by the music, but where it came from in the original novel by Alexandre Dumas fils on which the opera is based.
So it might be surprising for many that Rebeka is ready to let the role go after a series of performances this summer at the Arena di Verona.
“This is one of my favorite roles. It sounds strange because people sing it as long as they can, but in my case, apart from going more to ‘Rusalka,’ ‘Ernani,’ ‘Trovatore,’ a fuller repertoire, my idea was and is that the role should be left at the moment of its biggest blossom,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview. “That’s how I left Donna Anna [from ‘Don Giovanni’]. Everyone wanted me to keep singing it and I had some big contracts with major houses which I canceled. But I told them, at the moment when I feel that the role is not as comfortable, I prefer to leave it.”
The soprano noted that the “biggest blossom” didn’t mean that she didn’t feel she had more to explore with the character. Quite the opposite, in fact.
She noted that one of the biggest criticisms she has often received for her incarnation is that Violetta doesn’t come across as fragile or vulnerable enough. And while that is a potential avenue for discovery, she’s simply never felt that Violetta was all that weak.
“I could discover this fragility, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to because I think she is a strong woman inside,” she noted. “Reading Dumas you can interpret it even clearer. She was alone until she met Alfredo. She has made her way in the society alone. She came to the city, didn’t know anyone. She was poor and beautiful. Everything she gained was because she was so wise and knew that it was not enough just to conquer a man physically but you also have to know what is going on in society and how to talk and dress and the specific cultural developments so you could be an interesting conversation partner. This made her very special. It’s not just that she’s a prostitute, rudely saying. She was like a Ferrari, let’s put it. Everyone that goes out with a Ferrari, it tells others that you have money. So if people went out with Violetta, they know that this person had money. She was a sign of luxury in that society. She could not allow herself to love. And the moment this love came, she was so caught in the web that she was ready to leave everything to be with this man.”
Furthermore, she noted that the second Act confrontation with Germont, “a battle of wills,” can’t work if Violetta is anything but a warrior ready to fight for her love.
“The only reason she gives it up is because she wants a better future for him. I think she might be fragile physically, but internally she is a passionate woman,” Rebeka continued. “There are many aspects to her. She didn’t have a childhood. In Dumas, this is a child combined with a woman. Her character changes quickly. In the coloratura we hear her laughter. Sometimes it is hysterical laughter. Sometimes it is a mask she is wearing in front of society. Afterward we have no coloratura. It is a very clear portrait for me form Verdi. I love the piece and adore it deeply.”
She loved it so much that in anticipation of saying goodbye to it forever, she made it the first full-length opera recording with her own recording company Prima Classic. Despite her numerous performances in the role, she had never actually gotten a recording of the full opera (her one video recording of a semi-staged and heavily cut production was never released in the U.S.).
“I wanted to record Traviata the way I feel it,” she noted.
Making Room For Many Roles
But the other major reason why she is leaving it is to grow as an artist and make room for other roles and repertoire to take over her life. Rebeka, who is performing several productions a year, has always valued the process of learning as much as the performance aspect of her career. An avid learner, she researches every piece she takes on extensively, asking and answering all the questions on her mind.
And she doesn’t only do this for the operas. She does it for every piece she performs on a recital, a process that undoubtedly increases her workload. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This year, I have a lot of recitals at La Scala, in Toulouse, in Zurich,” she noted. “Chamber music needs a lot of time and preparation. The language and the stylistics. You need to read a lot to understand why a composer was writing it and when. Also, there is specific research for your voice. It is very different from opera. So when I have free time, I need time to study new roles and chamber music. For me it is a long process that I like.”
In lieu of “Traviata” one other opera is starting to become central to Rebeka’s artistry – Bellini’s iconic “Norma,” which she will be taking on this weekend in Hamburg.
She first appeared as the famed priestess in 2017 in her native country of Latvia and has since interpreted it at the Metropolitan Opera and in Toulouse.
Rebeka noted that she still has a great deal to discover about Norma as a character, but finds the opera to not only be a masterpiece, but also a fascinating piece for an actress due to the multi-faceted personality showcased in the work.
“Norma is first of all a warrior, a witch, a daughter of Oroveso, a mother, a betrayed lover, and then she is also a very generous woman,” Rebeka stated, listing off the many roles the central character occupies in the opera, more than perhaps any other heroine in the entire repertoire. “She has a big heart.”
The role is often described as the Mount Everest of soprano roles because of its vocal challenges. But for Rebeka, the vocal challenges don’t necessarily stem from where most people think they do.
“Sometimes people ask me how I sing ‘Casta Diva.’ Like Callas? Caballé? I respond that generally speaking, everyone knows ‘Casta Diva’ and when the introduction starts, the heart dies. Everyone sits with their ears open waiting to kill you with the first sound. It’s very hard,” she explained. “But if we talk artistically, ‘Casta Diva’ is a prayer for peace. Everyone prays in his own way. You take the words and you make them yours. And you take the words you have and the music you have, but you pray your own way. I think it is so personal and individual and it would be impossible to copy anyone.”
“We have all those ghosts of Callas’ interpretation and her phrasing and charisma, but I’ve never tried to copy anyone.”
The Complexity Within
From a character perspective, Rebeka thinks that Norma’s main challenge as a character comes from the inner struggle she as with her own identity. Each aspect of her being challenges her main trait – her honesty and integrity.
“I think the main thing that defines Norma is being honest and the conflict that she has is that she is not honest with everyone,” Rebeka reflected. “She is hiding the children and the love. She is being a fake. It’s a crime what she has done toward her people and her beliefs. But love is, in her vision, not a crime. Love is everything she is living for.”
The limits of that love are tested in the most shocking scene of the opera at the start of the second half when Norma, seeing her children asleep contemplates killing them. For Rebeka this scene is at the core of Norma’s complex feelings toward Pollione, the Roman for whom she betrayed her tribe. As a mother herself, the soprano noted that this scene undeniably affects her greatly.
“[Her children are] her biggest crime and as she says, when you look at your child it is a combination of yourself and your partner, who she loves and hates at the same time,” the Latvian soprano continued. “That’s why it is so hard for her. She looks at them and reflects knowing that the easiest way is to get rid of them. No one would know who they are.
“But her motherly instincts cause this dialogue in which she asks what they did wrong. And she searches. There is no music. It is in the silence that she discovers and remembers they are the children of Pollione. And that is the biggest crime. That’s where for me, they are dead. He is dead for them,” Rebeka explained. “There will be no bigger punishment than this. If they stay here they are dead anyway. And if they go to Rome, they will have another mother, which she cannot allow. Because she is so passionate for them.
For her, the brilliance of this moment comes from not the music itself, but its scarcity and how it explores psychological depth through silence.
“There isn’t much music, just some short phrases. These ideas come from the silence, not the music. You have to get it out of nothing. This is a big emotional fight for her,” Rebeka enthused. “Then she decides to kill them but she cannot. She remembers that they are HER children. They are a part of her.”
She noted also that Norma’s final sacrifice, in her view, comes from assuming her responsibility. In the opera’s final moments, Pollione is captured by the tribe and she gets an opportunity to confront him about the mistakes in their relationship. But when it comes time to pass judgement on him, she recognizes the fact that she is as guilty as he is.
“Instead of putting shame on someone else and living with her guilty conscience, she assumes her responsibility,” Rebeka probed. “She doesn’t say anything when he asks for forgiveness. She still loves him and is hurt by him. He is the one asking for the forgiveness and she responds that she is the guilty one.”
Getting Rebeka to examine the work only gets her digging deeper into its profoundness and in her concluding feelings about why “Norma” has stood the test of time for so long, she turned to a more panoramic view of the work and its larger themes.
“Rome is always seen as this powerful, educated, and civilized world, moreso than the Druids. They give culture to other civilizations throughout history,” she added. “But in this story, Pollione, the Roman, causes so much pain. And it is Norma, a Druid who is more connected to the Earth in a more primitive society, who with her personality and honesty within herself rises above and is capable of showing compassion and assume her responsibilities. Pollione could never do that. He wanted to grab Adalgisa and go to Rome without telling Norma. That’s the difference between the two of them and that’s the bigger story the opera is telling.”
Rebeka is eager to continue exploring “Norma” more and more and noted that at some point in the distant future, she would love to record it with Prima Classic.
But in the meantime, she is excited about her next recording project, “Elle,” an album dedicated to French opera arias for roles the soprano has sung and a few others that she hasn’t (including the “Habanera” from “Carmen,” which the soprano noted has often been recorded by sopranos such as Maria Callas, Victoria de los Ángeles, and Angela Gheorghiu). The album is set for release on March 20, 2020.
“I always loved French music for its incredible colorfulness and I love the language,” the soprano noted. “I wanted to create just one album dedicated to French to find these colors and subtleness in each piece.
Rebeka noted that Prima Classic has a number of other exciting projects incoming, though she could not reveal to much information. She did note that she is excited about not only preserving her own interpretations but offering other major colleagues opportunities to preserve their respective legacies, which is most important to her.
“There are no limits for art and there shouldn’t be limits for artists. That’s an important reason why we do this,” she concluded.