By Erica Miner
Notwithstanding the pall of despondency hovering over San Diego Opera, to be in the presence of Ferruccio Furlanetto’s greatness for one amazing hour while he imparted his wisdom was an overwhelming experience. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his greatness, he remains utterly modest and unprepossessing. And, as always, a true gentleman.
EM: We’re ecstatic as always at your return to San Diego Opera, Maestro. Congratulations on your fortieth anniversary on the stage. And thank you so much for your astonishing performance in Verdi’s Requiem. I was honored to be able to hear it.
FF: Ah, good.
EM: It was such a privilege.
FF: And it was a very special state of mind in general that night, because it just happened, this… strange mess. And it would have been the last thing to do, I would say, a Requiem for an opera theater, but we did and it was beautiful. I was very glad to be in that.
EM: Yes, it was special on so many different levels.
FF: It’s such an amazing, magnificent piece that is absolutely a privilege every time you have the chance to perform it. To be in it, to filter it. It’s great.
EM: In our interview last season you had mentioned a very special Verdi Requiem you did with Guilini, and the emotions you experienced.
FF: That was by far the best case. Because this man was really filtering this incredible masterpiece. You know, our duty is really that, to filter with our own emotion, with our own sensibility, this amazing masterpiece, and to be the filter between the composer... And Giulini - you could tell the pain was his pain, and it was so magnificent. I will never forget. And I did many others, beautiful ones I will never forget also. The one on January 28, 2001, for the hundred years of Verdi, in the San Marco church in Milano, where it happened for the first time for the funeral of Manzoni, conducted by Verdi himself. That day was Muti and full, full, full church. I remember that Muti at the beginning asked the audience to listen, to have it in their hearts, and at the end consider the circumstance and why the event was taking place, just to leave the theater without applauding. It was so touching, because you could understand that everyone was really “washed” inside. But it is magnificent music.
EM: Yet this time for you, to perform it on the fortieth anniversary of your first appearance on stage, that must have been a different set of emotions.
FF: Everything was ideal, because the day before, the day of the generale, it was the day of my first step on stage forty years before, and to be singing the Verdi Requiem, and to be in San Diego, which is without any doubt one of my few dearest places in the world, it was magic. Everything was so beautiful. It was only spoiled by this terrible news.
EM: Once you started singing, though, was that awful news hanging over the whole time?
FF: When you start to sing you immediately get into the piece and of course if you have any special reason to sing it, that’s even better. I’ll never forget another one I did in ’94. I was in Japan with Seiji Ozawa, we were doing a series of them, Requiems, and the last one was the day of the TV. And on that very day my grandmother died. And there was something special, because Ozawa said that night it was something amazing. And of course if you have a very special reason to which to dedicate this music… on that night something amazing happened, because maybe a month after I received a letter from Japan from a young woman, say early 40s, and she told me, “In those days my husband died of cancer, I was destroyed, absolutely desperate. I was even considering suicide. And that night I heard this Verdi Requiem on the TV and I understood there was reason to live.” And I still have this little letter, inside a beautiful precious manuscript of Don Giovanni, because this was a most amazing proof you have touched the heart of somebody. This is where everybody in the profession should target, to reach hearts. And this was proof that I did it that night. And somehow, I don’t know if I saved a life or not, but nevertheless this woman understood that there was a reason to continue. I was in tears when I read it. I was devastated. Beautifully devastated.
EM: That’s the power of music, and what we, as performers, aspire to, to reach people with that power. When two events like that coincide, it becomes magical.
FF: That happens both in stage operas or in recitals or in a concert like that, without staging. But just the fact that we are filtering emotions and transferring them to an audience. This is the greatest privilege.
EM: Yes, it is. Then to follow the Requiem with Don Quichotte, which you mentioned, last time we spoke as possibly the role you love most of all…
FF: Probably it is… I just did it the 26th of January in Moscow, because the production we did one year before, in Mariinsky with Gergiev, was awarded the biggest prize in Russia. So for the final event we were invited to perform the production at the Bolshoi. And it has been sensational to be in this amazing theatre, of course, but also even more because it was the second performance in ninety-nine years. The first performance was in 1915 done by Chaliapin for whom the piece was written by Massenet, and the audience went wild. It was magnificent to repurpose it in a beautiful production, this stunning piece. There’s a lot of criticism about Massenet about Don Quichotte, because they find that these kind of operas are a bit light. I cannot agree on that at all. The character of Quichotte is so special, so unique. He’s exactly what men should be for three hours in their life: love. Love for everything that’s around us, whether it’s nature, sky, air, other persons, animals. And when it comes to the end, for instance, the death of Quichotte is so touching, so involving emotionally. I would say it’s on the same level or maybe even deeper than the death of Boris, for a very simple reason, because both are death of a real person. Boris is one of the greatest Tsars Russia had, and you have in this opera his real life, and Don Quichotte is the purity that every man can have. It’s just a matter of will.
EM: You think perhaps with Quichotte it’s a bit more poignant because he is so childlike and naïve and idealistic?
FF: Yes, but in the end naiveté went away. Everything finishes with the refusal of Dulcinée. His world is collapsing, and like an elephant he goes in a very specific place because he knows he has to die. But he dies beautifully, purely like the rest of his life, with a transparent soul, through which you can see everything: present, past and future. And it’s a sensational privilege to have a sensibility to do it properly, and to live this situation, because unfortunately normally in life when the end comes you don’t have much time. Very often it’s something sudden or painful. In theatre you have this possibility to leave your kind of legacy and when it’s done in such a touching way it’s so beautiful, really beautiful.
EM: You also had mentioned that when you were doing Mozart you were almost challenging - or rather, “channeling” - Siepi. Do you feel you are channeling, evoking, anyone else as Don Quichotte?
FF: I think Siepi was impossible to challenge or channel. Siepi was a god. An inspiration for sure. I was trying to get close, to go in that direction, and I did. Even in that repertoire I was lucky enough to do certain productions where I was absolutely happy. All the Figaros with Ponnelle, the Don Giovanni with Chereau in Salzburg, I was a hundred percent in agreement with everything. And in that moment it’s pure happiness.
EM: So as Quichotte, would you say you channeled perhaps Chaliapin? Christoff?
FF: No, Chaliapin is too far. Nobody, I would say, for one simple reason. Chaliapin - of course, yes, the photo of the head, of Chaliapin, tells a lot. A great inspiration, because you see the eyes, the face, you imagine how you would present yourself in this role. But all the documentation we have is so old, so distant. Christoff, who was another god of mine - I had the privilege to meet and to do a tour with him, my very second opera, I was the Monk in Don Carlo and he was King Philip, and he was charming to me. But Christoff, for instance, in Don Quichotte, was a bit strange. His French was not good, the Italian was not good. It was (sings, growling) Bulgarian. I asked through friends if there was a tape, documentation, of Siepi doing Quichotte, and he replied very kindly that unfortunately he never did it. And this I think is such a loss, because his French was magnificent, and that voice! Applied to Don Quichotte it would have been… like chocolate, dark chocolate, melting. So, no, I just learned it, went though, digested it in the way I was feeling it. There is enough material to do so in this piece.
EM: You also mentioned that when you are doing Filippo you feel you have to stay close to his historical character. But with Quichotte being just a fictional character, do you feel a bit more interpretive freedom?
FF: Yes, but nonetheless there is this track of purity that has to be followed. Because the way he speaks, thinks, the way he sees even love towards a young girl - everything is extremely pure, healthy. And you can move within it, but you cannot go out from that and I believe that’s rather impossible. But of course you could. It happened that I saw some Quichottes done by people who were not filtering it in this way, and then even if it’s well sung it could be… empty. And Don Quichotte cannot afford to be empty. The voice is fifty percent. The other fifty percent is from the mental, and it must be pure of heart. Otherwise it’s a lost vocation.
EM: So there’s something missing.
FF: Absolutely. I won’t name names, but there are some recordings of great singers - I can remember two of them - where there’s nothing in it. Because they didn’t have that kind of sensibility. They were thinking just about the beautiful quality of the sound. Not enough.
EM: You also said then that French was the most difficult language to sing for you. Do you still feel that way?
FF: Yes, French, if you are compelled to sing it like many French coaches would ask, is awfully difficult and against the human voice when it comes to be sung. For instance to listen to French spoken by a beautiful young girl is the most amazing language in the world, because it goes together. I remember talking with Jose Van Dam, we were doing Pelleas in Paris - he’s Belgian, so his mother language is French - and he told me when it comes to sing you must sing it as you would if you were Italian. Therefore, forget about (makes nasal sounds) because that doesn’t travel, closed nose doesn’t go anywhere in a matter of projecting. So just the “Rrrr” - you have to sing it, to project it, to make people understand it in the distance. Now it’s years I’m doing that in Quichotte and there is no problem whatsoever.
EM: This may be a strange question, but you’ve sung the role in a French opera house. Does it any feel different for you, knowing your audience is mostly French?
FF: No, but I did Boris in St. Petersburg and in Bolshoi, and I did my Russian recitals in St. Petersburg. It would be even more dramatic there, but when I prepared myself properly, deeply, I never pretended to be Russian. I never pretended to be French. I just want to be understandable, correct.
EM: And Quichotte is a role you can do for the rest of your life.
FF: Ah, yes.
EM: Maestro, thank you so much for spending this time with me. It was a great pleasure as always.
FF: Thank you.
EM: I’m looking forward to opening night of Don Quichotte.
FF: The cast is very lovely. It will be very special, very beautiful. It will be great.
Next: Furlanetto Part 2: The Russian Soul
Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org