By Erica Miner
In a continuation of our extraordinary conversation, Maestro Ferruccio Furlanetto reveals insights on performing the astonishing Russian basso repertoire - in Russia. Performing repertoire outside the operatic sphere. And Murder.
EM: Maestro, we were just discussing the need for the interpretation of Don Quichotte to have a special kind of sensibility. Could you elaborate?
FF: Yes. The beautiful quality of the sound. Not enough. For instance, when I started to study a long time ago, way before doing it, Winterreise. I was listening to everybody. And of course the most famous was Fischer-Dieskau. Nothing. Not a little bit cold, it was frozen. And then on the other hand I had the luck to listen to the person that would have been the inspiration for the rest of the way, Hans Hotter. He made his recording - you could only imagine what would have been the state of mind of a young man in 1943 in Berlin, where he did this recording. And you can feel it, you receive a wave after another of joy in desperation, pain - death. And it’s amazing, I am already doing this Winterreise, I think three or four years, how it develops, constantly, even with a gap of months between recitals. You find new intentions, new colors, you get closer and closer to what it should be. But again, it cannot be just vocal effort. You must put yourself in it, heart, brain and everything, physically. Totally in it. Otherwise it’s totally empty as it was for Fischer-Dieskau.
EM: And the lieder can’t be.
FF: No, you must kill them (laughs). Now in July I want to redo the recording, to make another one. Because it’s another planet since then. I just did it before coming here in Berlin, in Milano, Scala, and in Moscow Conservatory Hall. In Moscow there was a radio recording, and they gave me the first CD that it will be of course incorporated, but already if you compare it to the recording, it’s hardly the same person. In a matter of everything, colors, the way you feel it. Again, I love to use this word, “filtering.” It is a filter.
EM: And in July you get to do it again.
FF: With the same pianist, a very talented young man who has had a very specific state of mind these days because he is German now but is originally Ukrainian. He had good reasons to be… whew. A lot of emotion. But I think it’s important because this piece needs to be done just to transfer emotion, and I repeat, in three years it’s another world.
EM: You have a special affinity for the Russian repertoire. “L’âme Russe de Ferruccio Furlanetto,” as it’s been described.
FF: (Sighs) This is nothing. Of course there are singers who are more attracted than others. But just think what Russian music has for basses, for baritone, for dark voices. It’s a universe. You cannot not be attracted by it. And once you are attracted, once you’re doing it, you have to do it properly. The more properly you do it, the more you are involved in it. Before Winterreise I also did in Berlin the Russian recital and in Geneva also, Rachmaninoff first, and the Mussorgsky lieder ending with the Song and Dance of Death. What do you want more than that? In Rachmaninoff everything is love. Mussorgsky, death. And death could be a fantastic subject in music. And in acting. Therefore Russian repertoire offers an interpreter the widest choice of roles. How couldn’t you be attracted by it? Between that and to have a Russian soul - I would say there is an affinity for sure, because my part of Italy, northeast, we have because of former Yugoslavia, all the Eastern countries relatively close, we have Slavic influence for sure, over the centuries as you can imagine. I would never live in Russia, although I go there very often - because there is still the “stink” of Communism. That you can receive from the state of their architecture, and now they tend to restore it, to make it as beautiful as it was. But if you look inside in details you see how abandoned it was by this terrible period. I was born in freedom, I grew up in freedom, and I cannot stand both Communism and Fascism. These extremes don’t exist and they shouldn’t exist. I will never be able to live there because unfortunately we see, in these days, in the present, now the mentality of this very small group of power, one man surrounded by ten or twelve oligarchs who couldn’t care less of the rest of the country. They just take care of their own interests, they share the cake, and it’s absolutely dreadful. But whenever I am there and I am in concert with people, and with their amazing history… almost two years ago now, I was in Moscow with Gergiev and the Mariinsky to do Don Quichotte in concert version, at the Conservatory Hall, a glorious hall, beautiful acoustics, sensational. And a good friend of mine proposed if I would be interested to go to Boris’s grave. I said of course. So she took me to it, eighty kilometers away from Moscow, kind of a fortified little village surrounded by walls, very mystical. There are five churches, Orthodox, of course. There is still in there what they call starets (starĭtsĭ), a holy man, somebody who can tell you - they believe this kind of thing - your past, but it’s religious. In front of one of these churches there is a simulacrum (draws in the air), like that, with Boris Godunov, his wife, (and children) Tsenia and Fyodor. Why outside? Because historically the wife, who was sent to a cloister, they say she committed suicide. But you know in those times they were killing people and saying it was something else. And it was so touching to be in front of this grave and to be somehow related to him through music. Such a touching experience. I didn’t make any picture, it was just something private. And I was extremely grateful to this friend of mine because I was into the Old Russia, the big heart Russia. Because when you’re singing this repertoire you feel this pathos, this somehow almost a pleasure of sufferance.
EM: My parents were both Russian, so believe me, I came to understand the Russian soul.
FF: You can understand. It’s one of these (whispers), “Oh my God, I suffer but somehow it’s beautiful to suffer.” It’s wonderful, and you understand the soul of these people. They have this misfortune to go through this dirty eighty years of garbage. Then when you are there, it’s just a moment of their life, there are centuries behind it. St. Petersburg, when you walk around, it’s unique, especially in winter. Then you are really feeling the real Russia. When you have this blaze of ice hanging from the roofs of the palaces, very dangerous, two or three meters long, it could kill anyone. But this is… whew.
EM: The real Russian soul. The one that defeated Napoleon.
EM: I can see it in your face, when I’ve watched you singing in Russian. There seems to be a special joy.
FF: You cannot be not involved emotionally. And if you are, that’s your face (laughs).
EM: Just to shift gears for a moment. In our second interview last season about your sensational appearance here in Murder In The Cathedral you had mentioned you would love to do it at the Met someday.
FF: I would like to do it everywhere.
EM: At that time, Maestro Levine was not in physical shape to be considering it. Have you approached him again about it now that he’s back at the Met?
FF: No. I talked to him about it, I also sent him the DVD from here. I know he’s gradually come back. I also have something with him in 2018, so it means he wants to be there. He proposed me some other opera, not close to the time of Assassinio but in that direction, L’Amore di Tre Re, and I said, “Yes, I’ve done it in concert in Vienna, it’s such a glorious piece. But you should also take a moment to listen to this (Assassinio). You saw the success we had last season, and that it was a national success because it was the first time in this country. And I think it should be wonderful.” But what can I do more than what I am doing? It will happen, for instance, with Gergiev because Gergiev loves it and when he says we will do it you can be sure it will happen. And this is a great quality. This time in January we were doing a Quichotte in Bolshoi and we had dinner afterward, and he said, yes, we will do it in St. Petersburg, the “white nights,” in concert version and we are pushing in that direction. We tried to do it with the London Symphony when he was there, but the London Symphony created so many problems. After St. Petersburg with Mariinsky Orchestra I would find sponsors, and I’m sure he can, we would do it in Canterbury Cathedral. And that for me is the final target. Because to do this magnificent piece and to have Becket die in exactly the place where he died in 1170, it will be an amazing musical event. Everybody I speak with, I’ve really spoken with the high level of the Canterbury Cathedral, and I mention it, they (gasps), they are enthusiastic. They are the ones who commissioned the theatre work in those times, so they are extremely interested to have an opera celebrating their own saint, for sure, so it’s not a problem.
EM: For Becket to be assassinated on that very spot would be amazing.
FF: That will be great. Maybe that could kick some interest in other places. You remember this piece was written in 1958, and six years after Karajan brought it in Vienna, where he was the boss. And he did it at that time, unfortunately in German, with Hans Hotter, by the way. Because at that time whatever they were doing in their own language - in Italy we were doing Carmen in Italian - but Karajan himself was the greatest personality in music of the century. (He) wanted it immediately, in his own theatre. So wouldn’t it be good in Vienna, for instance, to repurpose it. They are afraid of one thing, that these kind of operas need an interpreter. If the interpreter gets sick, the entire little castle collapses. And this could be a good reason. Last year when I did it here I didn’t have a cover, for me. And it was a tremendous responsibility.
EM: That’s high pressure.
FF: I was really so worried. I never played golf last year until the day after my last performance, because I stayed two days more. Finally the day after the last performance I went to play. But before that I couldn’t even think to do that and to put this production that I strongly wanted to be jeopardized or collapse because of a stupid cold. Of course a major theatre should train a young singer. In Milano I had a cover, a Finnish bass, who sang also one performance. just in case.
EM: So it took some pressure off you.
FF: Yes. In Milano they didn’t do like Pizzetti wanted, the four Tempters are the same Knights coming at the end. There were four Tempters and four Knights, but they could be switched. If one of the four were sick, they could interchange. That could be done also. Here we did it again with the same voices, which is right, perfect. And it’s wonderful and should be that way. It’s a bit risky (laughs). But it went well, and it was a magnificent event. Magnificent. And at the end after we finished, I was so happy and proud that I really insisted the point that they came to Milano, (Ian) Campbell and two ladies from the Board, they saw it, heard it, and realized… in Milano we had eight performances totally sold out - okay, it’s Italy, it was first time in fifty years it was redone - and it was a sensational success, and it could be tomorrow again. The production was stunning -Yannis Kokkos, the same guy who did Don Quichotte at Mariinsky. And I must say San Diego was so courageous to do it. When it finished and the success was stunning, I was so happy and proud that we make it happen.
EM: As well you should be. At this point in your career have you done practically everything you want to do? Is there something you haven’t yet done?
FF: There’s something I will do in fall, in Vienna, but it’s not Boris, it’s Khovanshchina, with Bychkov, under the direction, the production of Lev Dodin, who will never be traditional but he’s so clever. That will be for sure very interesting. But apart from that I want to continue to do what I’m doing now. Basically this: a lot of Carlos, a lot of Boris, Quichotte the most often as I can, and Murder In The Cathedral.
EM: And recitals also?
FF: Recitals, yes. I want to keep going, especially the Winterreise, because the reason I told you, the development is so amazing, so unique, that it’s great, great pleasure and satisfaction. Then there is another one taking body, it Beethoven and Brahms. And then I think, keep going with this. I am mostly an opera singer. Recitals are marginal, let’s say, although they give you a dimension you will never get in opera. Because you are there for one hour and a half and you have to paint.
EM: And you get a chance to explore a depth of emotion on a very profound level.
FF: I think that to have this recital part of a career going on, it’s extremely important for the voice, because you explore your vocality in a way you wouldn’t be able to do in opera, and for that reason you can find new colors, things that at the beginning you were not even dreaming it could have been possible to find. And then you find you can refine your intentions, find new dynamics. Something special.
EM: It sounds like a marvelous plan. And of the moment, we have your exquisite Don Quichotte to look forward to.
FF: As I said before, very special. Very beautiful. It will be great.
Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at email@example.com