Thomas Hampson stars in the title role of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at the Civic Opera House. | Stacie Scott ~ Sun-Times Media
♦ Through Nov. 9
♦ Lyric Opera of Chicago,
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Updated: October 25, 2012 9:02PM
Verdi has created two of opera’s most memorable tragic heroines — Violetta, the doomed young courtesan of “La traviata,” and Aida, the enslaved Ethiopian princess who dies for love in the opera that bears her name.
But it’s mostly a man’s world in “Simon Boccanegra,” the sumptuous Verdi opera about a 14th-century Italian doge. It’s one of two Verdi works that Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting this season, to coincide with the bicentennial of the composer’s birth in 2013.
Though Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova is luminous in the demanding role of Boccanegra’s long-lost daughter Amelia, it’s the raging vendettas among the Doge (Thomas Hampson) and his three male adversaries — Jacopo Fiesco (Ferruccio Furlanetto), Gabriele Adorno (Frank Lopardo) and Paolo Albiani (Quinn Kelsey) — that propel the opera’s highly charged drama.
Idolized in his lifetime, Verdi is still one of opera’s most popular composers. His nearly 30 operas brim with tuneful arias, and his richly colored orchestration often tells us as much as the libretto does about the psychological state of his onstage characters. Artists who specialize in Verdi are often a breed apart, and the terms “Verdi soprano” and “Verdi baritone” imply singers whose voices are brightly colored and flexible as well as big and powerful. It’s a combination that can make — or break — an operatic career.
In a recent interview backstage at the Civic Opera House, Furlanetto and Kelsey talked about the challenges and rewards of singing Verdi roles. At age 64, Furlanetto is an acclaimed Italian bass, renowned internationally for his portraits of Verdi villains and other heavy-duty characters. (He made his sensational Lyric debut last season as the tormented czar in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.”) Kelsey, a native of Hawaii, now in his mid-30s, is at a different stage. A graduate of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center, he is building a successful career and is beginning to add Verdi’s rich range of baritone roles to his repertoire. Kelsey and Furlanetto appeared for the first time together in June in a San Francisco Opera production of Verdi’s “Attila.’’
“All of Verdi’s operas are extremely well written for the right voices,” said Furlanetto, his deep voice and Italian accent adding gravitas to his carefully chosen words. “If you have the right voice, it’s a promenade. Of course, here and there, there are demanding moments. But basically it’s just a beautiful [singing line].”
Slim and crisply tailored in a three-piece brown tweed suit, the famed bass seems unrecognizable backstage as the man who brought Mussorgsky’s besieged 16th czar and Verdi’s vengeful 14th-century aristocrat to life on Lyric’s stage. “Here I am, without my fur,” he said, jokingly referring to the wild manes and extravagant beards he usually wears onstage.
Kelsey, wearing jeans and a dark long-sleeved shirt, is at the opposite end of the sartorial spectrum. But he agrees with Furlanetto’s assessment of Verdi’s gifts as an opera composer. Talented young singers like Kelsey have to be wary of taking on too much too soon, of pushing their developing voices in roles that are too demanding. According to Kelsey, Verdi seemed to understand the dangers of overtaxing the youthful singers portraying his impetuous young heroes and villains.
“As Ferruccio said, it seems that Verdi had a specific singer in mind [when he composed his operas],” Kelsey said. “Verdi has written a lot of roles for my voice type right now, and he writes it so well.” In “Simon Boccanegra,” Paolo is a vivid, important character, but he has plenty of time off-stage during the three-hour work. “Verdi takes such good care of the baritone,” Kelsey said.
Furlanetto believes that 25 years of singing Mozart helped him become one of the world’s leading Verdi basses.
“When I started my career, I was doing small Verdi roles,” he said. The first Verdi aria he ever learned was Fiesco’s searing lament for his dead daughter, “Il lacerato spirito” from “Simon Boccanegra.”
“Then I addressed my career, for a good 25 years, to mostly Mozart, which was a very, very intelligent move. Mozart allows a young singer to grow without danger. You use your voice in the most natural way. This was a kind of pure medicine, taken for 20 to 25 years at the time when you are also developing physiologically.
“When I finally went into the heavier repertoire, it was much, much easier than before,” he said. “Now my repertoire is very much based on these big Verdi roles. It was a natural development to go back into this repertoire where now I feel very comfortable.”
One reason Mozart is so ideal for young singers is that many of his baritone roles are characters in the prime of their lives. They are 30 to 50 years old, close to the age of the artists portraying them. It’s a much healthier fit for a young singer than pushing to become a figure like the aged, grieving Fiesco.
“In order to be older than you are, nastier than you are, you need to create a kind of drama in the voice, and this is very dangerous,” Furlanetto said. “Young singers need to learn that it’s much better to wait one year more to sing a role than to sing it one year too soon.”
“Ferruccio is just so spot on,’’ Kelsey said. “This is such a sensitive time for me. There are roles that I know I can do; I could do them tomorrow. But is it the right thing to do?”
Furlanetto interrupted with a dismissive wave and a smile. “He has one big advantage,” said the veteran bass. “Being such a sensational young singer, he will be able to make his choices very easily because he will have a lot of offers.”
Free-lance contributor Wynne Delacoma was the Sun-Times’ classical music critic from 1991 to 2006.