Saturday 2 November 2019

An artist should be careful not to put themselves in a box: I chat to tenor Leonardo Capalbo about the challenges of singing the title role in Verdi's Don Carlos

Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo, Raehann Bryce Davis - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo, Raehann Bryce Davis - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
We have heard Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo twice in the title role of Verdi's Don Carlo(s), first this Summer with Grange Park Opera, and then more recently in Ghent with Opera Vlaanderen. Whilst we were in Ghent, I was lucky enough to be able to meet up with Leonardo to talk about his career, his voice, and the role of Don Carlos in particular.

Performing Verdi's Don Carlo (in Italian, in the four-act version) was Leonardo's debut in the role [see my review], and he followed this by performing the opera with Opera Vlaanderen in French in the five-act version [see my review]. Was the change in versions and language was a challenge I wondered? He responded that he feels that everything is a challenge but he loves Verdi's music and finds Verdi's characters the ones he bonds with. And it felt good to do the work in its original French.

You can tell Verdi was thinking about the music of Don Carlos with a French text

Leonardo loves singing in French, and so relished performing in this version and doing the 'Fontainebleau act' (which Verdi cut from the four-act version) not only added some beautiful music to the opera but added to the arc of the narrative. Seeing Don Carlos and Elisabeth uncomplicatedly in love, before her betrothal is announced to Don Carlos' father rather than to Don Carlos himself, helps to show why Don Carlos has a deep connection with Elisabeth later in the opera, and it makes his sacrifice at the end all the more poignant.

Singing in French vocally feels different to Italian. Because of the mixed vowels you have to understand a lot about your instrument to be able to sing French well and release your voice. For Leonardo, a major obstacle to singers in French is the failure to emit the voice in a pleasing fashion. He tries to sing French idiomatically whilst aiming to use the most opulent voice that fits the emotion and style of the music, and he points out that in fact some Francophone singers do not sing French well.

In Italian such things are more straightforward, but Leonardo thinks you can tell that Verdi was thinking about the music of Don Carlos with a French text, the way the musical phrases follow the scansion of the French. He always finds the opera magical, but in French it is more powerful.

Verdi: Don Carlo - Leonardo Capalbo, Brett Polegato - Grange Park Opera 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: Don Carlo - Leonardo Capalbo, Brett Polegato - Grange Park Opera 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)

This is down to technique, he keeps his voice flexible

The role of Don Carlos is a big sing (especially in the five-act version), and needs time, experience and maturity from the singer. Leonardo has always felt that his voice was wanting to sing bigger, more dramatic roles but he waited and stuck to roles suitable to his age and experience. But as he has started singing bigger roles (last Summer he sang the title role in Massenet's Le Cid with Dorset Opera, a role originally sung by the great dramatic tenor Jean de Reske), Leonardo has not dropped other roles. He still sings Nemorino in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore and the Duke of Mantua in Verdi's Rigoletto. Leonardo thinks that we think too much of a singer's fach, and that an artist should be careful not to put themselves in a box or they can find themselves in trouble. He does not aim to sing just dramatic or just lyrical roles, and this is down to technique, he keeps his voice flexible.

Singers should not put roles on in the way you put a piece of clothing on. Leonardo sings with his instrument in as natural a way as possible, never imposing something on the voice to make it more dramatic. Historically, successful singers were versatile (Jean de Reske had a repertoire which went from Gounod's Romeo, to Meyerbeer and Massenet to Wagner's Tristan). Leonardo finds it important that you change the way you use the voice in different roles, but not the essentials. The differences are down to changes such as articulation and colour (he points out that in everyday life we speak with many different colours in our voice), but a singer should keep the essentials otherwise they get in trouble. Leonardo has lots of stamina and good projection throughout the range, thus making a role like Don Carlos possible, but he would never sing a part 'like so' because someone has done it that way.

He feels that too many singers listen to records rather than simply following what is in the score, and the result can be a career which lasts just five years, which is sad but the whole music business is to blame.

Leonardo has been singing for 20 years, and he is grateful for each of his opportunities and tries to look at everything he does with humility. These are great pieces of music, and he tries to become the character, putting out emotions and physical presence. And it is not about perfection, but about being truthful to the music and you have to accept being in the moment as an actor and as a musician. The result can be very cathartic, both for the performer and the listener.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo - Opera Vlaanderen (photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo - Opera Vlaanderen (photo Annemie Augustijns)

Open to productions which are more traditional and those that are more avant garde

The two productions of Don Carlos that Leonardo was in (at Grange Park Opera and at Opera Vlaanderen) were very different in style. Leonardo is open to productions which are more traditional and those that are more avant garde, but it needs to be of high quality. He likens it to the visual arts where we might look at contemporary art or at Renaissance pictures, each production is just a style. Leonardo has a strong background in acting, and is open to exploring the piece from every angle, something which he feels enriches the performance.

Once he has done a piece, deconstructed a role and presented it, then he can take a lot of this work and make it inform a performance of the same role in a very different style of production. The performance is about what is at the core of the piece, not about the blocking which is just a style. So for Leonardo both productions (both very different in style) were rewarding yet completely different.

In the end, this does not necessarily make Don Carlos sympathetic,
but you see the humanity in him

Don Carlos is not a particularly sympathetic character, and Leonardo finds it a problem when people play roles in such a way as to force the hand of the audience to like them, and he has no problem in playing a character which shows dirty aspects of who they are. He found Johan Simons' production at Opera Vlaanderen psychologically powerful, and Don Carlos' almost constant presence on stage, moving between realism and the surreal, enabled them to show lots of different aspects to the character that you might not see in a more traditional production. In the end, this does not necessarily make Don Carlos sympathetic, but you see the humanity in him.

For Leonardo, what makes Verdi so magical as a musical dramatist is that he was a composer who wanted to show how people were thinking. Don Carlos is written in a non-linear fashion and everyone in the piece expresses doubt, there is nothing 'cookie cutter' about the characters. In our discussion, Leonardo makes a number of references to Friedrich Schiller's play (on which the original Don Carlos libretto was based), and clearly reading and thinking about this featured in his research for the role.

For Leonardo, Don Carlos completely matures in one rapid night at the end of the opera, he leaves behind the childish foolish past and ascends to a place of knowledge which makes him a real man. Don Carlos' maturity at the end of the opera is unexpected, he is not trying for it. And here, Leonardo feels the brilliance of Verdi and Schiller in showing a person who finds himself figuring things out too late.

Massenet: Le Cid - Leonardo Capalbo - Dorset Opera (Photo Fritz Curzon)
Massenet: Le Cid - Leonardo Capalbo - Dorset Opera (Photo Fritz Curzon)

He does not want to be the sort of singer who sings just four or five roles

Leonardo has an openness to taking more unusual roles, 'oddities' as he refers to them, and his repertoire and planned performances include Mascagni's Iris, Catalani's La Wally, Massenet's Le Cid as well as Don Carlos. He feels that it is necessary to help educate the public and give them more unusual repertoire, he enjoys such roles and is curious. He likes to experience different types of expression, how he can use his instrument to bring different types of music to life. He emphasises that his instrument does not change, but his voice does. He is also open to singing contemporary music (his repertoire moves through Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and Britten's Gloriana to Thomas Adès' Powder her Face). He studied with Marilyn Horne, and Leonardo points out that whilst we know her as a Rossini singer she sang a lot of contemporary music as well. Leonardo does not want to be the sort of singer who sings just four or five roles. And he finds that he is able to do something different, in a good way, with the comic roles and bring aspects to them from other experiences.

Last Summer, Leonardo sang a particularly rare and challenging role, Rodrigue, the title role in Massenet's Le Cid which Dorset Opera performed in July 2018 [see Dominic Lowe's review on Bachtrack]. The music is spectacular, and it was one of the big hits of its time. It is a big role, a big undertaking but he loves singing it and feels that the role fits him well. The music is infectious, and even though it is relatively unknown Leonardo found that the audiences heard it and felt they knew it. Leonardo's enthusiasm for the opera is infectious, and he is very keen to do it again and he considers the role to be better than Massenet's Werther (another role which is coming up in Leonardo's schedule). Roberto Alagna sang the role in Montpelier and considered it harder than Verdi's Otello.

But Leonardo tends to do quite well in the long hard, 'crazy' pieces. He takes on the challenge with gusto and doesn't sit around thinking, this is difficult, and feels that it is easy to develop poor vocal health if you go into a role thinking 'poor me, how hard the role is'.

As a teacher, Marilyn Horne was a warm person, but very tough

As a teacher, Marilyn Horne was a warm person, but very tough. The most important thing Leonardo learned from her was to support the voice, breathing, making sure he was singing using the whole body, and this is something that has stayed with him. From a broader perspective, he remembers her advice about being versatile. When he was 20, it was clear from his voice that he was going to be a spinto tenor but she said he should explore different types of music, and why not. It is all too easy for a young singer to burn themselves out.

Whilst Leonardo has sung since he was very young and always had a deep, mature voice for his age, he thought of himself as an actor at first. So his approach to a role is to delve into why, to ask questions and the learning process is one of discovery.

Leonardo is keenly interested in the voice, and conversation with him often comes back to the importance of a natural technique. He is fond of listening to, and referring to historical singers, and during our conversation mentions the tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (1892-1979), a great singer who ran a whole gamut of roles. Lauri-Volpi had a big impressive voice, but he referred to himself as a large lyric voice with a dramatic personality, and he kept his voice to advanced age. He wrote a wonderful book Voci Parallel (Parallel Voices). Leonardo loves him even in the crazy moments, because Lauri-Volpi really wants to communicate. And this is why the tenor Franco Corelli was so obsessed with Lauri-Volpi.

Leonardo Capalbo (Photo Adam Ulrich )
Leonardo Capalbo (Photo Adam Ulrich )

Looking ahead Leonardo will be singing the Duke of Mantua in Verdi's Rigoletto at the Komische Oper, Berlin in a revival of Barrie Kosky's production. Leonardo has not sung in the production before, and never worked with Kosky so he is looking forward to it, as he finds Kosky's way of working so clever and intriguing.

He is also performing Don Jose in a revival of Calixto Bieito's production Bizet's Carmen at the Liceu in Barcelona. This is a relatively new role for Leonardo, but it has been a very successful one, the Barcelona performances will be his sixth Don Jose in four seasons. Leonardo's thoughts on the role of Don Jose again return to the need for flexibility in the voice, and he comments that too often the role is sung either by tenors who are too heavy or are too lyrical when what the role needs is someone who can do the lyrical moments and the dramatic ones.

Full details of Leonardo Capalbo's schedule is available from his website.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Kiandra Howarth takes first prize at the Grange Festival International Singing Competition - my article
  • 'The first great example of British exceptionalism': Purcell's King Arthur re-thought in an engaging performance and accompany CDs from Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli  (★★★★★)  - CD & Opera review
  • A ravishing and heart-rending evening: Massenet's Manon from the Met, Live in HD (★★★★) - opera review
  • A remarkable reinvention: Verdi's Don Carlos in French in Flanders (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Eccentric, passionate harpsichordist, in a ménage à cinq: the lives of Violet Gordon-Woodhouse - feature article
  • An intoxicating concert - that is the magic of song: Walt Whitman's bicentenary celebrated at London Song Festival  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Valuable first thoughts: John Butt & the Dunedin Consort record every note of Samson as Handel first performed it  (★★★★★) CD review
  • Les Étoiles: Natalie Clein, Ruby Hughes, Julius Drake, Matan Porat in music for voice, cello and piano at Kings Place (★★) - concert review
  • The North Wind was a Woman: chamber works by David Bruce centred on the mandolin playing of Avi Avital  (★★) - CD review
  • A Night at the Museum: the Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum (★★★) - concert review
  • Housman and the Greeks at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freischütz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20 (★★) - my opera review
  • A striking new work: the London premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta (★★) - concert review
  • Home

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