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PRESTO CLASSICAL: “Marina Rebeka on Amor fatale”

The Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka (who first came to my notice when she recorded Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelleunder Antonio Pappano a few years ago) has a full-bodied, agile voice and natural dignity on stage that’s perfect for the weightier heroines of bel canto; tonight she takes on one of the most formidable challenges in that repertoire, the title-role in Bellini’s Norma, at the Metropolitan Opera. For her new solo recording, Amor fatale, she’s chosen to explore music by the member of the bel canto ‘holy trinity’ who’s perhaps least closely associated with the soprano voice: Rossini, whose most popular operas are star vehicles for mezzos, but whose lesser-known tragic operas contain some wonderful roles for dramatic coloratura soprano (many of them scarcely less dramatically and musically taxing than Bellini’s Druid priestess). I spoke to Marina over the summer between the recording-sessions in Munich to find out a little about the importance of Rossini in her career to date, her thoughts on the complex and conflicted women who appear on the disc, and how and why these fascinating characters have languished in the shadow of Rossini’s comic heroines for so long.

Rossini has become really central to your repertoire – how much of a role did his music play in your training and early career?

Somehow Rossini has become my ‘destiny composer’, because all the big debuts I made were with his music! I auditioned and was accepted at the Accademia Rossiniana in Pesaro in 2007, where I made my debut in two roles in Il Viaggio a Reims (La Contessa di Folleville and Madame Cortese); then in 2008 I was hired for the main festival itself, and my professional debut in a leading role was in Maometto II. The funny thing is that when I first heard Il Viaggio a Reims on CD I said ‘I will never in my life sing this! So many recitatives, all these variations to write…I’m too lazy for that!’. But destiny just had other ideas! In fact my first ever experience on stage was in a version of Il barbiere di Siviglia for children, which was a co-project between the opera house in Parma and the conservatory there; then that Maometto II at Pesaro which I mentioned, and then my Salzburg Festival debut with Maestro Muti in Moïse et Pharaon. And my debut on CD was in the Petite Messe Solennelle with Antonio Pappano, on Warner Classics.

His opera seria still aren’t especially well known, at least in comparison with comic works like Il barbiere di Siviglia and La cenerentola

Indeed: what I tried to show to the audience with this recording is the ‘other’ Rossini, not the opera buffa of Rossini which everybody knows. In Guillaume Tell and Maometto II you can hear a completely different Rossini in terms of the orchestration and the drama – there’s often a huge orchestra and chorus, so it’s a very full sound, and a very dramatic approach. And this Rossini is not seen so often on stage because it’s really difficult to cast: not only do you need fantastic singers with a real working knowledge of the Rossini style, but you have to have full lyric or even dramatic voices which are also capable of coloratura. And on top of that, the singers should also be real musicians, co-composers even, because all the variations (if they’re required, and if they’re allowed!) should really be written by the singer in order to show their understanding of their voice and also of the character’s personality: none of the coloratura is just there as a thing of beauty. Every decoration should express a feeling, an attitude to the character – it’s got to be a part of the drama, not just a string of notes!

So with a role like Mathilde in Guillaume Tell, which you’ve sung in several different stagings, would you alter your ornamentation to fit with the production’s overall take on the character?

Yes, I do change things sometimes – not drastically, and of course only when it’s permitted by the director and musical director! In Guillaume Tell there isn’t scope to do that many variations anyway: it’s mostly done with dynamics and phrasing, rather than in the actual coloratura. But in the places where it’s allowed and it’s appropriate, then certainly!

There’s still a tendency for people to associate Rossini with the mezzo voice rather than the soprano – do you think that’s largely down to the greater popularity of the comic operas?

I think people probably think ‘mezzo’ because they think first of [Isabelle] Colbran [Rossini’s wife and muse], but there’s still the question of what type of voice she had – whether she was a coloratura mezzo or a full soprano with agility. And in that time there was no division between soprano and mezzo: it was the colour of the voice rather than the range that showed what repertoire it should sing. We know that some mezzos have very big extensions, as high as sopranos in some cases; but it’s really all about timbre and how that timbre fits with a certain personality, a certain type of writing. Some Colbran roles really cannot be sung by light voices. You have to look at the orchestration – the voice is only one aspect of the music (especially in these more dramatic works) but ultimately it cannot be covered by the orchestra, and if the sound is light then that’s probably going to happen.

You have a lot of darkness and fullness in the middle of the voice – were you ever mistaken for a mezzo in your early days?

The only time I was a mezzo was when I sang in the chorus! As a soloist, I was always definitely a soprano – the question was what type. In the beginning of my career my voice was lighter, and the human voice naturally develops in this direction, because every seven years the body changes, and a woman’s body in particular changes a lot (and I don’t mean because of pregnancy, though that too can subtly alter the overtones and timbre).

Sopranos have occasionally taken on Rossini’s mezzo roles (Rosina in Barbiere in particular) by transposing certain passages and re-allocating voice-parts in the ensembles etc – that’s not something that appeals to you?

No, not particularly! Even if I did sing Rosina in concert (I wouldn’t do it on stage) I’d do at as me, in the original key – again it’s not a question of tessitura, it’s one of colour, and shifting one aria a tone higher still doesn’t change the overall colour of the role that much. The reason why the light voices started singing this music always comes down to the coloratura, because not many dramatic and full lyric voices can do it! I have Norma coming up at The Met soon, and that’s pretty much exactly the same voice that’s required for the dramatic Rossini: you have to have both the fullness and the flexibility.

What other Rossini roles are on your wish-list?

I definitely would go for Armida, Elena in La donna del Lago, Semiramide, and later on possibly Ermione. The idea behind the CD is that for Rossini the idea of the feminine was extremely important in his life (Colbran, of course, but also more generally) – he really loved women! And in his operas it’s very, very often the case that the person who makes the big central decision is a woman – typically, she has to make a choice between her love and something else which is important to her, whether that’s her father or her homeland or her honour and value-system, and she almost always chooses the other thing! In Maometto II Anna renounces her love for Maometto because she needs to protect the Christian world, and her father, and her homeland; she kills herself at the end because she still loves Maometto, but she has to say no to him. And the same happens with Anaï in Moïse et Pharaon: she has to decide for the Jewish people to go away from Egypt, and her big aria is essentially about her decision to renounce love. And the same yet again in Guillaume Tell: where Mathilde sings ‘Adieu, Melchtal, pour toujours’, effectively she’s saying ‘I’m leaving you for his own good: save yourself, live your live’. Then we have Desdemona and Semiramide, also victims of fatal love. So they’re not very happy, any of these women – but they’re complex, they’re interesting and they’re strong!

Do you have a specific preparation-process for this sort of repertoire?

I’m doing a lot of dramatic Rossini and bel canto at the moment (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Norma), which some people consider to be quite boring! It’s not true, of course – but that’s often how people put it because if it’s not done well and thoughtfully, then it WILL be boring! With that in mind, my main inspiration is not really other people, but the personal process that I go through when preparing a role. I study the written sources first, so when I was learning Mary Stuart I went through dozens of websites on the Tudor family and read a huge amount of historical stuff; then I’ll go to the libretto, and only then to the music. I love to see what a difference there is between the historical facts (as much as you can get at them) and how this composer saw this character. And then when you come to what the music expresses, it’s a kind of a searching for the truth, going through all possible sources, and coming to your own visions. I cannot say I copy Callas, or copy Gencer, or copy Scotto – but I do go through all the available recordings to see what solutions my colleagues (I think of them as ‘previous colleagues’!) had, and then once that whole picture’s in place I start forming an understanding about how the character resonates with me. Because once I feel I have a psychological portrait (not only about my character, but about how other characters see them) I find that everything crystallises.

Katherine Cooper – Presto Classical