Meet the Heavy Hitters
As Simon Boccanegra opens at Sydney Opera House, Elissa Blake talks to its stellar cast about the opera's extraordinary musical demands.
Verdi specialists are the elite athletes of opera. "In sport, only those talented enough and experienced enough and dedicated enough get to compete at the Olympic Games,"says Lyndon Terracini, Artistic Director of Opera Australia. "Verdi is the Olympics for singers."
Terracini has brought together a cast of world-renowned Verdi specialists for Opera Australia's production of Simon Boccanegra, the powerful personal and political drama that haunted Verdi for 25 years.
"Verdi is the Olympics for singers."
Simon Boccanegra's demanding score ensures it remains a relative rarity on the world's opera stages, says Terracini, adding that it can only be shown when the very best singers are all available to do it — in this case, Opera Australia favourites Natalie Aroyan and Diego Torre; the baritone sensation, George Petean; and the great Italian bass Giacomo Prestia.
"This is extremely demanding music to sing and you must have performers who can inhabit the roles completely," says Terracini. "These singers know the music so well, they have sung it many, many times, and they know what is at the core of their characters. Not only that, they can communicate it to the audience. They understand how and why Verdi wrote that music. When you hear them at close range, it's like you are being thumped in the chest."
Diego Torre as Gabriele Adorno in Opera Australia's 2016 production of Simon Boccanegra at Sydney Opera House. Photo: Branco Gaica
Diego Torre describes himself as "a Verdi dreamer". The composer's music swirls in his head more often than not, he says.
"To get mastery of Verdi takes a lot of time," says Torre, the Mexican-born tenor who now calls Australia home. "It's not just about the voice and the style of singing. You need to study how Verdi thought about the voice. He didn't hear voices like we do in our time. It's a singer's task to investigate how he wanted that voice to sound."
Torre, 36, sings the role of Gabriele Adorno — the sworn enemy of Simon Boccanegra, Doge of Genoa.
"Nowadays, people think singing Verdi is about having a big voice and singing very, very loudly," Torre explains. "They think if you don't have a big voice, you won't be able to sing Verdi. But that's not true. The foundation of Verdi's repertoire is bel canto. And in bel canto, there is agility and the need for perfect pitch, not just volume."
Torre is intimately acquainted with the demands of a Verdi score. He recently sang the role of Rodolfo in Opera Australia's Luisa Miller and the title role in Elijah Moshinsky's revered production of Don Carlos, in which he was praised for his "majestic, ringing tone". In 2014, he sang as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi's Rigoletto.
"It is about detail," Torre says. "If you study Verdi's scores you will see handwritten notes asking for a word to have a specific sound. There is a lot of piano, to make the voice smaller and softer, and a lot of long phrases. You need really good breath technique and conditioning to do it, otherwise you might suffocate!"
George Petean as Simon Boccanegra Opera Australia’s production of Simon Boccanegra at Sydney Opera House. Photo: Branco Gaica
"I love Verdi and I love to sing Simon Boccanegra," says George Petean. "I love the complexity of the role and that it demands you sing it beautifully yet with power, subtlety and menace. Without great vocal technique, it is almost impossible."
The Romanian baritone, who makes his Opera Australia debut in Simon Boccanegra, has devoted a substantial part of his singing career to the works of Verdi. He has starred in productions of Falstaff, Don Carlos, Un ballo in maschera, Rigoletto and Macbeth in opera houses across the world. He first played the role of Simon Boccanegra at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma for conductor Riccardo Muti and director Adrian Noble in 2012.
"I think the most important thing is to have the most beautiful sound possible," Petean says. "What is a violinist, a trombone player, a pianist searching for? It is the ideal sound."
"For me, the music has two important ways of touching people's hearts because in the end, that is why we are singing, to touch people's hearts. One is its intensity, which expresses passion, love, hate, so many different feelings, and the second is atmosphere, which is another important way of carrying the audience to a sublime world. Verdi has plenty of both."
Giacomo Prestia as Jacopo Fiesco in Opera Australia’s production of Simon Boccanegra at Sydney Opera House. Photo: Branco Gaica
"I sing only Verdi. My career has only been Verdi. It is unusual for me to sing anything else!" says the Florentine bass superstar Giacomo Prestia, who sings the role of Jacopo Fiesco, the grieving father of the Doge's dead lover Maria, in Simon Boccanegra.
"I play fathers, kings and bishops," Prestia smiles. "My roles are very dramatic. I bring gravitas, authority. The only problem for me is that the bass never gets to be the lover. The tenors always get the women."
For Prestia, who has previously sung for Opera Australia as Phillip II in Don Carlos and as the Padre Guardiano in 2013's The Force of Destiny, Verdi is an exercise in precision as well as power.
"... the bass never gets to be the lover. The tenors always get the women."
"The text needs to be made very clear and understandable," Prestia says. "The orchestra is very heavy sometimes, you need a voice that can reach over it and touch the audience."
Prestia laughs off the typecasting as a Verdi "heavy hitter". For him, singing the composers' works is a labour of love.
"For me, Verdi is the grandest composer who ever lived," Prestia says. "I have sung Simon Bocanegra perhaps 100 times, Don Carlos maybe 150 times. But each time the music starts I feel the goosebumps over my whole body. I feel the emotion in what Verdi wrote. I feel the love Verdi had for his country, his love for Genoa, his love for the ocean. And this was a man who suffered, too. His wife and children died. You feel this when you listen to his music, especially in scenes between father and child."
Natalie Aroyan as Amelia Grimaldi in Opera Australia’s production of Simon Boccanegra at Sydney Opera House. Photo: Branco Gaica
"I've been studying Verdi's heroines for years," says rising Armenian-Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan, who sings the role of Amelia in Simon Boccanegra. "In my first couple of years as a young artist I was lucky enough to go on stage as Desdemona in Otello. That was my first Verdi role and it just felt so right for my voice."
Aroyan, who is now a principal artist with Opera Australia, describes herself as a soprano with "dark overtones" in her voice. "My singing teacher described it as having mezzo character. That's what Verdi asks for in his heroines. It's a lot of big singing with a huge orchestra and you have to be able to flow with and ride with it."
Verdi requires maturity, Aroyan says. "It takes a long time to get to the level where you can do a Verdi heroine justice. Lyndon [Terracini] is very careful about not making singers sing too big, too early in their careers. We both feel like this is the right moment for me."
The role of Amelia is a refreshing one for Aroyan. "Verdi's heroines have a sense of empowerment to them. They have courage and determination and wisdom. They are so expressive. They are often at the centre of the plot. They are the glue holding the story together. This is the first time I feel I'm playing a real woman and not a young girl in love."
Simon Boccanegra offers Aroyan the opportunity to, "sing in the big leagues" she says. "It's a powerhouse cast. I'm surrounded by five huge male voices. George [Petean] has a beautiful, majestic voice with really great colour and our voices blend together very well."
Simon Boccanegra is playing at Sydney Opera House until 13 August 2016.
The composer: Verdi. Italian. 19th century. Famous for La Traviata and Rigoletto, among many others.
The music: Big, beautiful melodies with expressive, dramatic orchestral music.
The big hit:
The setting: an abandoned place by the sea, about 175 years ago.
The history: Even Verdi called the premiere a 'fiasco'. It took a complete revision, 24 years later, to ensure the opera wasn't forgotten by history.
A quirky fact to impress your date: There was a real Simon Boccanegra (spelt Simone) in Genoa in the 1300s. He inspired all kinds of conspiracies and attempts on his life, and his death may have been by poison.