For me, this created a complete and full realization of what this character was—to sing and to speak. RP: The thrill of this opera’s dramatic content has really been underestimated. RK: I think of the last act, which, for me, was truly magic. It starts with the orchestra playing the theme of [Adriana’s aria] ‘Poveri fiori’. I was always there listening, and it gave me the illusion of the legitimate theatre. Real theatre. Remember, Adriana is first and foremost an actress. She’s always acting! In her final moments, she sings ‘Ecco la luce che mi seduce’—she’s still acting, even when facing death. RP: You have the most famous music in the role at the start—that is, ‘Io son l’umile ancella’. What is its greatest challenge? RK: That aria doesn’t present any purely vocal challenges. But there are the nuances of dynamics—the sfumature [shadings]—of decrescendo, piano, pianissimo, crescendo, forte, fortissimo. This was perhaps my strength in this music, since I was able to offer that kind of nuance, including, in the aria’s finale, sustaining the pianissimo into a big crescendo. RP: In your performance, from the very start of the role you communicate a total connection to the text. You’re not a native Italian, but no one would guess it for one second in this portrayal. Did you achieve such command of text simply because you have a wonderful ear for languages? Or was there a coach or conductor in your formative years as a singer who helped you to achieve such extraordinary textual authenticity? RK: My teacher, Signora Fumagalli [the soprano Zita Fumagalli Riva] helped me a lot. She was a singer who’d done a lot of verismo roles, and was the diva of Mascagni and Leoncavallo. She taught me the wedding of music and words, and gave me a personal instinct for text. I also sang with Herbert von Karajan, who had this instinct. When he offered me Elektra, I said, ‘No, I can’t do it, because I don’t speak German!’. For me, language comes before the music, in a sense, and I absolutely cannot sing a role by rote like a parrot, without having the real meaning of the words. So I told him no, and he said to me, ‘You’re the first woman who’s said no to Karajan!’.
Because I like Richard Strauss’s music so much, I sang Capriccio in Italian—I don’t remember the year [it was 1991, in Bologna]—with the young [Christian] Thielemann, and with regia by Luca Ronconi. I did it because I absolutely wanted to sing an opera of Richard Strauss, but I couldn’t have done it in German. RP: The next episode is one of the most charming in the opera—the conversation between you and Michonnet, the devoted stage manager. Can you describe the type of relationship that exists between them? He’s been in love with her for a long time, but how does she feel about him? RK: He’s a real confidant, a true friend—an intimate friend. RP: A crucial element of that wonderful scene is that it’s pure conversation. Does the style of Cilea’s conversational writing differ much from that of Puccini? If so, how? And what, in your view, is the key to mastering this style?
Opera, May 2021