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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 2 AUGUST 2011 — Dinner at the Café de la Paix in The Grand Hotel, Rue Scribe, where Serge Lifar (the man responsible for the rebirth of twentieth century dance in France) designed, cut out and sewed the costumes for his ballet of Prometheus for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1929, in the company of Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, was an invitation not to be missed. The dark-haired, black-eyed Italian bass-baritone with the magnificent voice was back in Paris for the Festival of Radio Classique and for the promotion of his new recording, entitled Mozart. Why choose to make a recording of Mozart’s music was the first question I asked this big-hearted and extremely likeable Latin charmer.

"My passion for music came from Mozart who was my god and still is. He is the composer I listened to as a child and my whole career is based on his works", he told me, smiling. "I wanted to record the arias I’ve sung on stage, both in opera performances and in aria concerts. I particularly enjoyed working with Riccardo Muti in concert, and found the experience so fulfilling that I began some personal research and discovered all the recordings of Fernando Corena. I wondered why no one today had recorded all these very beautiful songs. "

"Then one day", he continued, "I received a phone call from the musicologist, Francesco Lora who was very excited. He told me he’d found a lost recitative from Figaro in Florence, a short piece which had been written for Francesco Benucci, Mozart’s  first Figaro, so my new recording contains that too, a world premiere."

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo
Photo: © Uwe Arens / DG

Commenting on several other lesser known arias from Mozart’s last, great operas, d’Arcangelo explained that many were not often sung because of the wide vocal range they demanded. Agreeing that they were a challenge for him, he emphasised that he wanted to sing them because of their beauty. He told me that "Per questa bella mano", an aria he had always been in love with, was written for Franz Gerl, Mozart’s first Sarastro, and was completed at the same time as The Magic Flute. Containing very deep notes, he felt it was now right for his own voice. He then spoke of the universal appeal of the composer, creating music which was popular at the time as well as now as it reaches out to everyone.

"It is music which goes straight to one’s emotions and it’s not necessary to be a connoisseur to enjoy it. Even the stories Mozart told are relevant today. There’s Leporello vaunting his master’s feminine conquests, (ahem, maybe a bad example), but Figaro’s story, where he plots to thwart his employer and then curses the fickleness of women rings true. It’s the old story of the boss and the servant. And then from Cosi fan tutte we included Guglielmo setting off to test his lover’s faithfulness."

"Making the recording itself, although it took place in a room in Torino which was very dry, was wonderful", he told me. "There was a strike on in Italy at the time, but this didn’t deter the Orchestra del Teatro Regio di Torino, one of my favourites, nor the conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, a good friend. The musicians defied the Union and stayed to work with me knowing they probably wouldn’t get paid for what they were doing. We were just like a big, happy family and they gave of their time without question; music was what was important to them. But the country is facing serious problems, not least being the fact the government is reluctant to spend money on culture and many theatres are being forced to close."

Elaborating on the strikes and the general lack of enthusiasm for the 150 years’ celebrations of the unification of Italy, d’Arcangelo spoke soberly of the grimness of his country’s economic difficulties. "There are huge problems of unemployment and people are more concerned about where their next meal is coming from than in celebrating the arrival of Garibaldi. The current political system has destroyed much of the patriotism in Italy. Now there is the North and the South and a general feeling of unrest. Before there were many industries; shoes were handmade, but now they are manufactured elsewhere. Even Dolce e Gabbana has moved to China."

"But these are general comments as much of my time is spent outside Italy, and  I’m not a true pasta-eating Italian although when in Vienna I go to "Sole", an Italian restaurant in Annegasse, or at "San Carlo", my favourite restaurant in the city. When I arrive there, the chef, who is from Naples always comes up to me and asks, "Maestro, what you wanta to eat? I willa cook for you. "And leaning forward with a beguiling grin, he added, "Next time you come, you willa be my guest at the San Carlo."

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo
Photo: Patricia Boccadoro

Surprisingly, Ildebrando’s favourite food is Indian, although not before singing! "Indian food, all spicey and hot…. not too hot, is the best in the world", he declared. "You can keep your spaghetti. In Paris I know two very good little Indian restaurants, near the Pont Neuf, but I don’t remember their address. But I have also eaten very well in Moscow, in a restaurant which looked like a castle where I was invited by friends. I wasn’t singing there unfortunately; to sing in Russia is a dream of mine."

"I would love to sing Rachmaninov one day; his music is so beautiful and so romantic. I love many composers, but I think my next recording will be Rossini; I’d like to leave my stamp on his works before I’m too old to sing anymore…. But", leaning forward he confided, "I’d also like to record an album of Dean Martin’s songs, and, why not, Elvis Presley’s, listen." Looking around to ensure there was no one else in the vicinity, he began to croon in a deep, velvety voice, ‘Love me tender’ and ‘O sole mio’. "Why not? I must just find someone who wants to record that with me. They are songs I enjoy singing in my car!"

However, songs sung in his car and bathroom (his bathroom apparently having the better acoustics) being put on hold, he spoke of more immediate, concrete projects. This coming week he had three performances of Don Giovanni in Berlin, which will be followed by Don Giovanni, in concert, in Baden-Baden in July. September will find him singing Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in Chicago while Cosi fan tutte is programmed for September and October in Los Angeles, where he will return as Don Giovanni next year."

And Italy in all this?

"I don’t sing in Italy often because I am always asked too late. I just got an invitation to appear at La Scala six months ago and could only accept it because a mistake was made with an engagement in San Francisco, and I was unexpectedly free. I’m normally booked up several years ahead and at the moment we’re working on 2016. La Scala never asks me until a few months before, when I’ve already accepted a contract elsewhere. But now I’ll be singing both Leporello and Don Giovanni there in December, alternating with Bryn Terfel.

"But I shall be in Italy next week, at my house on top of a mountain near Pescara, two hours from Rome. I try to be with my family when I can, and plan to watch the eagles and listen to the silence there when I’m not playing music. What I listen to depends very much on my mood. Sometimes it’s Beethoven; I love his "Pastoral" Symphony, but at the moment I need Bach. I like to listen to different interpretations of the same piece of music without knowing beforehand who is playing, so one has no preconceived ideas. I’ve recordings by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, one of the greatest Italian pianists and incomparable for his interpretations of Ravel, Debussy, Schumann, as well as several discs by Grimaud and David Fray. And I have everything that Arthur Rubinstein ever recorded, the whole collection. His touch is magic. I also love Horowitz and am fascinated by Richter who said he didn’t know how to play Mozart. It’s because his music is so simple that you are as if naked in front of it."

"And then just one note of Corelli makes me cry. I’ve recently acquired the latest recording of Daniel Hope and discovered a composer I didn’t know who greatly resembles Brahms. He pays tribute to the great nineteenth century violinist, Joseph Joachim. We can’t live without music. What would we do? I need to listen to music, all music."

Well, whilst waiting for that dinner at the San Carlo, I know what music I shall listen to.

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, bass-baritone

Orchestra del Teatro Regio di Torino
Gianandrea Noseda, conductor
Audio CD (release date: 13 September 2011)
Deutsche Grammophon

Headline Image: Ildebrando D'Arcangelo
© Uwe Arens / DG

Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the British choreographer Wayne McGregor.

External Link: The Economist: A Special Report on Italy

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