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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 30 MARCH 2010 When Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is described as "the hottest thing in Opera these days," it is a winking acknowledgment of the many meanings of the term "hot." But the Italian bass-baritone superstar is charmingly self-deprecating and approachable, as our Patricia Boccadoro recently found out.

It was with some trepidation that I sat, in a tea shop on the Left Bank, waiting for the arrival of Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. This larger-than-life, glamorous star was in Paris for a short stay, singing the role of Alidoro in Irina Brooks’ stupendous version of Rossini’s La Cenerentola at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées. In addition, his first solo recording — Handel, for Deutsche Grammophon — was just being released, occasioning the opportunity for our conversation. When the charismatic Italian bass-baritone arrived, he immediately put me at ease with his large smile and firm handshake and, over the course of our time together, showed himself to be a warm, thoughtful and courteous person, as much interested in asking questions as in answering them. Generous with his time, he proved almost alarmingly candid and extremely easy to interview.

Why did he choose to record Handel, a composer whose music, unlike that of Puccini or Mozart, is not easily accessible to a wide public and not normally associated with his usual repertoire?

Settling down comfortably in front of his pot of tea, he replied that, apart from the fact that it was the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, he relished the chance to sing something different, and to find the range of expression that Handel demanded.

"He is a composer whose work has always fascinated me," he said. "Musically it was a challenge for my voice, as I decided to sing each aria in full voice, including ‘Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori’ from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, a cantata composed in Italy and written in three octaves. I liked the attraction of something new, as the high notes were perhaps sung in falsetto at the time. Moreover, there was the added interest of being accompanied by period instruments with the ensemble Modo Antiquo conducted by Federico Sardelli.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Photo: © Giovanni Bonamici for  Deutsche Grammophon

 "Handel," he added, "has been part of my life since childhood, as my father was an organist and we spent a lot of time listening to his music."

D’Arcangelo was born in Pescara, a coastal town about a 90 minute drive from Rome. Influenced by his father’s organ playing, he began studying the piano at the age of six and never gave singing or opera a thought.

"I remember watching an opera on television with my father, but after the first act I was bored out of my mind," he told me. "I didn’t understand a word of what was going on. But my father never gave up hope and encouraged me to sing in a choir. When I was sixteen, there was a competition, and the teacher who came seemed to be impressed with my voice, encouraging me to take up singing as a career. It wasn’t the fact I had an exceptional voice," he added modestly, "but more that I had a gift of being able to mimic whatever I had heard, and I’d heard many singers. So, for example, I could sing Rigoletto, but whether I unconsciously copied Tito Gobbi or even Corelli, I wouldn’t know. And I certainly didn’t know whether my voice was bass, baritone, or whatever, because I never thought in those terms.

"However, I was taught to really listen, which I’d never done before. My father had assumed that because I could read music, it was enough. I became fascinated by opera, reading all about it in books, imagining what it could be like on stage, and I began studying at my local conservatory. But the turning point came in 1986 when I finally went and saw my idol, Samuel Ramey in Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra."

Since then, D’Arcangelo has sung roles in Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni, Les Noces de Figaro, Le Turc en Italie, Carmen and Faust, among others, at opera houses throughout the world, but he has little hesitation in proclaiming Mozart to be his favourite composer and Don Giovanni the role he loves best.

"What is so wonderful in my profession is changing roles and styles," he declared. "I love being the bad guy — as well as the good," he added hastily — "but it also depends on my mood. It would also be very boring to be typecast and to find myself singing the same kind of part all the time. For years, directors had me singing Leporello, thinking I was born to sing it because of my ‘comic’ gifts, when all the time, I was longing to be Don Giovanni. The difficulty of course is casting the perfect couple. Don Giovanni needs Leporello, and Leporello needs Don Giovanni.

"I’m 40 years old now and I wanted to sing Don Giovanni, who is a young man, after all, before I got any older! Everyone has their own idea of what he is like, but to me he is so full of himself and cares nothing for anyone. He’s constantly seeking a happiness he never finds. He’s not particularly handsome, but charismatic. The music in the death scene is unbelievable. And Mozart — celestial! He is my God, and the composer who gave me my passion for music and my career. It’s a role I relish."

And as for D’Arcangelo’s comic gifts, they were exploited to the full in the brilliant staging of La Cenerentola created at the Theatre des Champs Elysées in 2003 and restaged in 2004 and today to wildly enthusiastic audiences. Oddly, however, although it is one of the finest productions around, traditional or otherwise, it has not yet been programmed in the U.S.

La Cenerentola at the Theatre des Champs Elysées in Paris, 2010

Director Irina Brooks left her artists free to interpret their roles, and the results were astounding. D’Arcangelo, theatrical to the backbone, gave an exceptional interpretation of Alidoro, Rossini’s transcription of Perrault’s fairy godmother.

"What we were doing was even a little too successful," said the baritone, smiling ruefully, "for the audience was so geared up to laugh at everything we did that they started to giggle at what should have been the most serious moment of the opera. Here I am, singing a serious aria, about how God can see Angelina and her situation, and how she mustn’t despair because everything is going to change, and as I take off my beggar’s cloak to show myself all dressed in white they burst out into laughter as if I was Batman.

"Maybe Irina thought the 10 minute aria over-long, but judging from the amusement I caused, plus the choir in their pastel flowered suits sneaking, Buster Keaton style, onto the stage one by one, the audience didn’t. There were so many other opportunities to laugh, not least the scene where I enter dressed as a policeman. I was wearing two costumes at the same time, feeling like a fat man, and in addition, they lost the belt." He shrugged before laughing uproariously himself.

"It’s a production for today which we all loved doing," he added, "unlike some of these cold, unemotional versions, said to be contemporary, that one sees, notably those staged by Gerard Mortier in Paris. I really have no time for highfalutin’ productions where artists have to take their clothes off because they can’t come up with any better ideas. Having naked people run around on stage is so out of place in classical opera.

"But I enjoy fooling around onstage and love the fact that this production attracts even non-opera goers. The story is told in such a funny way without destroying any of the music."

From Paris to Vienna to Los Angeles to New York, D’Arcangelo is constantly on the move, but he confided that the American city where he felt most at home was Chicago. "Not only is it a pleasant city to live in, but I have family there. My great-grandfather emigrated in the 1920s and my cousin and I are trying to discover where he is buried. There are many administrative problems, but we have recently unearthed some of the reviews from the theatres where he worked…as a singer. But we can’t seem to get hold of his social security number. I suppose it was rather a long time ago."

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Photo: © Fadil Berisha

But just where is his home if not Chicago or Pescara (where he recently had a house built but never stays for very long)? There was a long moment of hesitation before he replied that he could only quote Maria Callas on that:

 "We are citizens of the world; our home is the theatre." 

D’Arcangelo will be singing the title role in Don Giovanni in Los Angeles next season, and will be appearing in Chicago in 2012.

Handel: Arie italiane per basso
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, bass-baritone
Modo Antiquo
Francesco Maria Sardelli, conductor
Recording: Florence, Teatro della Pergola, Saloncino, 2/2009
Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Hamburg 1 CD DDD 477 8361

Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque.com. She last wrote on dance in Siberia.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: 2 April 2010

The photograph and caption published in the above article on 30 March 2010 of Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni at the Sferisterio Opera Festival 2009 in Macerata, Italy misidentified the male artist in the photograph. Universal Classics France (Deutsche Grammophon) brought this error to our attention and has identified the artist in the image as Andrea Concetti, not Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. The image and caption have been removed from the article to reflect this correction. 

Related Culturekiosque Archives

CD Review: Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and Cecilia Bartoli in Haydn's L'anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice

CD Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Dulcamara) in Donizetti's L’Elisir d’amore

CD Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Bajazet) in Vivaldi's Bajazet

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