L’italiano in New York: baritone Massimo Cavalletti [Photo by Giacomo Belluomini, used with permission]
Esteemed critic Raymond A. Ericson wrote in Musical America that, in the Metropolitan Opera's 1953 Christmas Day performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Il trovatore, the singer performing the rôle of the Conte di Luna 'revealed himself as potentially one of the best baritones in the Italian wing to come along in quite a while. He had a big, open voice of considerable beauty and he sang accurately and with much style.' Those words described Siena-born baritone Ettore Bastianini, whose house début twenty days earlier introduced one of the finest Italian voices of the Twentieth Century to the Leonard Warren Era at the Metropolitan Opera. Since its first performance in 1883, the Metropolitan Opera had been a bastion of great Italian baritone singing. The fear of ocean travel that seized Mattia Battistini—‘il re dei baritoni’—after a misfortune-laden voyage to Buenos Aires left development of the baritone department of the MET’s Italian wing to illustrious singers such as Mario Ancona [début: 1893 as Tonio in Pagliacci, in which he was frequently required to encore the ‘Prologo’], Giuseppe Campanari [début: 1894 as Conte di Luna in Il trovatore], and Antonio Scotti [company début: 1899 in Chicago as Comte de Nevers in Les Huguenots]. The 1908 début of Pasquale Amato as Giorgio Germont in La traviata launched an extraordinary MET career that included the first MET performances—and, in several cases, the first performances in the United States—of Puccini’s Le villi, Catalani’s La Wally, Franchetti’s Germania, Gluck’s Armide, Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Massenet’s Thaïs, Mascagni’s Lodoletta, and Leoncavallo’s Zazà, the first performance in Paris of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and the world premières of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, Damrosch’s Cyrano, and Giordano’s Madame Sans-Gêne. Giuseppe De Luca’s 1915 début as Rossini’s Figaro, a rôle that he sang fifty times with the MET in New York and on tour, inaugurated a relationship with the company that encompassed the first MET productions of Verdi’s La forza del destino and Don Carlo, Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore, Spontini’s La vestale, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, and Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, the first staged performance in the United States of Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, the American premières of Rabaud’s Mârouf, Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Puccini’s Turandot, Respighi’s La campana sommersa, and Rossini’s Il signor Bruschino, and the world premières of Granados’s Goyescas and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Several of the most notable baritones of the first decades of the Twentieth Century—Apollo Granforte, Cesare Formichi, Mariano Stabile—were conspicuously absent from the MET roster, and the New York tenure of Carlo Galeffi consisted of a single performance of La traviata and a concert. From the time of a 1923 performance of Boris Godunov until the mid-1990s, baritone singing at the MET was dominated by a quartet of American colossuses: Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, and Sherrill Milnes. Warren’s sudden death during a performance of La forza del destino in 1960 created a near-impossible situation for General Manager Sir Rudolf Bing: the necessity of replacing one of the most popular singers in the MET’s history. Bing entrusted the lion’s share of Italian repertory to Anselmo Colzani, whose début in the title rôle of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra a month after Warren’s death was followed during the next eighteen years by a further 271 performances. Colzani was by birth and vocal endowment a true Italian baritone in the grand tradition, but he was not Warren. Perhaps the two most emblematic Italian baritones of the second half of the Twentieth Century were infrequent visitors to the MET: Tito Gobbi sang only forty-five performances for the company between 1956 and 1975, and Giuseppe Taddei was not heard at the MET until 1985, when his début as Verdi’s Falstaff was followed by only another twenty performances as Falstaff and Dulcamara in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. The omnipresent reality during the past fifty years is that no heirs to the traditions of the great Italian baritones of the MET’s early seasons have emerged. In the performance of Puccini’s La bohème on 20 February 2010, however, a performance featuring Anna Netrebko as Mimì, Piotr Beczała as Rodolfo, Nicole Cabell as Musetta, and Gerald Finley as Marcello, the MET welcomed a young baritone Italian both in nationality and spirit. Making his début as Schaunard, Massimo Cavalletti proved a prince among pretenders. The words that praised Bastianini’s début apply with equal relevance to Mr. Cavalletti, and when he returns to the Metropolitan Opera on 30 September to sing the rôle of Escamillo in Richard Eyre’s production of Bizet’s Carmen, Mr. Cavalletti will bring back to the house one of the greatest thrills in opera—the bold, brilliant sound of an authentic Italian baritone voice in its prime.
Born in Lucca, which also produced Francesco Geminiani, Luigi Boccherini, Alfredo Catalani, and Giacomo Puccini, Mr. Cavalletti possesses by the circumstances of his birth an intuitive submersion in the native Italian culture of opera and by gift of nature a firm, handsome voice that seems warmed throughout its range by the Tuscan sun. The machismo strength of his singing does not prevent heart-melting suavity that gives his performances dramatic and emotional substance. Convincing as aristocrat or peasant, lover or villain, poet or pugilist, his operatic portraits are painted without artifice or affectation. Despite his natural affinity for the music of his native Italy, Mr. Cavalletti is attentive to the achievements of singers from other parts of the world in Italian rôles. ‘There are many amazing opera singers from all parts of the world,’ he confides. ‘They have an innate, Italian feeling for Italian opera. They can sing in my language with the same or even more love and deep understanding of the text.’ In his view, a singer’s success in any repertory is a direct result of the singer’s dedication to mastering the nuances of the music. ‘It always depends [upon] how much energy and time [singers] want to use for that,’ he says of singers’ efforts to connect with a particular repertory. ‘There are very good voices around the world that do not care to go deep inside the characters and libretti and just want to sing the notes.’ This, Mr. Cavalletti feels, is central to the distinction of a great artist from a merely good one. True success, he suggests, ‘always depends on the greatness of the artist. I think that there is an opera blood, and opera is still so amazing everywhere because of that blood. This blood is inside all of us, everywhere in the world, and we need good artists ready to let this blood boil in the veins of the audience. That makes the difference.’ It is a difference that depends not only upon the efforts of today’s singers but also upon the commitment of artists of the past and present to sharing their enthusiasm and technical acumen with future generations of singers. ‘Fortunately,’ Mr. Cavalletti says, ‘there are still opera singers [of the past] who are not too egotistical to share with the new generation this art and this bloodline. When I am older, I’ll be very happy to share with good young singers all of my knowledge of opera.’
Cruda, funesta smania: Massimo Cavalletti as Enrico in Mary Zimmerman’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Teatro alla Scala, 2014 [Photo by Marco Brescia, © Marco Brescia and Teatro alla Scala; used with permission]
In his own youthful development as a singer, Mr. Cavalletti was fortunate to benefit from exposure to some of the greatest musical artists of the Twentieth Century. ‘It was amazing for me to study at the Accademia Teatro alla Scala from 2004 until 2006,’ he says. ‘There, I met Leyla Gencer, Luciana Serra, and many other important opera singers, some retired and some still active.’ His interactions with these singers had profound effects on his progress as a young singer. ‘I think that I changed my mind regarding making a career in the theatre during these years,’ he recalls. ‘I started to understand that, in order to be a really good opera singer in the Twenty-First Century, there are many considerations besides the voice, and one of the most important is the mind. Acting and stage presence are also very important. It is extremely important to deeply know the characters and rôles, to sing with very good pronunciation and to be attentive to every possible subtext.’ These qualities are necessary both to meeting the needs of the music and to drawing audiences into performances, Mr. Cavalletti feels. ‘Audiences are in many cases new to opera, and we must find the way to show them how magical this world is. We can do it if we also come to opera as if we are new to it—but with all of the old wealth of ideas. When I was admitted to the Accademia Teatro alla Scala, I felt that this school must be a new start and a trampoline to the future. Between fifteen and twenty students are at the Accademia each year, but not all of them find the way to first-class international careers. [Success] always depends upon finding ways to accept and convert the teaching of the Maestri encountered in school.’
A singer respectful of the past and hopeful for the future, Mr. Cavalletti unsurprisingly retains particular devotion to artists by whom he has been influenced, directly or indirectly. ‘When I started my studies in 1999,’ he reminisces, ‘I had just one idol, and his name is Ettore Bastianini. I loved his amazing line and the colors in the voice; and also his amazing diction. I listened to everything he sang, and I still think that he is amazing.’ Nevertheless, he is cognizant of the ways in which the challenges faced by an opera singer in 2014 are very different from those to which singers of earlier generations were subjected. ‘A lot has changed since 1950,’ he opines. ‘Today, there are many other factors to make [a singer’s] job more difficult. A lot has changed in the theatre. I love to listen to all singers, to understand how they resolve difficult situations with scores. Especially, singers with voices that are not so perfect give me good ideas of how to deal with difficult points in the scores that I sing. I really like to listen to Piero Cappuccilli in many different rôles, but I also listen very often to tenors because they have to resolve issues that help me to better understand how to use my own instrument. I love listening to Jonas Kaufmann and Luciano Pavarotti.’ It is not solely from singers of the past that Mr. Cavalletti draws inspiration. ‘Many of the singers I really appreciate are still singing. Foremost among them is Leo Nucci [with whom he will alternate as Rossini’s Figaro at La Scala in 2015]. I am proud to be good friends with Leo and his charming wife, Adriana. They are both great people, always ready to help and support me in many different ways—especially with advice about my voice and technique. I’m lucky because I sing with such wonderful colleagues, and I can learn from them so many important ideas.’
Anyone who heard Mr. Cavalletti’s MET début as Schaunard in La bohème was reminded of the motivation for the axiom that states that, for singers with imagination, there are no secondary rôles. ‘I also débuted at La Scala as Schaunard,’ Mr. Cavalletti reflects. ‘I remember that at my first stage rehearsal with Franco Zeffirelli he personally told me [that he was] glad to have such a good singer for Schaunard because these four friends in La bohème cannot be a true quartet if, as is too often the case, one of them is not at the same level as the others. Certainly, Marcello is more interesting than Schaunard, but I love them both. I have already sung more than a hundred performances of La bohème, thirty-five as Schaunard and more than seventy as Marcello. [Of his sixteen performances at the MET to date, all in La bohème, seven were as Schaunard and nine as Marcello.] I love La bohème. It is an opera for young singers and actors. I was lucky to début at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2010 as Schaunard because otherwise I would have had to wait until 2014. To sing Schaunard in opera houses like the MET and La Scala is an awesome gift for a thirty-one-year-old singer! Next year, I’ll finally also sing Marcello in the Zeffirelli production at La Scala, and then I will have sung both rôles in both houses. I’m very proud of that!’
Al Quartiere Latino: (from left to right) Gerald Finley as Marcello, Piotr Beczała as Rodolfo, Anna Netrebko as Mimì, Massimo Cavalletti as Schaunard, and Shenyang as Colline in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Puccini’s La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera, February 2010 [Photo by Corey Weaver, © The Metropolitan Opera]
Unlike many singers, Mr. Cavalletti exhibits impressive understanding of the necessity of careful pacing of the expansion of his repertory in order to preserve the freshness of the voice. ‘I’m very lucky because at my age—thirty-five—I can still sing only lyric rôles and repertory,’ he says. ‘My manager is able to let me continue with these kinds of rôles and wait until my voice is ready to “step up” in the repertoire.’ He is uncommonly clear-sighted about the trajectory of his career, always remaining mindful of the absolute necessity of maintaining vocal health. ‘I still want to add a few new rôles from the Bellini and Donizetti repertory; and maybe one new Verdi part,’ Mr. Cavalletti admits. ‘I am going to début Riccardo in Puritani, and I would like to try out Renato in Un ballo in maschera and Don Carlo in Ernani in concert—but I must still wait some years before trying these parts out on stage! I would really like to sing Lescaut in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut again, too.’ He is very sensitive to the good fortune of working with a manager who collaborates with him on repertory choices rather than attempting to dictate them. ‘I really trust my manager, Germinal Hilbert,’ he says. ‘He always gives me good advice, and I follow his ideas. Very often, opera singers would like to rush, but it is especially important today to keep calm and wait for the right steps at the right moments. Step by step, I’ll try to decide with my manager which kinds of rôles are good for me. I think that it is really important to consider whether any rôle is right for my age and for the specific moment in my life. After all, I want to continue to sing new rôles when I am forty, fifty, and even sixty years old!’
His decision to sing a new rôle launches a journey that takes Mr. Cavalletti into the profoundest recesses of the character. ‘When I studied Rodrigo in Don Carlos,’ he cites as an example, ‘I started with Schiller’s play, and I tried to understand how Verdi developed this fascinating rôle of Posa. Then, I threw myself into the piano score to explore the language of Rodrigo, looking for clues to help me in ensuring that I have the proper technique for the rôle. There are some operas that are very difficult solely for technical reasons, and in those cases it is critical to resolve the problems with the style of the singing, and then the rest will come.’ Music is always the primary focus of Mr. Cavalletti’s attention, but he also always examines the literary and cultural influences on composers and librettists. ‘How is it possible to sing operas like Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena without understanding on a deep level the bloody wars and situations of the countries in which they are set?’ he asks. ‘I do this for Shakespeare, Schiller, Beaumarchais, Goethe, Scott, and many others.’ This leads to contemplation of the recent trends in the ‘modernization’ of opera. ‘All operas need a bit of restyling to be good for new opera audiences,’ Mr. Cavalletti says, quickly adding, ‘Not too much—and not losing the contrasts and relations among characters! I think that we can change everything in a new production—the setting, age, places—as long as the story is the same. I always refer to the cinema: there are now many examples of updating immortal stories or old films with new ideas or settings. Take, for example, Dracula, Robin Hood, or even some old Hitchcock films. Even if they are re-set in the future, they don’t lose the original concept or the history. Audiences must understand the story easily and be able to follow it during a performance.’ The abilities of audiences and artists to connect with the drama of opera set boundaries beyond which ‘restyling’ of standard repertory threatens to damage both the music and its impact. ‘I cannot agree with the idea that everything on stage is obscured by incomprehensibly foggy sets and characters are denied space in which to interact because a director needs to see his vision come to life. Opera directors must love opera: otherwise, it is perhaps better to pursue some other kind of art. When the original concepts are completely missed without any reason, I think that we risk destroying this awesome culture that we have.’
The significance of Verdi in Mr. Cavalletti’s musical life is illustrated by his unhesitant naming of the composer when asked from whom he would most like to commission a rôle created specially for him. Choosing a single rôle proves more difficult. ‘It is really difficult to give an answer! I would like to say Lear, for sure. I’m very sorry that Maestro Verdi had no time or opportunity to complete this wonderful idea.’ [As most opera lovers recall, Antonio Somma wrote a libretto, Re Lear, for Verdi in the 1850s, perpetuating a concept that originated with Verdi commissioning a libretto based upon Shakespeare’s King Lear from Salvadore Cammarano. Some musicologists conjecture that sketches for Re Lear that Verdi completed before abandoning the project, particularly scenes for Lear and Cordelia, found a home in Rigoletto.] ‘I would really like to claim this opera for myself,’ Mr. Cavalletti says. ‘With Arrigo Boito as librettist, Verdi could finally have found a way to resolve this opera and give me a fantastic new rôle! I would also like Hamlet from Verdi. I’m not sure whether Verdi could imagine Hamlet as a baritone, but I am sure that he could love a baritone Lear!’
È sogno? o realtà?: Massimo Cavalletti as Ford in Robert Carsen’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff at Teatro alla Scala, 2013 [Photo by Marco Brescia, © Marco Brescia and Teatro alla Scala; used with permission]
Though it is a complicated, often confounding struggle, Mr. Cavalletti has no doubt that opera will win its fight for survival. ‘Today, we are in the middle of a very difficult economic crisis,’ he expounds. ‘Everything is difficult, and it is important that there are many sponsors—public and private—ready to invest in opera.’ How does he propose to ‘sell’ opera to new investors? ‘Opera can be a very good investment,’ he continues. ‘Operas are the most incredible live performances ever! Everything happens now. It is not like recordings or films, but we act, play, and sing as if we were in a film. At the MET, I saw an enthralling production of Werther with Jonas Kaufmann, and his performance was really cinematic. The Michieletto Bohème in which I sang at Salzburg in 2012 was also like a film. We can use these new ideas to bring opera back to the cinema and television.’ He may be an idealist from an artistic perspective, but Mr. Cavalletti does not overlook the formidable demands of the business aspect of opera. ‘We must find good sponsors and open minds for politicians and governments, perhaps with tax deductions for those who invest in opera and culture,’ he surmises.
It is immediately apparent whether seeing Mr. Cavalletti on the operatic stage or conversing with him for a few minutes over coffee that, for him, opera is not a job. It is a friend, a companion, a way of life. ‘The opera singer’s life is a very strange life full of sacrifices, but it is also full of gifts and amazing experiences,’ he muses. ‘I can visit so many countries and see so many different cultures, meet people, and be many different people and rôles. Every rôle is a new life and a new opportunity to understand myself and humanity. We must be able to understand and accept this life because we are so lucky to do what we love, and I will do it as long as God allows me to sing and share emotions with people.’ He is young, but he is always mindful of the future—his own and that of his artistry. ‘I’m still not married, and I’m so in love with my singing and my work,’ he says. ‘I hope one day to have a family and children, but I would never tell another singer how to do these kinds of things. Everyone knows himself what is best. It is really difficult to give advice about the balance between the career and life off of the stage. It always depends too much upon the character of the singer. Every case is different. I know many opera singers who are very happy and in love with great families, but there are also many who are lonely. Opera and theatre need a lot of time and full attention. I think that it is important to accept ourselves and pursue our own individual goals and ideas.’
Pursuing his own goals has led Massimo Cavalletti to the stages of many of the world’s greatest opera houses. After sharing his Escamillo with the Metropolitan Opera in September and October 2014, December will find him in Amsterdam for Marcello in La bohème with Dutch National Opera. In 2015, he will travel to Florence for Riccardo in Bellini’s I Puritani with Opera di Firenze, Oman for Malatesta in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the Royal Opera House Muscat, Barcelona for more Escamillos at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Opernhaus Zürich for Belcore in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, and Teatro alla Scala for Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Marcello, and Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff. Wherever he sings, he offers audiences glimpses of both the storied past of Italian baritone singing and the undimmed future of opera. When he dons the matador’s uniform at the MET, the language will be French, but the ethos will be that of Amato, De Luca, and Bastianini: in short, Massimo Cavalletti is the authentic Italian baritone for whom opera lovers have longed.
Quando s'è come voi non si vive in compagnia: Massimo Cavalletti (left) as Marcello and Anna Netrebko (right) as Mimì in Damiano Michieletto’s production of Puccini’s La bohème at the Salzburger Festspiele, 22 July 2012 [Photo by Silvia Lelli, © Silvia Lelli and Salzburger Festspiele; used with permission]
To learn more about Massimo Cavalletti, please visit his Official Website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. To purchase tickets for his performances as Escamillo in Carmen at the MET, visit the Metropolitan Opera website. His performances are scheduled for 30 September and 4, 9, 13, 17, and 23 October.
Sincerest thanks are extended to Mr. Cavalletti for his time, candor, and enthusiasm in responding to questions for this profile and to Tim Weiler for his kindness, patience, and assistance in facilitating the interview.