Religious Experience

December 18th, 2015

Roberto Alagna takes on the role of Canio in Pagliacci this January in
Sir David McVicar’s production, first seen last season and presented in a double bill with Cavalleria Rusticana. The French tenor tells the Met’s Philipp Brieler why “to sing opera is something divine”.

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The image of Canio, the clown whose heart is breaking, is one of the most recognizable in all of opera. What do you love about playing this character?
You know, like Canio, every artist has personal issues they have to overcome. When you have troubles, when you’re
not well in your personal life, once you’re onstage you have to forget everything, because people have paid for their ticket and you have to give the best you have in your soul in that moment. That’s
the story of Canio. And that’s why I’m always very moved when I play him. I think Canio is one of the most powerful characters in opera. He’s very close to an artist’s mentality and temperament. Of course the music of Pagliacci is a masterpiece as well, in the orchestration, the melody, in every way.

You’ve sung more than 100 performances at the Met, from lyrical roles like Nemorino early in your career to Don José and Cavaradossi most recently. How does their music compare to a verismo role like Canio?
I never think about that in my singing. I try to follow the example of the old generation. The great singers of the past sang everything with the same voice—Caruso, Gigli, Bergonzi, Schipa. They performed an enormous repertoire and switched
very fast between lyrical and dramatic, or spinto and di grazia. It’s not easy but I try to do the same. I’ve been singing opera for more than 32 years now and I’m happy I’m still able to do it. I just sang Tosca two days ago, and the week before I was in L’Elisir d’Amore. And just before that, in [Meyerbeer’s] Vasco da Gama, which is very much a spinto role. I try to switch like that because it’s good for the voice and to maintain its softness and agility and brightness.

David McVicar’s production of Pagliacci, which is set in 1949, is very physical, especially the play-within-the-play, where there’s a lot of slapstick happening. Are you looking forward to that aspect of the performance?
Yes, I love to play, to physically become
a character. I was very shy as a kid, and when you’re shy, it’s great to be somebody else. I’ve only seen pictures of this production, but I love the look of it and of the costumes. It’s a little bit like Fellini’s Zampanò [in La Strada]. I’ve worked with David McVicar many times. We have a wonderful dialogue and share a lot of good ideas. I will try to put something
of myself into the production. You have
to do that to be believable, and I’m sure
I can create something following the McVicar vision. I love to work with him on that because he’s very open and he trusts you. Great directors are like that. I’ve sung Pagliacci a lot in very traditional productions, so I’m looking forward to do it in another mood. Maybe something will change. Every day, your character, your personality is being influenced by the experience of life. Now that I have a new life, a new baby, and I’m married again [to soprano Aleksandra Kurzak], I’m another character. It’s interesting to return to Canio at this moment.

When you’re on stage at the Met, especially in a role like Canio, which is so identified with Caruso, what’s it like to think of all the famed tenors who came before you? I imagine it can be inspiring but also feel like a responsibility…
First of all, I’m a fan! Opera is my passion. Of course when I’m at the Met I think about all the singers who sang here before me. But for me it’s like a heritage. It’s a privilege. I have to have faith to
be able to sing well, because if you don’t have that, it’s impossible to give anything to the audience. You must believe in this art and respect everybody—the singers of the past, your colleagues today, and the public. To sing opera is something divine. For me, it’s like a religion. The theater is like a temple. So I feel very lucky to have this privilege to be on stage and follow in the footsteps of those wonderful singers from the past. —Philipp Brieler