Romanian-born baritone Sebastian Catana is well-known for his Verdi roles, but he has recently made his debut as Tonio in Pagliacci in Verona's Arena to great acclaim, and now he's singing the part at Genova's Teatro Carlo Felice, where he made a well-received house debut last night. I asked him about singing the role.
Tonio is a fascinating character in the sense that he presents a lot of facets of the human soul. Of course, he sings the famous Prologue but besides that, he sings a lot of interesting music throughout the opera, especially during in his duet with Nedda.
Vocally, the role is difficult because it demands lyricism with broad and beautiful singing in the Prologue at the beginning of the opera, while the duet with Nedda climaxes into very dramatic singing, and the last part of the opera, during the so-called Commedia, must be sung almost with a suggestive character-like vocality. As a character, Tonio is cruel, but his cruelty is brought out only after he gets rejected for expressing his love for Nedda, when he opens up maybe for the first time in his life.
So Tonio's not all evil?
From a dramatic point of view, I think the biggest challenge of performing a role like Tonio is not to try to ‘make' him evil from the beginning, but to create a more nuanced and gradual approach that portrays him as more real and true. If you fall into the trap of just creating an evil character from the first moment you walk on stage, you are in danger of losing credibility and becoming a caricature, something that should be avoided at all costs especially in a verismo opera.
Catana's voice is impressively large, yet warm and delicately shaded. Is special attention need when singing big-voiced roles?
My fundamental vocal belief is that whenever I am performing ‘big-voiced' roles, I try to sing with the same sense of legato and integrity of line as used for early Verdi and belcanto. Therefore, there is never a need or tendency to scream or shout as the text must be enunciated with clarity and nuance. Acting is very important for these roles but should not take over and affect the vocal production for unnecessary ‘cheap' effects; composers clearly indicate which parts, if any, should be ‘spoken' in parlando, and such moments should not take over the performance.
Catana was joined on stage in Genova by Fabio Sartori as Canio and Serena Gamberoni as Nedda under the baton of Andriy Yurkevych, and there was no so-called verismo shouting and shrieking, just the occasional sobbing as indicated in the score – a very satisfying performance musically.
Cristian Taraborrelli‘s production uses a neorealism look for the prologue, which becomes more abstract with the use of projections as the first scene of the first act begins, and then with Nedda's first aria the opera continues until the end using a greenscreen background, with a projected composite of the filmed singers and the computer-generated scenery projected on a screen above the stage. Inevitably attention is drawn to the projections rather than the singers, live, below. The result is debatable.
I am overly excited to be part of the so-called rebirth of this important theatre after the pandemic pause of many months and especially being invited for the first time for such an important project. I have been so impressed with the quality of the orchestra and chorus of Teatro Carlo Felice and everyone working backstage.
We have had a wonderful atmosphere during an intense rehearsal period. The production, conducted by Andriy Yurkevych and directed by Cristian Taraborrelli, uses an innovative approach of so-called ‘realta aumentata' [augmented reality] where scenes are filmed before and/or during the performance and shown on an upper HD screen as a tool to create a rich imagery for the spectator and at the same time to enhance the emotional state of each character on stage. In that sense the production is much more intimate as the public experiences the thoughts of a character not just through music and text but also through images.
Because of Covid-19 precautions, the members of the chorus were sat in the front rows wearing masks, watching the singers on stage rather as they would have watched the troupe of players in the commedia if they were on stage themselves.
Without the chorus on stage during the opera, each character receives additional focus and development. Tonio is present on stage almost throughout the opera becoming the mastermind of the entire tragedy that occurs in the end.
Teatro Carlo Felice is a large opera house with 2,000 seats, but that is dwarfed by the Arena in Verona which, pre-Covid, held up to 15,000 spectators.
The Arena di Verona is one of the most majestic and amazing spaces in the entire opera world. The stage itself is very large, probably the largest stage of any opera house or festival, while the acoustics are magnificent. Singing in such a place is quite emotional every time I walk on that stage, no matter how many times I have sung a certain opera.
Despite the size of the Arena, as an artist, I feel an immediate connection with the public, like singing for one person who is breathing with you, it is a wonderful feeling! Given the history and the tradition of operatic greatness associated with the Arena di Verona, one always feels an immense sense of gratitude and reverence whenever invited to perform at such a colossal venue.
Last year's suddenly imposed restrictions took the Arena's organisers by surprise, but this season saw some creative solutions to staging problems.
This past summer's festival of the Arena di Verona was truly unique given the special circumstances under which it took place. It will remain as one of the most beautiful and emotional artistic experiences that I have ever had in my entire life. Sovrintendente and artistic director Cecilia Gasdia, together with vice artistic director Stefano Trespidi and their entire artistic staff, worked extremely hard at envisioning and creating five new productions with results that were truly remarkable. Because of Covid-19 precautions, the chorus sang from the adjacent steps next to the stage while large LED screens with images relating to each production were used as walls on the stage. The combination of rich images and creative staging between principal artists and a multitude of acting extras made for fascinating performances.
Catana sang in three Arena productions this summer: the title role in Nabucco, Amonasro in Aida, as well as Tonio in Pagliacci (as well as in Cavalleria Rusticana with which it was paired).
The new production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci was initially scheduled for the opening of the 2020 Festival in Verona but because of Covid it got rescheduled for this past summer. Therefore I had a lot of time to prepare this role, vocally, musically and from an interpretative point of view, using all these months for a very intense work on it with my teacher and coaches. Still, prepared as I was, I could not hide the emotion felt when singing it for the first time on the majestic stage of the Arena.
With so many of today's important voices coming from the east of Europe, I wondered whether Catana had an insight as to why.
I believe these great voices that we hear coming from eastern Europe today, have always existed. I am proud of my Romanian heritage and the tradition of great singing that exists in Romania, and there is a melancholy and beauty in the popular folk singing that you can hear in villages across Romania and Eastern Europe, something that really penetrates the human soul. Also, as Romanian is a Latin-based language with mostly clear and bright vowels, it immediately induces an affinity for operatic singing especially in the Italian and French repertoire.
Since the end of the season in Verona, Catana has already sung Falstaff in the Berkshire Opera Festival in the United States, although Giorgio Germont in La Traviata at the Ópera Nacional De Chile was suspended because of Covid, it's the role he will sing next, in Tel Aviv, so performances are picking up again after the long lull.
Singing Tonio in Verona was an evening that I will never forget, being the first time back on stage after many months of doubts and fears as we all artists experienced during this worldwide pandemic. It was very emotional and special.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.