A new production of I Vespri Siciliani by Argentinian director Hugo de Ana – who has also designed the sets and costumes – opens at La Scala this evening, 28 January 2023. The performance will be broadcast live on radio in Italy and several other countries. In addition, its fifth performance, on 14 February, will be the first live performance on La Scala's new streaming channel, lascala.tv.
Italian tenor Piero Pretti will sing the role of Arrigo for the first time at the Milanese theatre. He has sung many important roles at La Scala – Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera, Lucia di Lammermoor, Il pirata, Anna Bolena – since his house debut in Luisa Miller in 2012.
I talked to him on the eve of curtain up on the new production.
What is special about singing at La Scala?
Of course, it's always a great thrill and a source of pride to sing at La Scala because of all that it has been and stands for in the history of musical culture. I've been lucky enough to sing many times in this splendid temple to music, and I'll never be able to forget my first time there in Luisa Miller, an opera which also gave me the opportunity to meet Antonella, who later became my wife. Then there have been other wonderful debuts and new productions, like the latest Rigoletto last July, only to mention the most recent.
[Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani was first staged in June 1855 in Paris in French as Les vêpres siciliennes, and six months later came the Italian version, which was first seen in Parma. Pretti has sung both versions.]
You have sung I Vespri Siciliani in several different productions, in Naples, Berlin and Madrid. At La Scala you are singing the Italian version – what are the differences between singing this role in French and Italian?
Yes, it's an opera I've been studying for more than ten years and I've sung it both in Italian and in the original version in French. I must say that, while it keeps the music intact without any changes, the Italian version is slightly more dramatic, no doubt because of the power of the language and its meanings, but also because French has softer phonetics than Italian.
And you have a new director and production…
De Ana is a sophisticated stage director who understands theatrical mechanisms very well and is able to manage the scale and aesthetics of an opera. Besides that, he's always sensitive to the needs of the artists and to the difficulties involved in singing on stage, and so it's always a comfort to work with him to find the best solutions.
You are also working with Italian conductor Fabio Luisi.
Fabio is one of the greatest conductors, gifted with sensitivity and passion, and he's always ready to listen to me and put me at my ease. His musical taste and his knowledge of singers and their distinctive characteristics are truly exceptional. I'm lucky to meet him often and it's always a great pleasure for me.
We recently worked together in Dallas with the Verdi Requiem, which was absolutely wonderful, but I also remember Strauss at the Martina Franca Festival, where he asked me to sing as Bacco in Arianna a Nasso. It's fantastic to have him facing me when I'm on stage because he conveys total assurance, which in turn engenders expressive freedom.
Arrigo is a ‘big sing'. You have sung it several times, so I imagine that it fits your voice well.
Yes, it's exciting because there's a real alternation of lyrical and dramatic moments. I have to say that from the outset, despite all the challenges it presents, I've found that this role suits many of the characteristics of my voice and, with time, I've discovered more organic ways of managing my breathing for the many acute passages in the five acts. Interpretation involves the management of all these elements, dosing it all without ever exaggerating, because one of the greatest difficulties is to remain clear-headed despite the tiredness.
Yes, because it is also a long opera – more than 3½ hours including the two intervals.
I debuted this role in 2011 at the Teatro Regio in Turin with stage direction by Davide Livermore and with Maestro Noseda conducting, and I remember that while we were preparing, I was singing up to six hours a day, which is really a lot. When you rehearse a role (like Un ballo in maschera, for example) you can run through it all in an hour. With I Vespri it takes double the time, so it's always been necessary to have a sort of specific athletic preparation to sing in it, increasing the time spent studying each day proportionately so as to reach the right physical shape to cope with the exertion involved in reaching the end of the opera. Talking about this, I'd like to thank my tutor Gianni Mastino who, ever since I sang in my first Vespri has followed and helped me, always giving me his advice and support.
What do you do to keep your body and voice in shape leading up to a series of performances?
I try to get enough rest at night and to eat healthily and well. Apart from that, there's not much to do before a performance except to keep concentration levels high without getting too stressed. The real work has to be done in the years before, with training and maintenance of vocal technique, the work that is done every day on breathing and finding balance, all things that can't be improvised but have to be worked on over time.
When you are not preparing for or singing in an opera, do you listen to music?
Let's say that I hardly ever listen to opera, or that it happens rarely. I listen to a lot of guitarists of different genres: flamenco, jazz, but also blues and rock. I enjoy strumming a guitar myself. Also, I listen to a lot of soundtracks: some of them have great descriptive qualities and, far from being banal, it's often ethnic music that's been adapted, updated, and fitted to a particular context. I also listen to some pop from the 80s and 90s, some of which has become cult music.
You come from Sardinia, that magical island with its mountains, beaches, and forests… stunningly beautiful.
I advise you to go there in April and May when spring explodes. It's magnificent, and you might even be able to go swimming as I've often done. I love my homeland. I love Sardinia – its perfumes, its sea and countryside and its splendid inhabitants, who are true, sincere and kind.
Do you share those characteristics?
It's for others to say if I also have these qualities. Perhaps yes, perhaps no. It could be that I've changed now that I don't live there permanently anymore… or maybe not. I still feel Sardinian and often think in Sardinian even though I don't speak it much because my wife is from a different region and wouldn't understand me very well. I hope to teach my son a little if he's interested and wants to learn. I'm very much a Sardinian in my obstinacy… stubbornness. Yes, I'm definitely stubborn. Let's say ‘headstrong'!
I hear you're a food and wine lover. Is Sardinian cuisine part of your passion for food? Do you cook?
Yes, I enjoy cooking and every so often we open a bottle of good wine. I have to say that more and more often I seek out typical Sardinian dishes. Sometimes I stick strictly to the traditional recipe, but sometimes I experiment.
A few years ago, I also starting using Sardinian ‘fregola' again. It's a type of pasta made from semolina, with different sized toasted grains, ideal for making incredible fish or meat soups. But I enjoy cooking almost anything except for desserts – my friends have to bring those when they come to dinner.
I adore going to the market. In the area where I live in Milan, there's a fantastic one on Tuesdays and Saturdays and so I have my favourite stalls for fish, for seasonal vegetables and a person who brings me exceptionally good mushrooms at the right time of year, so when I'm not away singing in other cities, you know where to find me.
What's coming up next for Piero Pretti?
After I Vespri I'll be making my debut in a fully staged Ernani in Venice, having sung only in a concert performance of it at the Teatro Regio in Parma during the pandemic. Then I'll be in a concert performance of Tosca in Japan and I lombardi alla prima crociata in Munich, which will also be recorded. Then Rigoletto again in Caracalla in Rome for the summer season and after that it will be holiday time, and I'll be able to go to Sardinia with my family, catch up with friends, go swimming and recharge our batteries in the hot summer sun. I used to love going fishing and being out on the sea, but that's a bit of a problem in Milan. That's one of the things about my Sardinia that I miss the most.
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.
I first heard Piero Pretti in a Production of La Boheme at the Town Hall in Bolton, Greater Manchester, England. I was really impressed and I thought he would really go to the top, which he has. I now follow his progress from role to role with great interest. He must now be one of our greatest Verdian tenors, Can’t wait to hear him in Ernani !