The current run of Les contes d'Hoffmann at La Scala sees soprano Eleonora Buratto making her debut as Antonia. After the opening night, I asked her how she was settling into her new role.
It's a lyric role and perhaps the most ‘melodramatic' act in the whole opera. The difficulties lie in the tessitura, in the transition and the culmination of the trio, when it isn't easy to manage one's breath, particularly for the final C. I love the melancholy aria “Elle a fui, la tourterelle” with its evocative pianissimi. I also love the duet with Hoffmann, and here I'm lucky enough to sing it with Vittorio Grigolo, who is talented and inspired.
The new production has been staged by Davide Livermore, one of the ‘in' directors of the moment in Italy. He has collaborated extensively with La Scala since his debut at the theatre in 2017.
How was it working with Livermore on Hoffmann?
I enjoyed it very much. It's been motivating and enriching to work with a stage director who is able to bring his experience of prose theatre as well as that of opera. It was an extraordinary theatrical experience to see Hoffmann's destiny fulfilled on stage through the loves that shape his life and the spells that make it so unusual.
After funding cuts were announced for La Scala at the end of the year, and with worries about high energy costs, Livermore had to rethink his production of Hoffmann for a smaller budget. His aim was to create a dreamlike world with Giò Forma's sets, and the shadow play of the Controluce company.
The reduced budget filled the creative team with verve. It's been great! This masterpiece is one of the most tormented and enigmatic of operas and Davide Livermore has done an excellent job, conjuring up the magical atmospheres that go into creating such a romantic plot.
I was surprised at how attentive the audience was – which shouldn't be taken for granted, since the opera is so long – and I think this is a result not only of Offenbach's wonderful music but also of it being a sort of psychological thriller which brings the opera plot to life. And the shadows of Controluce Teatro d'Ombra, which is at La Scala for the first time, played a central role on stage.
You mention the opera's length, and even with musical cuts, this version at La Scala lasts 3 hours and 40 minutes, including the two intervals.
In my act there aren't many cuts, and the difference compared to other versions is that the spoken dialogues are sung.
The conductor Frédéric Chaslin is something of a Hoffmann specialist with more than 500 performances under his belt. When I asked about working with him Buratto's reply seemed to be saying something between the lines:
We actually worked a lot more on the stage direction. Maestro Chaslin is extremely convinced about choosing this version and, as you know, he's explained it in all his interviews, so as singers we've had little chance to consider the alternatives.
Chaslin's point of reference for Jacques Offenbach's score – which has been subject to numerous cut-and-paste jobs over the years – is a piano vocal score which was found at the Paris Opera about 20 years ago and dates from the opera's dress rehearsal. Being, however, that Offenbach had died four months previously and didn't complete his opera's orchestration or attend the rehearsals, one can only imagine (and many have, including Chaslin) what the composer would have put his seal on for the opening night in Paris.
On 7th December 2020 Buratto was at La Scala for an opera gala (by Livermore) with anti-Covid restrictions in full swing. The orchestra was placed in the stalls with masks, and there was no chorus and no audience – this substituted the usually glitzy opening night of the opera season. Then in January 2021 she was Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte that was filmed in the theatre, again without an audience, and transmitted on Italian television. Now she's back.
There's an air of normality again: no masks and no swabs. Life has gone back to normal, and opera has too. People really want to go out and, luckily, are doing so by coming to the theatre.
Madama Butterfly has been occupying a lot of space in her calendar since her debut in the role at the Met in New York last year, and soon she will be singing her first European performance at the Rome Opera.
It's a wonderful role that has put me truly to the test, allowing me to grow as an artist. I've tried to emphasise the differences between the three acts, playing with the various colours of my voice, more girlish and innocent in the first, then accentuating the dramatic force as we move from the second to the third act.
Personally, I find it to be a devastating role from a psychological perspective and physically tiring. Butterfly is always on stage, and I put everything I have into the role.
But this is not the only Butterfly in her life.
A few years ago I met a little girl from my hometown [near Mantua], who suffers from epidermolysis bullosa and I immediately felt that I had to do something for her and the other children.
This medical condition results in easy blistering of the skin and sufferers are known as ‘butterfly children' as their skin is fragile as a butterfly's wings. Buratto became an ambassador for Debra Südtirol – Alto Adige, an association to help patients and their families.
Last February, she sang in the Butterfly Gala to support the association in Modena at the Teatro Pavarotti-Freni di Modena, named after the city's most famous opera singers: Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti.
I would like once again to express my thanks publicly to the Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana and Maestro Sisillo for performing for free with me. The Butterfly Gala will be an annual event.
And the butterfly connection goes on…
I heard that you have launched a Butterfly perfume.
I'll send you a bottle! Perfumes have an amazing ability to conjure up feelings and experiences. I love fashion and jewellery and am lucky to be followed by the designer Chiara Boni, who knows how to highlight my physicality and my love of femininity. Only the finishing touch was missing: ‘my' perfume! I found an excellent perfumer, able to interpret notes of rose and lily-of-the-valley alongside the freshness of citrus and heady, exotic woods.
The Butterfly perfume can be purchased on Buratto's website and shipped all over the world.
I wanted my perfume to be launched in the same year as my first Butterfly and as a tribute to Renata Tebaldi's immortal Butterfly.
Buratto is an ambassador for Tebaldi 100, the project which the Renata Tebaldi Museum set up in 2022 to celebrate the centenary of the great soprano's birth.
Tebaldi 100 will carry on honouring her memory, which is still very much alive. I am not presumptuous enough to claim any affinity with Tebaldi; that is for others to judge. I admire all her vocal qualities, above all her velvety timbre and her interpretative intensity.
Who are other sopranos you admire?
Other singers that I love, besides Tebaldi, are the same ones that I discovered and admired when I was still a student: Mirella Freni, Montserrat Caballé, Renata Scotto, Maria Callas, and Daniela Dessì. Then, there are many others who have left an impression on me for specific qualities… the list is quite long.
Last year also saw Eleonora Buratto win the prestigious Abbiati Prize, award by the National Association of Music Critics in Italy.
Without false modesty, can you remember the citation?
Yes, I can. It was a tremendous satisfaction to receive this award, but above all for the reasons that were given. I received the award as “best singer” not for a particular production but for my qualities: my devotion to study, and for the combination of artistic choices that I've made as I move forward in my career.
Among your many upcoming performances, you are down to sing in La Fenice's New Year Concert in Venice on 1 January 2024 – that's going to ruin your New Year's Eve… no spumante!
I couldn't wait to have the opportunity to take part in this concert! It will be wonderful to celebrate with colleagues and to share our joy with the audience at La Fenice and the immense audience reached by all the television channels that will be broadcasting it.
We'll drink a toast on stage. I think it makes for an excellent New Year! And I'll ask to toast with Franciacorta. Living on Lake Iseo, in the marvellous Franciacorta region, it is my and my partner's favourite wine!
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.