Boris Godunov, Vienna Staatsoper, 2007
Foto: Axel Zeninger
Teatro alla Scala
Photo: photos Andrea Tamoni © Teatro alla Scala
Ferruccio Furlanetto about Boris Godunov
First Boris in Rome (1999)
Ferruccio Furlanetto will soon make his debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, singing one of his favorite and most renowned roles of Boris Godunov. He performed it in Rome, Milan, Vienna, San-Diego, Florence, and Venice. Furlanetto became the first Italian who sang it at the Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg. The 2011Ė2012 season is beginning under the mark of this great work. In the new and old productions, Ferruccio Furlanetto will sing the title part in Mussorgskyís opera in Chicago, Vienna, and Palermo. In advance, he gave a big interview to Roger Pines, dramaturge of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Text is reproduced here by permission of the Lyric Opera.
Am I right in saying you first sang in Russian when you did your first Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov recital with Alexis Weissenberg in 1993?
That was the first approach with Russian music and Russian language. Being a bass, the Russian repertoire is a kind of target that is very important to achieve. Sooner or later I knew I would have done it. The reason it happened was Alexis Weissenberg. We were doing a concert in France Ė me, him, Caballe, Jessye Norman. On that occasion Alexis told me, ďYou know, we should do a Russian recital. The first part Rachmaninov, second part Mussorgsky.Ē I was extremely flattered. We started to look around immediately for songs. I started to dive into this ocean of music and I remember I was in NYC at that time for four months, and I had a Russian teacher coming every day just to start on the pronunciation, the sounds, the meaning, everything. It was work of a good two years. The recital was one and a half hours, by heart. Of course, you need to know deeply the meanings, to play with the words like I like to do in whatever repertoire. It took two years. And then it started.
The first recital we did in Berlin. We did it in Europe, all the major houses, from Musikverein, Scala, Paris Champs-Elysees, in Germany in several theaters, then in Italian theaters. After a few years, Alexis started not to feel so well, was basically retiring. I couldnít really continue to do these recitals with someone else for many years, out of kind of respect for him. We should have had a recording with Sony Classical, and two months before the classical label basically collapsed. It was supposed to happen at the Champs-Elysees, which wouldíve been sensational. After many years, my manager, who was also the manager of Alexis, proposed this young Ukrainian to continue this. He spoke to Alexis, who was happy for him to continue with me. Now we also have a recording, and a splendid one. Brand-new label, Prestige Records /Vienna. Sensational group, with a lot of money. Itís the best recording Iíve ever done. Absolutely splendid -- the quality of their recording equipment is magnificent. In a month and a half Iíll do the second one with them, which will be my debut WINTERREISE!
Boris was your first operatic role in Russian, correct?
First operatic role in Russian was a long time before, in Bologna, a tiny role in CHRISTMAS NIGHT, this was nothing. The big approach to the repertoire was the big recital. Then I was asked to do the BORIS in Rome, that was quite funny: They offered me to do the very first version, the short one. Twenty days before getting to Rome for the beginning of the rehearsals, Gary Bertini, who was supposed to conduct, left for some reason, someone else came, they changed to the Lamm edition, the four and a half hour version. In order not to lose the opportunity, after having fought for a week to change versions with such short notice, I did learn the second version by heart in 10 days. I donít know how it happpened. Splendid production of Piero Faggioni, was a stunning success. Season after that I was doing DON GIOVANNI in Salzburg with Gergiev. He said, ďWe are to do it in St. Petersburg and Milano,Ē so it happened. Whenever Gergiev promises something, it happens, and itís of sensational quality. So it happened.
As a native Italian singing in Russian, can you remember a particular phrase that you found especially challenging, just because of the *sounds*?
To be honest, when I started to study the very first version, I found the tessitura of this role absolutely fitting like a glove. I never really had to concentrate particularly on some phrases because of difficulty. Such huge love I had for it, and I felt that maybe my voice is meant for this role. When I came to do the other version, the one with the big monologue, the joy was even bigger. That monologue is something that first of all I do for myself.
Luckily, I have a very good musical ear. Therefore I never really had problems with languages or pronunciation. I can reproduce sounds, thatís very important. And then when it came to sing Russian, it was amazing. Although Italian and Russian donít have anything in commonónot *anything*! -- theyíre both, when it comes to singing, theyíre both based on vowels. Vowels, of course, are fundamental for carrying the sound properly. In both languages the consonants are kind of smooth, not really hard like in German, where they come from the throat. I never really had particularly problem in applying my singing to the Russian language.
Teatro alla Scala
Photo: photos Andrea Tamoni © Teatro alla Scala
Letís talk about the particular vocal timbre you need in this role Ė these days you sing lots of Verdi, you sing Mozart, Massenet Ė how does your own sound change when you move from one of those composers to Boris?
When I was, say, 26, 27, I started a good 20 years of Mozart. Mozart opened all the doors. The Leporello I did with Karajan was opening everything in the world. Mozart was fundamental in those 20 years, because as a bass, but also as a PERSON, I was growing up and developing in the most natural way. Because you cannot sing Mozart in any way but with your natural voice, without building fake vocalities on top. These exercises, these 20 years, were pure, pure medicine. After 20 years of Mozart I came back to Verdi, eventually to the Russian repertoire, and everything was so easy, much easier than before, because the voice could develop in the right direction, through the use of words. Which, in Mozart, is fundamental, because you have to make people understand the recitatives. They shouldnít need subtitles when you sing Mozart, they should understand every word. This technique, applied to Verdi, Mussorgsky, Massenet, whatever, it works sensationally. The voice is always fresh and easy, thanks to that period with Mozart.
I could sing today Filippo and the day after tomorrow Boris, without any disturbance. Because my attitude and my approach is always, ďI am onstage, creating the character, both dramatically and vocally, in the same way. Therefore, itís living the character through words and music under my own skin. ďIt sounds easy to say, not so easy to be done. Itís the fruit of many years of work and experience.
I know youíre now singing Prince Gremin, too, which needs classic legato. That sort of singing doesnít really apply to Boris, does it?
Absolutely! It does apply at certain points. Monologue sings in the room with the children, when he has dismissed the boy. Heís talking to himself [FF sings] Ė there is such amazing legato. Such a glorious sequence of phrases, itís amazing. It could be Verdi if he wanted. Itís singing in that direction. BORIS is the Russian verismo, too, you have all these political situations, and the madness, when it is theater in music more than opera. But there are moments where you need to have the big legato.
When you first appear, in the Coronation Scene, what qualities are most important for you to communicate to the people onstage Ė and, of course, to the audience?
Itís the most difficult scene, Iíd say. You come in, you have two pages of singing, and you must show who Boris is. Therefore these two pages must be already full of the colors you need, the man who is regretting to take this step, but at same time is looking forward to have this opposition. He wonders what could be the fate of his children Ė they were going from murder to murder at that time, it was terrible. Probably, because itís not written, itís not proved, but MAYBE there was also this anguish coming from the knowledge of having killed the boy. In two pages of music you have to present your visiting card. And this is tough. Itís like with Radames in AIDA, he comes in, he sings ďCeleste Aida.Ē Itís not an easy task. You need really from the very beginning to find the right colors, the right intention, the right lightness in the voice, the right weight in the voice. Itís quite complicated.
In the scene with his son and daughter, is he able to be relaxed with them and show them real affection? How does he do that? At one point he says to his son, ďIf only I could live to see you as Tsar.Ē Does he anticipate that heís going to die?
Affection, for sure. When he speaks to someone in a certain way, with certain words, itís very easy to understand it. With his son, there is already this terrible worry of what could be the end of this boy. This will happen, historically After Borisís death, the false Dmitri will rule for a short while, then heíll be killed, then Shuisky will be Regent, there is this period where the son of Boris will be killed. Historically! And the daughter will disappear Ė no news about her after. She was already kind of a widow, there is pain and sorrow in her life from the beginning. Boris is suffering enormously from this fact. With all these aspects in the relationship he has with the daughter and son, you understand he loves them enormously. It is the love of somebody who is already suffering on his own, and he has also this kind of mental weakness already around his brain. Therefore itís so complicated, this character, you need to find all these shades, the colors, to PAINT this amazing, amazing character who sings, basically, for 40 minutes in the entire opera. This short time Ė you need to paint a universe. This is the beauty, the magnificent beauty of this character.
He knows that sooner or later heíll die. When you were in that position at that time, it could have been any day, the last one, there were turmoils, there was a problem with Lithuania, then with Poland constantly. And with a lot of traitors inside. How many revolutions from part of the army have been there since even before Boris. He knew that. He married the daughter of Ivan the Terrible.
Boris at Mariinsky theater (2004) Photo Natasha Razina
When it comes to study and to sing such an amazing character, itís important also the fact that itís an historical charterer, you canít make it in a different way, you should be faithful to what it was. I was talking to a friend of mine, the sensational conductor Semyon Bychkov. He advised me to read a big book he provided about the life of Peter the Great, because in this book you could find also the history of the previous Tsars, Boris included, and the political situation. These very subtle risks you were running constantly with sections of the armies, always ready to rebel, and to change boss, and this kind of thing. He told me it would be fundamental for me in order to get into Boris, to know and to think like a Russian who had the knowledge of his own history. So I did, it was absolutely fundamental and Semyon was not right, he was a million times right! In Firenze I did Boris with him. We did a very strange modern production, full of symbolism but so strong, and Semyon was sensational
What is most important for the audience to learn about him Ė and about his *mind* -- in the big confrontation with Shuisky? Heís suspicious of Shuisky Ė why canít he just get rid of him (not kill him, but exile him)?
A very delicate situation in the political life of those times. Shuisky was a rich person, a nobleman, very powerful, could have easily have overthrown Boris. Even If you donít like someone, better to have him as an ally. Heís using his position and his power just to control Boris.
Some famous Borises have gotten very physical in the Hallucination Scene, running around, throwing things. How emotional and how *physical* do you like to be in that scene? Iíve also heard some Borises do so much shouting that they go totally off the written notes. Is it possible to do it ďcome e scrittoĒ and still give all the necessary feeling to the scene?
I think itís very physical, because that kind of madness, leading you to death, is and must be rather physical because this is not somebody dying in his own bed. Heís going around and shouting and having this crisis in front of the Duma, the Parliament, in 25 minutes what is happening is *amazing* to hear this man, coming out from his room totally mad and doesnít realize heís in front of the Duma. When he finally does, he tries to put himself together and then he has this constant worry about giving the son his last advice. He knows for him itís a matter of minutes, but nevertheless he wants to give his son the last advice to survive. It wonít be enough, apparently. All this intrigue coming in, like Pimen -- Pimen is a liar, heís used by Shuisky to increase the madness of this man already on the edge of dying, heís surrounded by snakes and he knows that. Heís so worried about the *son*, he must give him some direction, letís say.
Itís what Iím trying to do Ė I donít like this shouting. Itís always a bit too easy Ė a kind of easy way to avoid difficulties. Shouting and going out of rhythm and invent your own lines Ė of course you can have some *moments* of that kind, but it should be very measured. Someone dying, but heís a nobleman, donít forget, nevertheless with great dignity. If you start to shout, itís very melodramatic and rather funny. Itís an old-fashioned, I love to hear even Chaliapin or Boris Christoff who was sensational. But even he, Christoff, whom I adore, heís crying Ė nothing that could be done today. You need to find other ways to do that. The other way is nothing but using the words, and your colors.
By the time you get to the end of the Hallucination Scene, itís like youíve run a marathon. How do you find a healthy "pacing" for that scene, so that youíre not totally exhausted at the end? (Since, of course, you have the St. Basilís Scene and the Death Scene still to come!)
When you are in the moment of singing Boris, even when you go back to the dressing room, the concentration doesnít fall. Your mind is already projected to the next scene. Therefore there is no moment of relaxation Ė never. You could be seated, checking your makeup, but your brain is working in that direction. There is no risk of losing the concentration, and in the moment you get to the stage, oh God, itís as if youíve never left it. The role sustains you
Heís such a tortured figure, and so complex. Is it important to create in your mind a ďback storyĒ for Boris Ė that is, what his life was like before he became Tsar? Did he murder Dmitri himself, or did he simply arrange the murder?
I donít do that. I think the most important key is just to really *live* word after word what youíre saying at the present. Of course, if you know exactly deeply the meaning, *why* youíre saying that word rather than another, the past comes by itself. [Re: whether Boris murdered Dmitri] Mussorgsky didnít want it, neither did Pushkin. They say he did. He doesnít know really if he did. Of course, itís mental weakness, moments when he believes he did it. When Pimen comes, heís getting even more upset because of this talk, this speech of Pimen, the way he describes the way the kid was found with the blood. The face was smiling, the skin was beautiful, in comparison to the other bodies that were rotten. This man is mentally extremely weak, but nobody will ever know if it happened or not. I personally think he didnít kill the boy. When he was asked to become Tsar, they did ask him three different and separate times, and he refused three times, and finally accepted. If he had really done that, he would have accepted the very first offer because he would have killed the boy in order to become Tsar. He really had this anguish about becoming the ruler. Nobody will ever know it. History doesnít say.
The physicality of the role: What sort of physical characterization do you create for Boris? How do you use movement to reveal the character? Because of his costumes, I imagine that he would move somewhat differently from other regal figures that you play Ė Filippo, Cardinal Brogni, etc. Is that true? Do you like doing a huge fall down the stairs in the Death Scene?
For me, when I am rehearsing, whatever of these roles, and I am just in my normal clothes, with my face, I just do that technically to remember where I am to go. In the moment, the most important moment comes when I am finally dressed and in makeup of Boris. To look in the mirror and see someone else, not myself, is fundamental. My poor manager always say there was a kind of schizophrenia in my acting, because I change totally from what I am and in a moment I become dressed and made up like a character. I am less severe with myself Ė I donít say itís schizophrenia, I just say there are persons who never lose this capability that kids have when they are tiny to become the character even with little tools. I remember when I was a little boy, it would have been enough to find a branch of a tree with a shape of rifle to become a cowboy.
The fall [from the throne, in the death scene] is necessary. Of course, you need to plan it very well. It could be painful it could be dangerous. In S.D., one night for some reason, doing that role , with the three steps, that night I walked a bit on the cape and I fell in a different way and I landed with the back of my head and for ten seconds I was knocked out and seeing stars. I Ďm sure it was the most realistic scene I ever did in that role. You need to be careful.
Letís talk for instance about King Philip. Heís always walking in the different scenes in a diff way, as happens to each of us. When you have this tremendous weight on your back, of responsibility, of pain, of fears, this is influencing your walking, and if you feel that wayÖI repeat, if you really LIVE what youíre saying, the situation, where you are put and projected, if you really live under your own skin, these situations, youíll walk every time in a different way.
Have you done several versions of the opera? Which one do you prefer?
I did so far two, and I learned the third, which is the Rimsky-Korsakov. I didnít do it -- I was supposed to do it at the Bolshoi the last week before they closed for restoration, then for some reason there were some problems and they postponed it *Yesterday* they offered d me three dates to do it at the Bolshoi, which for me is an enormous achievement. The day I will finally do it in Moscow I will be the only ever westerner who did Boris at the Bolshoi AND the Mariinsky. My predecessors were sensational, but if this privilege happens to me, Iíll be very very happy to have it. This is also a sensational proof of appreciation to be asked by the Mariinsky and by the Bolshoi to do *their* BORIS, in their temples, their most sacred role. To offer this to an Italian is quite something.
I think the BORIS I prefer is the Lamm, the long one, the second, because of the big monologue. You have the same one basically in the Rimsky-Korsakov, but the R-K is more R-K than Mussorgsky! Therefore, if you really want to pay a tribute to Mussorgsky, you have to do the very first one -- full 100% Mussorgsky. But there are too many beautiful things missing! In the second one, revisited by Lamm, you have everything and itís still very Mussorgsky. R-K becomes a bit more honeyed, done by somebody who has another sensibility. Maybe a better musician, orchestrator, but the genuineness of Mussorgsky is gone.
Youíre "finally" making your Lyric Opera debut!
It is something that I was looking forward to at least 30 years. When I came to this country, first time was in '78, my debut was in New Orleans in NABUCCO. Then I was in that famous GIOCONDA in í79, in í80 I had my debut at the Met. For these past 31 years, from the important Met debut to this very day, there was something really lacking, and finally we will fill up this gap. I am so happy, so proud, so looking forward to it.