Ferruccio Furlanetto: My Salzburg story

The Salzburg Summer Festival is a spectacular musical and cultural event with opera, concert and drama programs with a lot of meetings, exhibitions and celebrations (in 2010, when this interview was recorded - 90 years of Salzburg Summer Festival and 50 – years of Grosses Festspielhaus – main festival venue). Ferruccio Furlanetto’s performances in 2010 were very special, he participated in the festival for the 17th time (chronology and details of Ferruccio Furlanetto performances at the Salzburg Summer Festival you can find here), gave 2 opera performances as Oroveso in “Norma”in concert version and sung Mussorgsky “Songs and Dances of Death” with Concertgebouw orchestra under Mariss Jansons. These concerts received high critical acclaim and sensational reaction from the public. But Ferruccio Furlanetto appeared not only on stage: during different Festival meetings, some presentation and signing sessions have been arranged. Among them one of the most interesting was presentation of a CD with Russian Recital of Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov’s pieces which was recorded the same year and released shortly before the Festival starts. Actually this program was almost “born” here: one of the very first recitals with Russian songs of Ferruccio Furlanetto and Alexis Weissenberg happened in 1993 at Salzburg Festival. So it was obvious that long aviated recording not only appeared in the Musical shops in Salzburg but was also accompanied by special event: presentation of CD with the mighty interesting and witty Talk between Ferruccio Furlanetto and Jurgen Flimm, Intendant of the Festival. Photo and video reports you can find here. Famous singer also spoke about his participation at Salzburg from the very beginning in the interview to St.Petersburg Music and Art magazine. English version of this interview is presented below.
— Ferruccio Furlanetto: My story of Salzburg started from the very first audition which I did for Jimmy Levine in 1978. It was organized on stage of Grosses Festpielhaus where at that moment there was set for “Don Giovanni“. And after this audition Metropolitan immediately invited me and I had my debut as Grand Inquisitore in Don Carlo at 1980 with Nikolai Ghiaurov and Mirella Freni in the cast.

After that came audition for Karajan arranged at 1981. I remember I was on my way to Kassel in Germany where I sung my first King Philipp in “Don Carlo” and I stopped in Salzburg to have this scheduled audition with Karajan at one o’clock at the afternoon. I arrived at 12 to make some vocalizes, to warm up and was waiting at the corridor near Karajan office on the other side of the building. One hour passed, hour and a half… So finally around 3 o’clock I saw Karajan for the first time. He noticed me:

—Oh, yes, I remember, we had to have an audition, but now give me half an hour because I have to rehearse with somebody else for the Verdi “Requiem”.

And to make it short: he kept coming and going and I finally have my audition at nine o’clock in the evening! But it was good for me, because at one o’clock I would be probably nervous. And at nine I was so fed up, so bored, and I can’t care less about Karajan or anybody else. I went to the big stage, Karajan sat upstairs:

— What would you want to sing?

— Maestro, that, that … and “Don Carlo”.

— “Don Carlo”.

I sung king Philipp’s aria and he didn’t want to hear nothing else, but said:

— Follow me.

We went to his office and he said that he is impressed by the voice, liked it very much, it is so dark and interesting, but the intentions of the interpretation are not what he usually did and like. And he gave me the cassettes of his “Don Carlo” and said: “Listen to it and come back at 12 tomorrow”. I went to the hotel in high spirit, listen to the recording and I understood what he wanted from me — the first part of the aria to be very soft. And at 12 I was there, he was there, and I had a lesson for me and “God” himself at the piano. And after it he was so enthusiastic, complimentary and so sorry that in next three years he is doing only German repertoire. But he said, that he would have remembered me.

After 3 years he was already sick, so I thought that he forgot about me, but exactly after 3 years he invited me for the part of Leporello in his “Don Giovanni” recording. I never did Leporello before, but Karajan was a kind of person to whom you could never say “No”. So I think “Anyway I can try”.

In 1985 he invited me for Coronation Mass which he was doing at Vatican for Pope and in the year 1986 I was at Salzburg Easter festival for Coronation Mass and Bruckner “Te Deum” and contract of covering King Philipp in “Don Carlo” just in case. And the “case” happened, Van Damm got very sick and I jumped in without any rehearsals. And that day really had changed my life. The day before nobody knew me, the day after everybody knew me. This was the beginning of the long list of summers which I spent in Salzburg.

— You said that nobody knew you, but it is not exactly so. You have your debuts already in all major opera houses.

— Yes. At the Metropolitan-Opera in 1980, at the La Scala in 1979, at the Vienna Staatsoper in 1985, I do not say that nobody knew me, I was a young promising singer… . But after Karajan had chosen somebody or something, it was a big sudden change. It was Easter 1986 and I had the debut at the Summer Festival as Figaro in the same year. And after that it is continuing until today. It was 24 years before and after that I was singing at almost all Salzburg festivals and   4 Easter ones. And the fact of belonging to Salzburg in these years was very important: it was Olympus, here was the best of the best, because Karajan was inviting best conductors and best singers. And in Salzburg I have more friends than at any place in the world.

— You sing in “Don Giovanni” most of all: in 8 Summer Festivals 4 times Leporello, 4 times Don Giovanni. Can you tell more about those performances?

— I did three different productions of “Don Giovanni”. The first with Karajan-Hampe, then with Chereau-Barenboim, and the last with Ronconi-Gergiev. The production of Chereau was the best for me. From all the “Don Giovanni’s” I did with Ponnelle, Strehler, and Zeffirelli, this was the most rewarding. I also did two different productions of “Don Carlo”, then horrible “Cosi fan Tutte”; “Nozze di Figaro”- the old production of Ponnelle and then Hampe. In the most important 1991 year of Mozart (we are talking about Mozart’s bicentennial), I did 12 performances: 6 Figaro’s and 6 Leporello’s, and three of them where together: one day Figaro, next Leporello, and it was easy. I remember that on the second day in the morning, I was going to play golf. I am really enjoyed that very much. It was in the 10 years’ period of Gerard Mortier. Of course, the change in Salzburg had to be large. Karajan was a charismatic personality and suddenly we were going in totally different direction. But 10 years of Mortier were on a high level because there were great conductors (Muti was there, Barenboim, Gergiev, some of the old ones) and in general there were pretty good productions except this “Cosi fan Tutte” (we did it once and it was thrown away). After the Mortier period, the disaster started. Luckily I sung in the old productions, but you cannot believe that in these five years of Peter Ruzicka I never ever saw his face or met him. It was like to be invited at home by somebody and you never see your host. And then in recent years, we were going in the direction of typical German festival with totally German administration, and typical German choices… I was always called there for dreadful productions with no respect for the music, and no respect for the text. But I must say there is an end of everything. And after 24 years from my debut in Salzburg, nevertheless, I can say that there is no other place in the world which gave me so much through many different administrations. And what is a beautiful part of it: it is not only important artistically, but also from the human point of view.

— Can you tell more about recording process and rehearsals with Karajan, were there any specific things?

— He was using the recording which we did one or maybe two years before and he was never satisfied with that recording. And while we went on stage to rehearse, we were using this recording. And it was funny because in certain moments he was saying: “No, no, no. Here it will be faster, here it will be slower, here it will be different”. And then you were wondering why he was rehearsing this way? Why we used this recording if there would have being differences? But he was the boss. But when we did the recording, other things were settled before. When we did “Giovanni”, we had two or three days of rehearsals in Salzburg, only recitatives and then after three days, we flew all together to Berlin to do the recording. And the musical orchestral parts were done in the orchestra, but in a way he was right because it is in the recitatives where you create a character not in the orchestral parts. So it was quite a special moment, not fully understandable though. These rehearsals which we did, were fascinating, because he had such a personality, spoke splendid Italian, and he could understand the double and triple meanings behind Da Ponte’s text. And he was playing with the Italian text so beautifully. Even for an Italian it was fantastic to find new kinds of possibilities of interpretation coming from somebody who was not Italian. More or less the same thing happened some years after with Chereau. I mean his “Don Giovanni”.

— You said that it is your favorite production of Chereau, but it was never recorded, unfortunately.

— Chereau was very strict. (We are talking of about 16 years ago). During the first year, his concept of this opera was not finished. It started to be finished in the second and third years. And it was really what he wanted. And at this time, there was a possibility of making television, DVD, whatever …, and Chereau wanted, obviously, to be also the director of the cameras and he wanted at least ten days with the cameras but it was not possible because of budget’s reasons. I have a video (from the theater archive), I wanted it just for remembering because everything from the very beginning, and especially the end, was so brilliant. The first year, it was not really shaped as he wanted, but on the second and third year, he started to make direction inside the direction for the parts, direction for somebody who was not singing at the moment, and it was fantastic.

From many “Giovanni’s” I have done during my career, this was the only one in which I was in agreement with the director from A to Z. The finale was impressive. In the moment of the D major accord then Commendatore comes, this huge head of the Commendatore, which we had in the graveyard scene, was thrown against the wall, and the wall was collapsing and I was squeezed by the head until the very end. Every night I knew that at this moment this wall will have exploded but I was always terrified at this moment. “Don Giovanni” is an extremely difficult opera and the most difficult part of it is the finale. This production should have been done originally at the Opera de Paris but it never happened because of several reasons. Luckily, through Mortier and Barenboim took it to Salzburg in 1994, six years after the scheduled debut. Chereau told me that he started to think about the direction of “Don Giovanni” from the finale. When he founded the idea for the finale and was happy with it, he started then to think about the beginning and the rest. I think he was right, because I have a proof. Few years after in Salzburg, the beautiful production of Ronconi appeared, very modern, very brilliant, very different…. until the final. In the final, clearly he did not find the right inspiration and all the beautiful things of the production were not sublimated by the ending. Even today many people in Salzburg say to me that Chereau’s “Don Giovanni” was the best. Now, even more than then, I realize that I was in front of something special. It was the advantage of working with a very special kind of brain. And for this we must thank for the period of Mortier because in the period of Mortier there was this sensational “Giovanni”, there was a fantastic “Electra”, some things with a very strong end. His time was completely different from Karajan’s period, of course, but with charisma, with real intellectual power which was completely missing afterwards.

— And what do you think about this year “Norma”?

— I was asked to do it as a personal favor and basically I accepted because I love Salzburg. It is important that all the cast must be strong, from the minor roles to the main ones, which makes the production stellar. I find that my colleagues were fantastic, but it is a kind of repertoire which does not interest me at all. I did it professionally because Oroveso is not an easy part, it is very demanding, especially at the beginning. The aria and following cabaletta are really demanding. I did it to please the administration and to please myself for being there once more. In 1993, I had a similar situation. I was doing a bad production of “Cosi fan Tutte” (Alfonso). The production was awful but the cast was fantastic with Cecilia Bartoli, Bruce Ford, Solveigh Kringelborn, Jennifer Larmore — quite a cast. Luckily I had my Russian Recital with Alexis Weissenberg at Mozarteum. So everything was focused on that.

— You consider Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death” more important that the participation in “Norma”?

— Of course. This is real stuff. The participation in “Norma” was a normal event for me. I have never sang it before, I will never sing it again.

— When you sing “Songs and Dances of Death”, do you understand every word of the Russian text?

— Oh, yes. This, my Recital and “Boris” I studied a lot. Not only in the direction of decent pronunciation, but in whole.

— I asked you this question because there was some interesting attitude to the words which I never heard in your interpretation before…The irony in “Trepak”.

— Yes. It was request of Maestro during the piano rehearsal. He also asked if I agree to picture Death in “Lullaby” in a more sinister way. To this I said “No”, because I think that in this particular song when a kid is dying, mother is agitated in desperation it will be not right if Death will say “I will grab you…” It is fatality. Every second, we are closer to our death and in this particular song I do not feel double senses, just ”Let us go…” This is life, and Maestro agreed. Also I like to finish last song with sign. If we have a soul, it is the sound of its passing away. There is nothing sinister, nothing nasty.

In the other songs you can find some moments of irony, but if the choice would be mine as it was in the recording, I would never be ironic because I think that death is inexorable. We can not stop it, it follows its way and nothing can be in between. For this reason, there is no nastiness.

— But in the last song, Death is sure nasty

— Yes, it is a bit different also because it is talking about the battle, where there is enough nastiness. It is the reason why Death is finding a kind of amusement of winning over the life and over the winners and losers because in this case it deals with the most stupid part of human being, the war. There is no right war, there was never a right war. Death has all the rights to be triumphant. In the other songs, in the “Serenade”, there are some moments of self-amusement but in different way. This is what I feel.

— Do you believe in the eternal life after death?

— Not in the way men are explaining it. I do not believe in any religion created by men, because it has all the weakness of human beings. They all were created as an instrument of power. And I refuse them. I am sure that there is a superior order, but it is too big for us to understand.

Interview was conducted by Vera Stepanovskaya in 2010. Photos of Ferruccio Furlanetto at the presentation of Songs CD by Ekaterina Belyaeva.