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Ildebrando D’Arcangelo: Discovering the Don

Lisa Houston on May 26, 2017
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo

Teatro alla Scala, Staatsoper Berlin, The Metropolitan, Covent Garden, Rome Opera: The list of major houses that have enjoyed the deep-voiced lyricism of basso cantabile Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is long and illustrious. Mozart was important to the Italian singer from the start, with the roles of Masetto in Don Giovanni and Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte helping him to victory at the Toti dal Monte International Competition for Singers, which kicked off what has been for two-plus decades a stellar career.

In the increasingly visual medium of opera, it is as common to classify singers based on their good looks as it is unfair to their artistry. But the magnetic and handsome D’Arcangelo has been a good fit for glamorous casts from Salzburg to the Met, as he will be for the upcoming Don Giovanni in San Francisco that will be featured at this season’s Opera at AT&T Park, where it never hurts to be good looking, as the singers’ faces appear roughly the size of Mount Rushmore on the big scoreboard. Rossini has also figured prominently in the repertoire of this native of Pescara, a city on the Adriatic coast where he still makes his home during his scant time off.

These days Verdi is appearing more often on his busy schedule, with a Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra in Vienna, and Banco in Macbeth in Munich. Méphistophélès in La Damnation de Faust is now in the rotation, and soon Fillipo II in Don Carlo will be as well. His discography includes a solo album featuring Mozart, and another of Handel, and he is well represented in other star-studded recordings, including a Stabat Mater with Anna Netrebko, a video from Salzburg in which he sings Leporello to Thomas Hampson’s Don Giovanni, and his own interpretation of the Don for Deutsche Grammophon with yet another all-star cast. Reviewers call his voice dark, deep, and alternately suave and not without bite. His characterizations are noted as “genuinely affecting,” and critics rarely fail to mention a charismatic stage presence.

He is an inveterate Mozartean, known for singing Don Giovanni in particular. Of his 2012 Don Giovanni with Los Angeles Opera, the L.A. Times wrote, “He inhabited the role.” The result of strict musical upbringing, D’Arcangelo’s schedule is typically brutal for a sought-after singer, demanding constant travel. Just arrived from Germany, he took the time to sit down for a chat with SFCV at the opera house here in San Francisco.

You said a while back you would perhaps like to record Rossini, but before the voice has settled too much. Do you think you will record more Rossini, and what about how the voice has settled? Where are you with that?

It depends. The crisis with the recording industry makes it difficult to plan something. I still have the capacity to sing Rossini, the agility, but I can feel now the voice going to the bigger repertoire. The idea is to keep singing Rossini because it is really healthy for the voice because you can manage the elasticity and range. It’s a good training.

Some singers talk about how it can be a challenge to put a voice back in the box after a dramatic role. How specific is your technique? For example, if your next opera is Verdi, will you do different exercises than if it’s Mozart, or do you have a core set of practices that you do no matter what?

Usually. I will sing Filippo Secondo in Don Carlo next year. I was talking with a Maestro many years ago, he said “it’s not about a question of the notes, it’s a question of maturity, stage experience; that’s the process to arrive in some roles.” But when I study, for example, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, it’s newly rebuilt. My vision today is not the vision I had 10 years ago, and all the information directors have given to me over the years. It’s a new discovery. Otherwise it would be boring, if you sing it the same way, or your mentality is not so open.

What is the newest thing you’ve discovered about Don Giovanni?

Now my vision is someone who lives in the present, who wants to live with full energy, without thinking of the moments before, which are already gone.

Is he almost more like an animal, Don Giovanni?

Ildebrando d'Arcangelo in the title role of Mozart's Don Giovanni | Credit: Robert Millard/Los Angeles Opera

It’s a really bad day for Giovanni, this day in the opera. If we think about it, the seduction is not finished because somebody interrupts. It's really hard to show who Don Giovanni was on this particular day, I think that was the joke of Da Ponte and Mozart. The seduction for me is death, it’s the only one he is really attracted to, that he wants to know. He has the opportunity when the Commendatore comes and says “Penta ti!” I could repent, and save my life, but that is the beautiful thing about Don Giovanni. He keeps his character until the end.

You’ve described your father, who was a musician, as “very strict.” What did that mean for your early musical training? And are you strict with yourself as a result?

Yes, I’m glad my father gave me this, let’s say, old-school direction. It’s important the way you study, to represent your capacity, how you read the music, how you catch all the information, so I’m glad my father was like that. Today is not like the old days. Results are very quick, you go there, you sing there, you don’t have time to build something step-by-step. I think life is too fast now.

I love listening to your recitatives. They are so conversational, so speechlike, with so much variety of mood, and dynamics. Is that part of how you keep your voice healthy with such a rigorous schedule, or even in the course of an evening, to make sure that you don’t oversing and that you sing with subtlety on quieter parts?

Absolutely. For me, it’s always to invent and research something new. That’s the beauty of Da Ponte, you can find so many colors. I remember when I won a competition, the famous baritone Sesto Bruscantini, he said “you won because every night you change the way you sang the recitative.” It means you have the capacity to discover and discover and discover. Also, this is the way to survive if you sing it for 30 years. But it’s a pleasure. I think this is the passion and the love for music. I did the Conte in [Le nozze di] Figaro and it was completely different from last year. I liked to bite the words, and make it funny. I like the comedy. My only time to play when I was young was watching the comic actors and imitating them.

When you were 16, a voice teacher gave you a CD of Don Giovanni. Can you describe what that meant to you then? Your reaction?

My father obligated me to see the opera and it was so boring, them just screaming, and I didn’t understand one word. This teacher gave me the LP, it was an LP at that time, and the book. It was [Karl] Böhm conducting, [Dietrich] Fischer-Dieskau as Don Giovanni, [Ezio] Flagello as Leporello, and I started to read the book and listen and when I arrived at the end, and the Commendatore appearing, it was immediate. That screaming wasn’t screaming any more. It was my future. I didn’t know it at the time, but something happened.

Ildebrando d'Arcangelo as Don Giovanni | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Diego Opera

I sometimes find Don Giovanni hard to watch because of his treatment of women. I frankly can’t wait for him to go down at the end.

I think he is very empty, Don Giovanni. He needs these women, like food. It is more important, he says, than eating, or breathing. I think it’s really sad sometimes. And that day, like I said, we can’t see the funny part. Leporello can be funny. He is many colors. Giovanni is only one.

You’ve played Leporello. What is it like to switch?

For me, every time it is new. The director gives me some information and I go home and start to think how to build this character. The important thing for Giovanni and Leporello, it’s important that people see the closeness of the relationship. Leporello should be very similar to Don Giovanni, otherwise Elvira is a silly woman, she would recognize. All these things are important in an opera, it’s like a family.

You don’t call yourself a bass baritone, but a basso cantabile. Why do you think most press still uses the bass baritone label? Does that drive you crazy?

I think that’s the modern way. They think maybe a bass baritone goes high easily. I still have in my mind what I saw in history books, that the bass is in three categories. The really low, the cantabile, and the basso brillante, or shiny bass, which maybe means bass baritone. But what does that mean? It’s neither fish nor meat. Who are you? Today I’m a baritone, today a bass.

What are the next new roles you will be adding?

I just did Faust in Damnation, and I will do Filippo next year, I also did Simon Boccanegra, and Ernani.

So, more Verdi.

More Verdi, but of course I will keep my repertoire until my belly [Laughs and gestures an expanded belly]. Don Giovanni with a belly would be difficult. The opinion of many is that you should be very good looking, but I think Giovanni is like John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons, he’s not beautiful, but in this movie, he grabs me. He’s not Brad Pitt or Banderas, but how he played was amazing.

If you were going to describe your breathing to a nonsinger, how would you describe it?

You know I’m still discovering. It’s really hard. Everyone physically is different, it’s difficult for the teacher because it’s about sensation, and my sensation is different than your sensation. Every time I try to figure out a more natural way, I’m discovering, discovering.

When I interviewed Italian conductor Riccardo Frizzi, he mentioned that Italian conductors mostly get hired to do Italian repertoire. Not that he was complaining, but he said this is the market. Do you feel that’s true of you as an Italian singer? Of course you sing other languages, but are you happy sticking to the Italian composers?

It is also the time. If I need to study Russian repertoire, it’s hard. As I said before, my schedule, we are going so fast. I would like to sing Wagner, but I’m too lazy to study German. [Laughs.] Maybe one day. I don’t think it’s a category. Music is universal. I think it’s about what your heart wants. I follow my passion.

You’ve said about getting into character, “I need to feel it inside” How do you get in the mood to be Don Giovanni?

I try not to think. When I enter through the stage door, I start to change. Before it’s a normal day, but when I go in the theatre, in the house, something magic happens.

If you have one day off at home, how do you spend it, or in a new place, how do you spend the day?

Honestly, I like to stay home and watch movies, I don’t like to be a tourist. Of course, I like to explore. I’m here for two months, I will enjoy that.

This is a big house, do you ever use imagery to project, think of the last row or anything like that?

Sometimes I just think about the acoustic, because the theatre should be built with the acoustics to project the voice. My concentration is on the acting without thinking about projection, because I’m confident about the architecture.

Is there an opera house in Pescara?

There was. They built a parking lot over it. I wasn’t born in that time, so it wasn’t my fault.

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