Born in the Basilicata region of Italy, Anna Bonitatibus is known as one of today’s finest mezzo-sopranos, beguiling the public with her rich voice, outstanding ability with text and impeccable technique. Her repertoire includes over fifty roles spanning 400 years. Recent appearances include performances as Sesto in Brussels, Destino and Diana in La Calisto in Munich, Rosina in Vienna, Cherubino at the Royal Opera House and the Berlin Staatsoper, and the Messaggera and Proserpina in Orfeo in Munich. Her latest album Semiramide, la signora regale is out shortly on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. I caught up with Miss Bonitatibus following her show-stopping Royal Opera Cherubinos.
Your Cherubino here at the Royal Opera revealed a singer not only with impeccable technique but also a great interpreter who can make even the most well-known arias seem fresh. How do you approach a piece that you’ve performed so many times and make it seem so new?
This is a good question because in this latest run I asked myself more questions than ever about Cherubino. When you perform a role many times it can get a bit stale. But then you realize the company will be different, the house is different, the cast is different, the musicians are not the same every time. It is always a question of finding the essence of what a person is. The interaction that you have with a Susanna or a conductor informs how you colour your answer to the other. This is what makes music a living art form. Then there’s the question of how you approach it because many things can happen between one Cherubino and another and of course voices also change. This time in particular I had to deal with a slightly darker voice than the last time I did it. A darker voice can be more boyish but I also had to look at how to deal with the very high passaggio that wasn’t originally written for a mezzo-soprano. I realized the answer is not necessarily in the technique but in the character of the boy that I should portray on stage. If you see these things from Cherubino’s point of view, then you can’t go wrong.
The ornamentation you used in ‘voi che sapete’ and the tenderness you found in it were quite stunning, how do you develop your ornamentation?
The use of ornaments is something that you learn when you do this kind of repertoire. I started, as many young singers do, by doing what conductors asked me to do. I remember the first time I sang Cherubino, the conductor asked me to do something at the end of ‘voi che sapete’. I had this idea that Mozart was untouchable and I said ‘oh no, it’s impossible, Mozart wrote exactly what he wanted’. Now, 20 years later I can tell you from having read many things and having studied the scores, biographies, the histories of music and opera singers, that I was wrong back then. It was my first Cherubino and for some reason when you study Mozart at school you think that you can’t touch him and yes, there is still a feeling around that Mozart is untouchable. I think that for his time, Mozart was one of the most creative composers ever and I believe that even Mozart himself would change something every night. Naturally he wouldn’t change the structure of the composition but he’d change something in order to bring the music to life and to give each interpreter the possibility of doing so too. There are treatises that discuss the variations that can be made.
If I were to put a new da capo aria you had never seen before in front of you, how would you go about ornamenting it?
First, I would write the ornamentation out. What I don’t do is change every night, to improvise. It’s very risky on stage to do this so I’ll study it a lot at home and try some ideas out to see if they work with the style of the composition. Ornamentation in Rossini is one thing, while in Mozart it’s a small question of appoggiature or gruppetti or small tasteful things. All Mozart concertos have a big cadenza and today composers are still attracted to writing cadenzas. Mozart wrote some at the time but many other composers have written them since. This means that interpreters can use this as their own way of emphasizing the beauty of the piece – it’s not selfish or egocentric – rather it’s a question of music and bringing it to life. Ornamentation is about bringing a piece to life, about making it fresh. It’s not a question of showing off what I can do, certainly not in ‘voi che sapete’, not at all.
One thing that truly sets you apart as an artist is your use of text. How do you learn a text and bring it to life?
Normally I start from the libretto; I need to understand who is talking, who they are talking to, where and when they are talking, what the situation is. Le nozze di Figaro is incredible for this – la folle journée. Everything in that opera happens in one single day. You might think it’s just 3 and a half hours of music but it’s not just that. What we see is a distillation of each character’s lives for one day. This is what is incredible about theatre and why text is so important. One scene is about one, two or three characters, about something that either happens just before the scene or perhaps straight afterwards. If it’s not clear what is happening at that precise moment, nobody can understand what happened before or what will happen afterwards. Then, in order to deliver what you think is the important point that the character should be putting across to the audience, you really need to know who the person you are portraying really is. That’s when the music comes in. Ultimately, music is written on words – wonderfully of course – and the way that composers and librettistas found this perfect chemistry between words and music is very special. These two elements are very different, one is theatre and the other one is music. By uniting these two elements, opera makes something magic happen and I feel as a musician and an interpreter I should serve both sides equally. I would always like that audiences, no matter where, can understand from my tone, my expressions, what I am saying without having to read subtitles. My teachers in this were Monteverdi and Cavalli themselves. If you look at one of their scores you instantly think ‘this is so boring’, nobody will be able to follow this for more than two minutes, not the audience of today. But then, you discover such magical poetry in the text that even when you’re rehearsing it you go home and start using those words with your partner! They are so strong and powerful, nobody will refuse you if you say ‘love me!’ in this way. I think that this is what is so amazing and beautiful about opera and cannot be done in any other art form.
Your album Semiramide: la signora regale will be released imminently. Tell us a little more about it. How did the project come about and how did you choose the repertoire?
This was an amazing yet difficult project that I started to think about four years ago. When I was looking at the music of Semiramide, I discovered a lot of compositions that were inspired by her and I started to ask ‘why?’. Why did more than a hundred composers dedicate music to her? Once I started researching, I discovered an enormous amount of distorted information about the true Queen Semiramide who probably existed 800 years BCE. I left the music to one side and I researched who this woman Semiramide really was. I discovered many, many interesting things; the most important is that she was a much more modern woman than you would think.
We know that Dante Alighieri and medieval writers said quite horrible things about her yet I didn’t find any of this negative detail in music. I found paintings, sculptures, tapestries –many things about Semiramide but all of these art forms are completely foreign to each other, it’s like they are not portraying the same thing. Not the real Queen Semiramide. Of course, literature is full of information about Semiramide but always about her negative aspects. You don’t find that in music. Composers tried to describe another aspect of who she is. Music describes something that history couldn’t. This is why this project is interesting.
The booklet that comes with the recording is enormous, full of information and presents Semiramide and her true history, myth, legend and music. Art, architecture, history, music – all of these come together in this project to present this incredible woman. We know very little about her but I wanted to put into the booklet what we do know. There was a lot of research and music was just one part of it. When you present something that is not well known then you take a certain responsibility which in this case I did. More than ever, I see her as a fascinating woman. She did not give me an easy time though! It was quite difficult.
One of the most familiar titles on your new album is ‘bel raggio lusinghier’, but it’s not quite the version we know, is it?
Rossini wrote his first intention of ‘bel raggio lusinghier’ and he finished only the vocal part. It isn’t the version we know today with the cabaletta, it’s just a cavatina, a true introduction for a queen. The cavatina is without a cabaletta so there is no allegretto part and that way you understand what his first intentions were. The first part of the aria is the one we know, it’s the second part that is different. Philip Gossett, who was working for the Fondazione in Pesaro, filled out the orchestration that Rossini had stopped working on because Colbran, whom he wrote it for, probably asked him for a cabaletta. He left the cavatina to one side and wrote her a cabaletta. Here, we took the orchestration that Philip Gossett did for the Fondazione and Ricordi and we recorded it. We’re the first to perform these first thoughts of ‘bel raggio lusinghier’.
This is a fantastic project and I look forward to getting people talking about it. I found, in Semiramide, many things that can be discussed and music is just one of them. Each piece has a history attached to it and the most important thing is that we can re-evaluate this queen who was a woman, a widow and a mother. The recording is saying, forget the things that were said about Semiramide and let’s see her in a new light and a new way to be inspired.
Tell us a little about your future plans, what exciting things can we expect from you?
I’m looking forward to taking new steps but not crazy steps. Last year I did something that was a gift for me, I sang my first Verdi Requiem. It’s something I had been looking forward to for a long time, since I was just a pianist. In that music, I found something terrible that belongs to humanity. In this music there are doubts, it is very powerful. It’s not just a matter of making big sounds which of course the choir does. I find it very satisfying to sing this piece because it can be much more of a human experience than singing coloratura from castrati roles. I am very grateful to have done these, however, because I learned so much from that with regards to technique. It would be wrong to say that I have found all the colours in my voice. I am a bit like a painter, I always have to find new colours and new nuances and I’ll do that very slowly and do new things that will give me the possibility to be much more expressive.
If there is one role that you haven’t done yet, that perhaps might not be possible at the moment, but you would still like to do it, what would it be?
I don’t really think like this. I know many colleagues of mine who plan very well and they see the point in the future they’d like to get to. I don’t because when I did so in the past, things didn’t quite happen in the way I expected them to. For example, I know that it sounds strange, but I never planned to sing baroque music. I started with Rossini and bel canto, that was my own land and still is. But baroque just happened and now everyone knows me as a baroque singer, which can be a little bit restrictive. When I did La Calisto by Cavalli, I did it as a tragédienne and the force, strength and energy of these texts were so incredibly deep that who cares about which period it was written in. I like challenges and getting to know something new about myself through music. Music has an infinite variety of forms. There is a lot of work to be done but also so many more exciting discoveries to be made. I’m very excited about the future.