July 17, 2022 by Murray Dahm
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Shortly after my interview with bass David Parkin, we discovered a mutual admiration for the great Italian bass Cesare Siepi (1923-1910).
I was even able to speak to David about a magnificent recording that he did not know (of the Lutheran hymn of Marcel’s character “Lord, rampart and sole support” from Meyerbeer’s Huguenots). So things evolved into a discussion of all things bass. Parkin, who plays Ferrando in Verdi’s Opera Australia production Il Trovatore (July 15-30). Famous, the great Italian tenor said that all you need to Il Trovatore are the four greatest singers in the world. This Caruso meant to apply to the characters of Manrico, Leonora, Azucena and the Conte di Luna – Ferrando is missed in these four (we joked that Caruso meant five greatest singers in the world). In the past, singing was also sung by great singers (like the sublime Ezio Pinza; I sang opera with Conal Coad in the 1990s). He’s also an essential character (at least for the audience), giving us much of the opera’s necessary (and complex) story. And he sings a lot (moreover, he opens the ball) – the singing is “devilishly difficult” – the weight of a Verdi bass but which is obliged to sing coloratura.
What initially drew Verdi into the story were the two women – he intended to name the opera after Azucena. The opera was based on the 1836 Spanish play El trovador by Antonio García Gutiérrez with a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano (although he died before the opera was finished). So it presents something of a mystery. The play had not been translated into Italian and Verdi did not read Spanish. He may have obtained the piece thanks to his lover Giuseppina Strepponi (she had been the first Abigaille in Nabuco in 1842). She began living with Verdi no later than 1847, although the two did not marry until 1859 – they therefore represented a somewhat scandalous couple in the Busetto countryside where they lived for most of this period. Verdi’s relationship with Strepponi can also be reflected in many of his operas where love is the most important facet, not morals, what society thinks or its mores. The importance of love over status and convention can be seen in operas such as The traviata and yes, Il Trovatore where Leonora loves the gypsy Manrico on the possessive and violent affection of the tale di Luna. It would seem that it was Giuseppina Strepponi who found the piece and possibly suggested it as an opera (perhaps even translated it). We find Verdi calling it ‘our’ trooper.
Parkin previously sang Ferrando, in 2014 with the Western Australian Opera, so he is reprising the role. This is a new production directed by Davide Livermore, with sets by Giò Forma and costumes designed by Giuanluca Falaschi. It is also a production that will incorporate the fourteen moving digital LED panels as seen in recent productions such as Lady Butterfly and Aida. The digital content here will be by entertainment design company D-Wok who have previously worked with Livermore and incorporating artwork by Francesco Calcagnini. Parkin is used to the panels (having been the King in Aida and the Bonze in Butterfly) but here, in addition to the panels, is a spinning giant across the width of the stage (actually a donut spins (a second spins inside the first)) and some major set pieces – all the saves were made. The panels are capable of great variety and although Parkin considers himself a “theatrical purist”, their use is evolving. Certainly the use of panels in this year’s revival of Lady Butterfly were breathtakingly efficient. The panels are also solid walls so good for singing alongside! The complexity of several scenes of Il Trovatore are even facilitated by the panels (outside the convent/inside the convent, prison/castle). The setting has been updated from 15th century Spain through the Spanish Civil War period (a popular period for opera updates). We’ll see if this update sheds some light on the opera’s original setting – which today includes the setting of King Martin of Aragon – though the twisted family trees of the Spanish nobility vying for the thrones certainly do. part of the story.
We’ve already seen Parkin this year in Lady Butterfly and that of Halevy The Jewess (in previous seasons he played up to four roles at once). I complimented his performance in the latter, especially his management of the stairs. He told me he actually missed a step on opening night (I hadn’t noticed), but it led to an enlightening discussion about what to do when things go wrong on stage (as they so often do, despite every effort). “All kinds of things go wrong all the time, and one of the big lessons of being a singer is just not to stop” – which means keep playing and people often won’t be able to tell that something went wrong in the first place – they’ll assume the “mistake” was a deliberate part of the performance. When the words go wrong (as they sometimes do when singing a foreign language), you keep singing – Parkin’s word is to “schmear” the phrase until you get it back on track (based on german schmear “spread”).
When we talked about roles and repertoire, we lamented that today the “poor basses” have to sing almost everything – there are no more types of bass (basso cantante, basso profundo, bass martin) – today we wait of a bass that she sings all the bass repertoire. Yes, there are bass-baritones but they are often expected to sing bass roles as well. But you need shades of timbre. In Don Giovanni, for example, the bass voices of Leporello, Commendatore and Don Giovanni are (and should be) different. Today we are going through a tendency to entrust the role of Don Giovanni to a baritone but in the 1930s-1960s the two greatest Don Giovanni were basses – Ezio Pinza and Cesare Siepi). Parkin admits that “the opera that made me want to become an opera singer was Don Giovanni, and that was before my voice even broke and I just saw Donald Shanks sing the Commendatore; and I thought “oh my God, this is amazing”; he tore the board with the power of his voice. Similarly, the basses of Philip II and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos or Pimen and Boris in Boris Godunov must feel different. We then ended our chat gushing over our mutual admiration for Cesare Siepi – Parkin aims to get a bracelet that says “what would Siepi do”. Having such a great singer as Siepi as a role model for his career, Parkin is in good hands, or if I may say so, in a sure voice.
“rotate” is the part of a scene that rotates
“mores” “the essential or characteristic customs and conventions of a society or community.