Thursday, July 26, 2012

Meet Our Singers: ANTONELLO PALOMBI, Calaf

Today we check in with our Calaf, Antonello Palombi, the Italian tenor who thrilled us as Foresto in our first-ever Attila earlier this year. Originally a policeman in northern Italy, Palombi, who nowadays sings the great tenor roles all over the world, made his U.S. debut in Seattle in 2004—a few years before his notorious La Scala debut, singing (most of) Act One of Aida in his street clothes, before finishing the opera in costume. (The New York Times had the story.) His first role in Seattle was Ramirrez aka Dick Johnson in La fanciulla del West, and he has returned for Radames, Canio, Manrico (audio clip HERE), Foresto, and now Calaf. I spoke with him about playing a fairy-tale prince in a realistic, verismo opera, about our unusual staging of Alfano’s concluding love duet—she kisses him as much as he kisses her—and, of course, about singing the most famous tune in all opera.

Let’s start with “Nessun dorma.” Do you remember the first time you heard this aria?
No. I really don’t remember when I heard it for the first time. Of course, I have Pavarotti singing it in my ears, like everybody else. To be honest, it makes this role not necessarily my favorite, because everybody is just waiting for “Nessun dorma.” The rest of the opera: yes, yes—but they’re all just waiting for “Nessun dorma.” Someday I want to do Turandot without “Nessun dorma!”

Antonello Palombi in Turandot rehearsal
(Alan Alabastro, photo)

So when those sacred three minutes arrive, and you’re finally singing the aria, is it somehow different? Are you thinking, “Oh, I’d better step it up now because they all know how this goes?”
Normally when I’m singing I’m not thinking about it. I’m just trying to sustain the mood, to keep the story going. Cavaradossi in Tosca is the same, he sings his big aria at the beginning of Act Three, after intermission, so you have to rebuild the mood. Maybe it would be interesting in Turandot if Act Two finished with “Nessun dorma.”

Well, it does. I mean, you sing the tune. It’s so beautiful, that passage when you ask her to figure out your name, “Il mio nome non sai,” and the orchestra introduces the tune of “Nessun dorma”...
But at that point what I sing is “E all’alba morirò” (And I will die at dawn). In the real “Nessun dorma” I say “E all’alba vincerò” (And I will triumph at dawn). It’s a completely different mood.

Antonello Palombi had to create a mood immediately when he opened an opera with the aria "Celeste Aida" at Seattle Opera in 2008
(Rozarii Lynch, photo)

Now, my big question in terms of your character: what does Calaf feel about Liù?
We were just talking about that in rehearsal.

Lina Tetriani as Liù and Antonello Palmobi as Calaf in rehearsal
(Alan Alabastro, photo)

When you first meet, this humble slave girl tells you she has remained devoted and dedicated to your father, all for the sake of a smile you once gave her...but you don’t respond.
Well, okay, but be careful. Turandot is a tale, a fairy-story. Once you start analyzing it, you never stop. Assuming normal life-relationships, certainly Liù is taking care of Timur because she is in love with Calaf. Timur understands this; he is a wise old blind man. He even asks Liù to talk sense to Calaf, when Calaf becomes obsessed with Turandot: “Liù, parlagli tu!” He wouldn’t ask her to speak to him, a servant to relate to a prince, if he didn’t think she might have the key to change the prince’s mind.

Peter Rose as Timur and Antonello Palmobi as Calaf in rehearsal
(Alan Alabastro, photo)

Also, in the torture scene in Act Three, when Turandot asks “Qui posa tanta forza nel tuo cuore?” (What gives your heart such strength?) and Liù answers “Principessa, l’amore” (Princess, love) Calaf hears that: he’s standing right there, listening, and he is not dumb! Renaud [Doucet, stage director] asked me a good question: Why doesn’t Calaf intervene and save Timur and Liù in that scene? But there’s nothing he can do. If he gives up on the riddle, and tells them his name, that still won’t save them. They would kill them anyway.

That’s interesting, you’re right, they’d be killed as enemies of the state.
Yes, we learn that at the beginning, when Calaf says to his father, “Be quiet, the usurper of your throne is still looking for us.” How do you say asilo politico?

Political asylum.
Ecco. They cannot ask for this—they are beggars, refugees.

Antonello Palombi (Manrico) and Malgorzata Walewska (as his mother, Azucena) played outcast gypsies in Seattle Opera's 2010 production of Il trovatore
(Rozarii Lynch, photo)

I’ve always found Calaf a peculiar character. On the one hand, he’s stubborn and single-minded. On the other hand, he’s so sensitive, with Turandot...he gets her, he understands what she needs in order to grow.
Well, for all that it is a fairy-tale, Turandot is still a verismo opera. The psychology of the characters is real.

Antonello Palombi as Foresto in Attila this January
(Elise Bakketun, photo)

As opposed to Attila, for example?
Oh, God! Nothing to do with verismo. But compare Turandot instead with the last two operas of Verdi, Otello and Falstaff. The same passion that is in Otello. There is no love in this opera. Calaf is not in love with Turandot. There is no time to build a feeling like love, a relationship. This is what the French call a coup de foudre [stroke of lightning], colpo di fulmine, we say in Italian.

Love at first sight?
Exactly. It comes from very deep inside our brains, from animal instinct. Ab ovo, they say in Latin—from the egg, the origin, the beginning. It is chemical. And entirely in the skin.

Antonello Palombi discussing Turandot in rehearsal with Maestro Asher Fisch and General Director Speight Jenkins
(Alan Alabastro, photo)

Superficial, skin-deep.
When he first sees her, with all the people bowing before her, and the power she is showing, in killing the Prince of Persia, at this moment Calaf, who is also a prince, between these two titans—this is the spark. There’s a click in his brain that cuts off everything with Liù and his father. Timur cannot even speak with him: “He is not listening to me! Please, Liù, do something.” But it doesn’t help: “Father, can’t you smell her perfume in the air?” He is crazy, impassioned. It’s not a question of love. You can talk about whether this couple will stay together, after the end. I was telling Speight the other day, I don’t think so. They have very different cultures, and this woman doesn’t want to lose herself. So when their bodies are satisfied, which means after two or three days, I think their personalities will come out, and they’ll start...[sound of bickering]. I think Turandot will kill Calaf. Like a mantide religioso (praying mantis).

I noticed, at the staging rehearsal the other day, you all have an unusual approach to the climactic kiss, in the Alfano ending. Normally, in the stage directions, Calaf grabs Turandot and kisses her into quiet, docile submission. But here it looks like she comes to you, as much as you come to her.
Yes. The duet here is always problematic, and we have a new way to read it, in terms of the feelings. Calaf starts by blaming her for the death of Liù, and she admits he is right. And with that everything changes—I want to fight, but she takes away my weapons: “I am wrong, you are right.” So what comes out is the passion. She shows her vulnerability, and it makes me feel like comforting her. Then the rest follows naturally, all the tenderness. The problem is to get there through the beginning.

Yes, because you’re both so aggressive, at first.
The music is strong, the words are strong. But following our director’s point of view, this is all also a normal human reaction. You can’t keep fighting after you admit that you’re in the wrong.

I see...that allows them the chance to come together. If they start by throwing lightning-bolts at each other, and then all of a sudden they’re kissing, it doesn’t make much sense.
Well, our staging I think makes sense—with a little bit of intelligence you can adjust things a bit and make everything more believable. This duet has created problems ever since it was written. Alfano’s first version was longer, and maybe it developed the two characters better, but it’s exhausting to sing. Whoa.

Have you done it?
Once only. It is too much. And it’s completely different; like starting fresh on another opera. You feel Puccini’s music finish, at the death of Liù, and your brain says, “Okay, that’s done.” Like when you’re full, after lunch.

But we need to get the story to the end.
In Italy—in Venice and Naples I’ve often done this opera ending with the death of Liù. The staging is different—after the funeral music for Liù, only Timur, Calaf, and Turandot are onstage. Timur rejects Calaf, who has ignored him and caused Liù’s death; Turandot was deeply moved by Liù’s suicide, and during the funeral music, she became like someone who is going to become a nun. And Calaf moves and looks at the sword that Liù used, and when the light goes out you don’t know what will happen. It’s left to the imagination of the audience.

Hmm. I don’t think anyone would like that, in America. We want our happy endings!
Well, life doesn’t always have a happy ending! This is verismo, real life. This is one of the stories that is showing the strength of passion, and how it can destroy people.

Verismo passion destroyed Antonello Palombi's character when he sang Canio in Seattle Opera's Pagliacci in 2008
(Bill Mohn, photo)

Now, have you worked with any of the singers in our cast before?
Only Joseph Hu, who sings Pong. We did Pagliacci together in Dallas, he was Beppe/Arlecchino and I sang Canio. I never sang with Lori Phillips, but I did with her twin sister Mary, we did Il trovatore together here in Seattle.

I want to see Lori and Mary sing Fiordiligi and Dorabella in Così together.
Oh, can you imagine? Mamma mia.

From Turandot rehearsal: Julius Ahn (Pang), Patrick Carfizzi (Ping), Joseph Hu (Pong), Lina Tetriani (Liù), Peter Rose (Timur), and Antonello Palombi (Calaf)
(Alan Alabastro, photo)

And I believe this is your first time working with Maestro Asher Fisch.
Yes. We met before, when we were doing Aida here and he came to conduct the International Wagner Competition. But this is our first time working together, and already I feel there is a good connection, that we are going to make very good music together. We look at each other at all the right moments. When I need him, I see that he is looking at me!

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