Q&A: Daniela Barcellona on Falstaff, Mozart, Verismo & Her Dream for the Future of Opera
Bel Canto, Verismo, Verdi, Baroque and French are all the variety of the repertoire that Daniela Barcellona has performed throughout her legendary career. It was with Rossini that she started and that led her to become one of the great performers of Verdi’s works such as “Falstaff”.
La mezzo recently completed a production of “Falstaff” as Miss Quickly at the Festival d’Aix en Provence and is expected to resume her tour at the Berlin State Opera, where she premiered a production by Mario Martone.
This season, she will also sing her first Mozart role in “La Clemenza di Tito” and return to the Teatro alla Scala where she will create a new production of “La Gioconda”.
OperaWire spoke in Barcelona about “Falstaff”, Verdi, Mozart, Rossini and verism.
OperaWire: How does it feel to come back to live performances after a whole year?
Daniela Barcellona: For me, going back to live performances was like making my debut. When I first went on stage it was like the first time I sang especially after a year. I did a few productions last year but we had a lot of months with nothing and I was as excited as I was when I first sang many years ago. And feeling the public live is priceless and it’s incredible to feel the public and in this case, in Aix-En-Provence, the great outdoors. There is nothing like a live orchestra, a live choir, and having everyone working together is amazing. I think opera has to be performed live and it’s an emotion that you can feel the theater, feel the audience and their reaction, and you can feel the colleagues and everyone. This is something that you cannot have in a stream or broadcast. Live productions are irreplaceable.
OW: You came back with Miss Quickly, a role you played several times. How did you feel coming back with this role and in a comedy after such a dark time?
DB: It’s a great time because I think people need to have fun and see a jester opera. It’s my pleasure to hear people laugh and to be this character is fun. You can explore all types of comedy.
OW: You did this opera in Berlin and you are coming back this fall to the opera. How is the production of the Festival d’Aix en Provence different from the one you did in Berlin?
DB: It’s completely different because everything is based on comedy. Barrie Kosky wants us all to have energy in every moment of the show, from start to finish. It’s hard to do throughout the show but we have a lot to do on stage and we also have real cakes to eat on stage. And it is very good. It’s very colorful and the concept is completely different. In Berlin, Mario Martone has a different conception of Falstaff and the production is in a place for people unsuited to society. We can have fun there but it is another staging. Kosky is all about the gags and we felt people laughing throughout the opera.
OW: The interesting thing about “Falstaff” compared to other Verdi operas is that it is an ensemble work and there are really no arias. Tell me about Verdi’s writing for this work?
DB: Verdi composed a choral piece and the vocals are treated like instruments and there are a lot of ensembles. There is no great outdoors outside of Ford, Fenton and Nanetta. But the amazing thing about it was that Verdi was studying the fugue and he immediately wrote the final of the fugga and it’s one of the masterpieces. It is very difficult but very effective. The difficulty with Falstaff is that all roles, even the smallest ones, are treated as instruments. Miss Quickly goes from very serious to serious and it is very difficult even though I have sung Rossini for many years. To say he wrote this opera at the age of 80 shows how strong he was and I think it is a masterpiece.
OW: Miss Quickly is largely the mastermind of the plan against Falstaff. Tell me about your interpretation of Miss Quickly and what are your favorite parts of the role?
DB: I think Quickly handles everything and I think when she was young she had a relationship with Falstaff and she has that trust with him. So on stage, I have to be food and flirtatious with Falstaff to try to convince him to see Alice and Meg. She is smart and a leader in many ways. I love when she goes to Falstaff and sings “Reverendo”. It’s a very well-known passage and right now she wants to be nice to him and at the same time make fun of him. I also like the final scene with Falstaff where she tells him to go into the forest and prepare him for what’s going to happen. It’s wonderful and I also like the overall work.
OW: In this work, the text is very important because it is very dialogical and heavy recitative. Tell me about playing with that text and working on the rest of the cast?
DB: It’s very similar to Rossini because it’s quite similar to the recitative and some of the parts that I just talked about. I don’t sing them because Verdi wrote them so particularly. There are notes in some parts but I’m just talking about them. The text is sometimes at the service of the effect. For example, when women sing together, everyone sings different words. So the effect of the exterior is nonsense. He wants you to talk and the audience to hear noise and not understand. He wants you to feel that feeling of the four women talking together and having fun.
In the scene in the woods, “Spizzica, Spizzica”, you feel that needle hitting Falstaff and it’s very instrumental. Words are not important and the end effect is. It’s very special and the funny thing is that acting is sometimes in words and you don’t have to do much. Everything is written in the music and it’s much easier and more efficient to just sing along. And this is the genius of Verdi.
OW: How does this role fit in with the rest of the repertoire you sing?
DB: It’s very different and it’s an easy role because she doesn’t have any tunes. But the hardest part is that it is a very low role and that it is written in the passagio of the mezzo-soprano. It is therefore very difficult sometimes to focus the voice and to have the right color of voice. For this reason, I do Quickly one after the other. It’s hard to sing Quickly and the Amneris because the texture is so different and for me it’s important to sing a role and then have an intermediary role to move on to the next. If I sing a very low role, I can’t do a very high role immediately after. I have to move from a medium role to a high role. So I’ve been trying to do that my whole career and of course sometimes it’s not possible. In this case, I stay with Quickly until the end of October and then I have a free month and I will sing Sesto in “La Clemenza di Tito” in Bilbao. It’s completely different and I think it’s important for voice health to have a schedule where you can handle different roles.
OW: Tell me about that first role in Bilbao and why did it take so long to sing your first Mozart?
DB: It will be my first Mozart. I only sang one of the Ladies in “Die Zauberflöte” and then I was asked to sing a part of Mozart by Daniel Barenboim. But then they canceled production because of COVID. So I lost this opportunity.
So I am happy and emotional. That’s why I took a month off just to focus on that. Mozart’s music is so pure. Everything is in the right place at the right time. Orchestrations come from another world. I fell in love immediately. And of course, the coloratura is pure and not like the baroque which is on time and dry. Mozart is not like Rossini. The coloratura is ethereal. We feel in harmony and it’s something mystical and I love this composer so much.
OW: Do you still sing Rossini and how have the works of Bel Canto helped you in these great roles? Is it easier?
DB: Yes. When I’m at home, I keep singing Rossini because I think it’s very important for the voice and for your technique. It also helps keep my voice in shape. I always sing with my voice and it remains very elastic. When I started singing Rossini, I didn’t have a coloratura so I practiced for six months. I practiced breathing control and practiced not to exert pressure so that it would feel natural. You need to be relaxed and at the same time use all your muscles without pressure or flow. You need to be healthy, go to the gym, and eat well.
Rossini is an amazing school for voice training and you have to be very focused on technique. You have to be able to sing very quickly because of these millions of notes and you have to be careful what you do. If you make a mistake, you pay more than one ticket afterwards. You don’t have time to recover from a mistake, and you always have to think ahead. Rossini does not spoil the voice either. When I sang Verdi and other repertoires it was easy because I have plenty of time to sing what I have to sing because the notes are so long and everything is so calm. What helped me is that at Rossini you pay attention to the only word to give it the right sense and that happens at Verdi. It’s also helpful to understand that you don’t always sing loudly from start to finish. There are some interesting sentences between these notes and Rossini was an excellent teacher for that. In fact, I always tell my students to start with Rossini and then develop another repertoire. Rossini is an excellent workout, for the mind, for the body and for the voice.
OW: Next summer you will return to the Teatro alla Scala in a production of “La Gioconda”. This production was canceled last fall and is a rarely performed work. Tell me about this work and what it means to sing it at La Scala?
DB: “Gioconda” is so beautiful because it’s very difficult for all voices and I’m happy to be back in La Scala with this role. I love it so much and it’s very dramatic and very difficult. But Gioconda’s productions were successful when I did the opera. It’s a masterpiece and to be in La Scala with it, which is so Italian, it’s amazing. I am happy to find this theater that I love and where I have sung so much.
Ponchielli is a Verista but when he was executed during the Fascist era it was Superman culture. It was the way to do it at the time. Verdi has also been sung as Verismo even though he was not. This type of song was accepted and Ponchielli’s music is very powerful. And that is why we are used to hearing it as verism. The music is from the 1800s and it’s very powerful and we think it’s verism. But in reality, it is from a period prior to verism. I think this work is closer to bel canto than to verism even if the music is powerful and dramatic. It’s a bit like Verdi. Of course the music is powerful and it is sometimes hard not to be dramatic on stage but I always sing it in my bel canto way.
OW: With such a diverse repertoire, is there a dream role that you haven’t sung?
DB: Right now all my dreams have come true. I hope to work again with Riccardo Muti and I also hope to return to the United States after this pandemic. My other dream is that every opera lover and singer can enjoy opera for many years to come. I also want everyone to know that opera is not obsolete. Opera is something you can dream of where you can have experiences in other worlds. I hope that everyone can continue to go to the opera and that the beautiful voices can benefit from their audience and be united. Music has no borders and it unites us all. This is my dream!