The opera world is full of big egos, but in the case of legendary Italian baritone Leo Nucci there's no hint of arrogance. Unassuming in appearance and warm and respectful as an interviewee, he's not being falsely modest when he says at one point during our conversation, 'My life is music, not a show'. Yet Nucci can look back on a phenomenal forty-two years of professional singing, which has involved singing most of the leading Verdi baritone roles in all the world's leading houses and appearing in numerous recordings including Solti's Simone Boccanegra and Chailly's Macbeth, which was also made into a feature film.
Nucci's international career took off at Covent Garden in 1978 when he filled in for a colleague overnight in a famous production of Luisa Miller. He's back thirty-one years later to sing the title role in a revival of David McVicar's production of Verdi's Rigoletto, a part which he also sang here in 1991 and 1994. 'Officially, I've done around 425 performances of Rigoletto now. If you include sixty or more public dress rehearsals, charity performances, I've probably done a thousand!' he jokes.
'But look: when it becomes easy, I will stop singing. Because you have to discover something new all the time. I am here because I love what I do. But I don't know what I'm going to do every single night, because each time we perform, we have to discover what will work. We can discover something new every night. I'm a movie fan; I love it. But when you've seen a movie once or twice, it's always going to be the same. Opera, on the other hand, is live. Every day you have to change something: this is the miracle of opera.'
Verdi has been the mainstay of Nucci's repertoire, with Amonasro, Ezio, Renato, Posa, Carlo V in Ernani, Doge Foscari in I due Foscari, Falstaff, Ford, Don Carlo in Forza, Iago, Macbeth, Miller, Nabucco, Giorgio Germont, Conte di Luna and Guido di Monforte amongst the roles that he has sung. I ask him why he loves singing Verdi so much.
'After these Rigolettos, I'm going to Zurich to sing Simone Boccanegra, then to La Scala for I due Foscari, and then to Vienna in the first two weeks of April for Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore. I'm singing Belcore, a very funny role that I like very much,' he explains.
'After those three performances, I will stop singing the music of other composers and just sing Verdi.
'Why? Because Verdi gives me something special: my values of life, the values with which I was born, the values of my grandfather. I'm a patriot, a country man, I like nature. I pay tax in Italy because I love my country, my culture. I love the humanism of Italian art, beginning with Dante, continuing with the Renaissance, finishing in the late nineteenth century with Manzoni and Verdi. That's also why Verdi loved Shakespeare: because of the humanity. The concept of life is something I can get from Giuseppe Verdi.
'For instance, in the first act of Simone Boccanegra, the people on the street are shouting "Morte al Doge", "Death to the Doge". Boccanegra tells the herald to call the people inside, and say to his face, "Death to the Doge". The people change their minds. We have to understand what Verdi wrote: I'm sorry to say this, but all my colleagues sing "Ecco le plebi" ["Here are the people" – he demonstrates in a strident voice] instead of "Ecco le plebi" [in a softer voice].
'Humanism is about understanding where people's problems are, about their inner selves. When Rigoletto enters in the last act, many of my colleagues sing – and I used to, as well – the following line in quite the wrong way: 'Quest'uscio….è chiuso! Ah, non è tempo ancor!' [He demonstrates by singing it once in an aggressive and joined-up fashion, and then by singing it in three detached breaths to emphasise Rigoletto's line about it not yet being time for the assassination of his daughter's seducer.]
'Or why do you think the first sixteen bars of "Va, pensiero" [the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco] are sung in unison? Because they are all suffering in the same way. Verdi knew that. This is Verdi: he's something more than a composer. He said in a letter on the occasion of the premiere of Rigoletto, "Maybe my music is not good, but every note means something." This is Verdi.'
Rigoletto is often hailed as Verdi's first total masterpiece, partly because of the portrayal of the title character. But when I ask Nucci to explain Rigoletto's psychological journey, he answers 'No, I can't, and I'm not joking. It's not because I don't want to answer. But after thirty-five years of Rigoletto, and after years, days and hours of talking about and studying Rigoletto and Verdi, when I go on stage it's not Leo Nucci appearing but rather Rigoletto.
'Also, it's not possible to present the same psychology all the time, because you have different colleagues giving you different emotions. You have other ideas when you are in different productions. So I think the best thing to do is think about what I'm doing in the moment I'm onstage, rather than in advance. Different conductors use different speeds or add rallentandos. For me, it's not about being right, I just want to do my best for the public. I try to do what Rigoletto would have done in that moment.'
The great baritone relates the first time he sang Rigoletto – a family affair. 'I did it with my wife [the soprano Adriana Anelli], who played Gilda. She was sixth months pregnant with our daughter, and everybody said "If it's a girl, you should call her Gilda". But we called her Cinzia! Adriana has also sung here in the past: she did L'elisir d'amore with Carlo Bergonzi. Every night, I wonder why she has stayed with me for thirty-nine years – she's crazy!' he jokes. 'And she asks me the same thing!'
Nucci relates the circumstances of his first visit to Covent Garden. 'It was very funny. It was in 1978, and I was engaged to do Un ballo in maschera in a small city called Taranto in Italy. My agent called me and said "Leo, Covent Garden has asked if you can go to London and sing in Luisa Miller. The dress rehearsal is tomorrow morning. Cancel Ballo and go to London." The manager of the opera house in Taranto agreed, but he said I had to find a replacement baritone to fill in for me, and I had only an hour in which to do it. I managed to find one, and I had to pay him! So I went to the airport, got on the plane, and there was a strike, so I had to wait for four hours on the plane before it took off.
'I arrived in the theatre at 10pm. Maestro Maazel was waiting for me, with his arms folded – he'd been waiting for three hours! We went through the aria and the concertato, and then we went home. At eight o'clock in the morning, I arrived at the opera house, and the general director of the opera came to see me and said, "You're not an international name, this production is very important, it's the beginning of the career of Katia Ricciarelli, and Pavarotti is also in it. If we find an international name, we will give him the premiere, and we're just asking if you can help us for the dress rehearsal today." Nobody talked about money! They then agreed I could have two performances for myself.
'I went out at the rehearsal, sang my aria, and the audience cheered! In the intermission, Sir John Tooley came to the briefing and said "OK, you can sing the premiere". The same thing happened after my aria on the opening night, and Pavarotti came up to me in the intermission and said "What you did tonight usually takes us five years to achieve". The day afterwards, I received telegrams from the Metropolitan, Vienna, Chicago – all the world's great houses. I still have them. It was an incredible success. Two years later, I came back for Luisa Miller with Carlo Bergonzi, we recorded Le villi and La rondine, and in the theatre I did Il trovatore, La traviata with Solti, Butterfly, Butterfly and Rigoletto in 1991 and 1994. I've had a long association with the company; the beginning of my career was here, and it's a special theatre for me.'
There doesn't seem to have been a particular moment at which Nucci decided to become a singer. 'I don't know now! In my home, I played the trombone, my mother sang, my father played, everybody in my family was musical. It was so normal. I never studied Rigoletto or Traviata: I always knew them, and I've always sung. My grandmother used to sing 'Addio, del passato' [from La traviata] in our house. It was absolutely normal. That was life. It was in my blood.'
What kind of training did he have? 'My wife went to a conservatoire, but I just worked privately for six years. Every evening from Monday to Friday from the age of fifteen, I vocalised. This was my passion. I studied music all the time. I've made many records but I never listen to them. I play the piano or accordion or trombone instead. It's nothing special. It's like tagliatelle con ragu or tortellini. I'm part of the post-war generation, and the famous singers of the day were Callas, Gobbi and Bergonzi. That was our music. After about 1965, a new style of music evolved, with The Beatles, for instance. Television and technology has changed the world. For us, it was completely different. When I was a child, although I was born exactly twenty-five kilometres between Bologna and Florence, the world was white. For us, opera was our daily bread.'
Nucci is passionate about his work for charity and for other people. 'I am a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. It's a great honour for me. However, we also do other work. My wife and I have been helping poor children for twenty-five years. We have a house in Chile where forty-five children are looked after. It's called "The Fireplace of Hope". We try to do whatever we can, always. On 18 January, between two performances of Boccanegra in Zurich, we gave a benefit concert at home for someone who needs to go to America for medical care. It's another absolutely normal part of our lives. I don't want to look like a saint, but we are religious; we believe. And when a person believes in something, they must live their belief. It's not just believing in God, either: it's a belief in music, in what you do. I don't know if there's anything after death, but I know that if we were more careful and less selfish in this life, the world would be a better place. We can all do something for others: this is belief.
'We had joyful news this morning. A lady who came to see me in Munich rang me to say that she had told several other ladies to see Boccanegra by walking on foot from Italy to Zurich. Why? Because during the last two minutes of the opera, all the audience was in tears. That is the nicest kind of appreciation that I could have. If you see someone wiping their eyes with tears during the performance, you know you've succeeded. Opera is not a show: opera is emotion. Otherwise, it's empty.
'I had a friend who lived in London. She was a very sick woman, and was 85 years old. She couldn't walk properly, and she was blind. She got an operation on one eye just to be able to see me in Il barbiere. She's never asked me for a ticket, but she was always on the front row wherever I appeared: in Verona, in charity concerts, in London. She used to say that coming to see my performances helped her forget her problems. That's what opera's about: everything is in the music, and the rest of it is just vulgarity.'
After forty-two years of a career, I ask Nucci whether he has any ambitions left, and he gives me a typically jovial answer. 'I have eight days between my performances here. My ambition is to find the time to spend six days with my little granddaughters Arianna and Camilla, and on the other two days I want to ride my horse!
'But joking aside, I have contracts until 2013. One thing is sure: my ambition is to have the courage to stop this exciting, lucky, fantastic job in good health. I don't want to give people bad memories. People are still prepared to walk to come and see me, and I want to make sure that I'm still in good form when I finish my career. We have to respect the composer, the audience and ourselves.'
Rigoletto opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 10 February 2009.
Review of the previous revival of David McVicar's Rigoletto at Covent Garden
Interview with Paolo Gavanelli, who plays the title role at some performances of this run
Interview with Patrizia Ciofi, who played Gilda in the previous revival, about Rigoletto
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