Marcello Giordani keeps the Italian tenor flame ablaze

By Lawrence A. Johnson


  While the music world has enjoyed the artistry of countless celebrated tenors from around the globe—with the Latin contingent enjoying a current place of prominence—there are few things more exciting in opera than the sound of a classic Italian tenor. The blend of vibrant tone, expressive immediacy and emotional intensity seem to have a visceral way of communicating with audiences.

 Almost a decade into the new century, the world is not exactly drowning in world-class tenors from the country where opera was born.  Yet one would be hard put to think of a singer working today who personifies those national attributes better than Marcello Giordani.

 A Metropolitan Opera mainstay for over a decade, Giordani is an artist at the summit of his career with a sensational voice and a rare interpretive depth to match. The singer will make his downtown Miami debut Monday night at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Florida Grand Opera’s Superstar Concert Series with a program of arias, conducted by Steven Mercurio.

 Over his 23-year-career Giordani has tackled an extraordinary variety of operas, encompassing all the major Italian bel canto and lyric roles.   “My voice is capable, thank God, of singing different repertoire,” said Giordani, speaking from his New York apartment days before opening a revival of Madama Butterfly at the Met. “I had ten years of singing bel canto roles at the beginning of my career and so I think I bring a different approach to the heavier roles.”

 Giordani’s voice is indeed the genuine article—a lyric instrument with the flexible legato, lyric ping, and vital characterization that virtually define the term “Italian tenor”—even though Giordani will be the first to point out that he is proudly Sicilian.

 “He’s the real Italian deal,” says Mercurio, who has worked with Giordani many times over the last two decades.  “He’s a lyric-spinto singer who sings in the classical expressive Italian style. It’s all about expressing the emotion. He sings his best when he’s airing it out.”

 Yet it’s also the glorious top range and his blend of refinement and muscle in bel canto that sets Giordani apart, Mercurio believes. “When he’s singing bel canto, he sings it like no one else,” says Mercurio.  “You never hear anyone singing full-throated B flats like that today.”

 Though he is tackling Pinkerton in Butterfly the week before his Miami concerts–and can be caught this Saturday afternoon in the role via the Met’s Live in HD  theater simulcast—people tend to forget that for the first decade of his career, Giordani specialized almost exclusively in the bel canto canon  of Bellini and Donizetti.

 “I mean when you’re singing Puccini, with all due respect, you don’t need as much technique as you use for bel canto,” says Giordani. “That’s why it’s always good and healthy to go back to bel canto because it forces you to sing with a certain technique.” 

 Giordani’s career was not an unbroken shining arc that led to his current international success at age 46. In the mid-1990s when he first attempted to break free from bel canto into heavier roles, the result was a vocal crisis that, mercifully, was brief, but that he now prefers not to discuss.  “Things happen in the career and happen in the life. That’s all in the past and is a memory. I don’t really think about it. I learned a lesson.”

 “It was never as big a deal as people made it out to be,” says Mercurio. “People’s voices change and sometimes when that happens there are issues that arise for a brief time. It didn’t even last that long.”

 Giordani is more forthcoming about today and particularly the Met’s acclaimed Anthony Minghella staging of Madama Butterfly. It’s clear he has an affinity with the role, making, as Martin Bernheimer in the Financial Times noted, “ceaselessly plangent, properly dashing Pinkerton.”

Giordani believes the staging allows him to probe a bit beneath the surface of the American naval officer  Pinkerton, a heartless cad who destroys the loving Butterfly, though he admits the role “is not one of my favorites.”

“In the past I really hated the role, but now I have to say I’m more…simpatico with it,” says Giordani.  “I really love this production because I [premiered] it and worked with Sir Anthony Minghella. I’m so attached to it because it gives me the opportunity to humanize Pinkerton and give him a little more credit.”

 “He’s a young man and young people make mistakes. But at the end he knows he’s done something wrong. It’s too easy just to make him into a jerk.”

Pinkerton, of course is one of the mainstays of the lyric tenor canon, but Giordani has tackled a wide variety of repertoire including many offbeat rarities: Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Puccini’s Edgar and Verdi’s Jerusalem, as well as several forays into French repertoire, including Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Les Troyens and The Damnation of Faust, the last, one of his Met assignments this season.

 While he’s reluctant to name a favorite role, Giordani says the character he feels closest to is the romantic hero, Count des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, whose love for the title fallen woman is so overwhelming, he  follows her to America and what he knows will be a tragic end.  “I love all the roles I do but if I had to pick one, I would say des Grieux in Manon Lescaut. First of all, t seems like it’s written for my voice.  The character is one I feel particularly very close to. I don’t know, maybe because he seems to fit very well  my own personality.”  

 With over a century of great Italian tenor predecessors, from Caruso to Schipa Gigli and down to Pavarotti, there is a celebrated lineage, but the singer Giordani particularly admires is Giuseppe di Stefano.  “Because he was the first tenor I ever heard on a recording—and he is a Sicilian.  And then, of course, there is Luciano Pavarotti. Just the sound, his vocal coloring, his phrasing, his technique and clarity are amazing.”

 Giordani is satisfied with the wide array of current roles and says he is in no rush to learn new ones—nor does he feel rhe is ready to tackle Verdi’s Otello, the Mount Everest of tenor roles.  Giordani lives in Manhattan during the season but maintains his home in Sicily, and his wife and two sons often accompany him on his travels. 

 While he is very much a singer who takes the theatrical dramatic element of opera quite seriously, he also enjoys the different aspect of the concert hall—- though, as a private, somewhat cautious man it’s clear which he prefers.

 “They’re different things, of course,” says Giordani. “In a concert or a recital, I can express all my artistry and all my feelings.”

 “Doing an opera, you put on your mask, your makeup and your wig and you are ‘covered.’ You are not yourself in that moment—which in a way is good because you’re trying to create a role.  You can become someone else.”

 Marcello Giordani will perform 8 p.m. Monday at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall with soprano Leah Partridge and conductor Steven Mercurio. 800-741-1010;

[Photo: Opernhaus Zurich.]

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Thu Mar 5, 2009
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