In Gramophone’s Opera recording of the year – Handel’s Agrippina on Erato there are many shinning vocal performances, starting with roles, performed by Joyce DiDonato, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Franco Fagioli and others. In the role of bumbling Emperor Claudio Luca Pisaroni hits the stage. In the interview, Italian bass-baritone describes his experience with the recording, balance between lyrics and music, vocal and emotional expression and why he is not a fan of Claudio.
I mainly wanted to talk about Agripina record. How was the process recording it, was it recorded before the pandemic?
Oh yes, it was recorded before pandemic. We recorded it in May 2019, and the good thing about the recording is that it came after the tour, we did a tour with several concerts in London, Luxemburg, Barcelona, Madrid. And so it was much easier to come up with something that had a feel like we were doing a production. For me it is really challenging to do a recording of a piece when I haven’t performed it before. Its really hard to create this kind of urgency and this flow that you get when you do a performance. To be able to record this after a series of concerts made the recording process very easy and fast, because we knew what we wanted to do musically. And the most challenging part of the recording were the recitative, because you know this opera has endless recitative, pages and pages. And we didn’t cut, we wanted to do like a complete version, so we didn’t cut anything, so we made recitative, when you have recitative that is like six minutes, you know, it has to be really crispy and interesting and to make it easy on the ears of the listener. This was I think we worked much more on recitative than on aria. Aria was like half an hour ready, the recitative took a really long time, because it’s really hard to give this kind of energy that you would get from a production.
Did you had any tricks how do you take yourself into the story, when you are recording?
Look I the funny thing about the recording, we had fixed position, because we had the microphone and the funny thing about the microphone was that we try to act so much so everybody was just gesticulating, using their energy, because if we would be not able to move very much and so I think everybody tried to gather some kind of energy and inspiration by acting with the arms. The thing about the recording, which is so amazing, I think is that you need to be able to express something without anything else. You need to act with your own voice and this is where it is really difficult. And you realize when you are on stage with the costume, with the lights and with your arms and with your body, you can say so much even without singing. When you do it for a recording or CD, you realize that you practically you are only in your head and nothing else. And so you better act with your voice. Otherwise you won’t get across to the audience what your character is living in the moment.
Is it difficult to find how to really act with your voice, or do you really just try to use the colors and some kind of phrasing, or are you kind of look for some kind of acting?
You know I’ve done, as everybody, a lot of recitals. They are the best example of being able to act without moving – it’s just you and the piano. Therefore I think we singers are all used to expressing the feelings through the voice. We felt very comfortable trying and experimenting. When doing a recording you can push the boundaries of dynamics, you can accentuate the forte and the piano, because the microphone picks up on the smallest details. So I said certain lines in whisper and certain in anger. You lose that on a stage, since you need a certain level of volume to project on the audience.
How do you see your character Claudio?
There are certain roles that I think are really difficult to find the key to. Claudio is the least interesting character in this piece. He’s not well defined dramatically – neither evil, nor exciting. It’s a little bit in the middle. In the scene where everybody shows exaggerated emotion I am relaxed. It is challenging, but at the same time it’s the beauty of doing this repertoire. When you’re doing concert, it is really hard to, to express all inner experiences and to show it. Throughout the process I found some new nuances to a character, because every performance is different. We had four or five concert tours, so that the product of the recording is much more developed. We made theatrical entrances, added gestures, a little bit acting. You can experiment, search for color and the audience gives feedback. It’s a process. People were responding very well in all the places.
What was is like to sing Handel’s opera?
It’s a baroque piece, so there are not so many performance – tempo or dynamic – indications in the notes. It gives you more freedom and more room for your own interpretation. But on the other hand, it is more difficult to balance all the music and language elements on your own. Recitative’s has a repetitive structure, so you have to invest energy finding a different way of singing the same material and bring different meanings to it. It takes time to find varying dynamics, accents, vibrating tones, colors. It makes you to deeper understand all the categories and not just read the notes and repeat the formula, because the audiences would get bored as well. It’s always good to push the boundaries trying to make it as interesting and as theatrical as possible.
How have you changed as a singer throughout your career?
Now I am in my 40s and I had 20 years of experience, but music always gives me so much energy and makes me feel young. It’s like bubbles in champagne – it’s electrifying. Throughout the time everything changes and evolves with life – my voice, my musical tastes. Now as a soloist I can express more feelings and experiences. There is so much going on in operas that helps you to dig into your own personal life and get inspired by it, ad it to the scene.
Is expression of feelings and experiences more important than technical, vocal expression?
Now even if I want, I cannot control the emotion on stage, the music drives me forward, I get involved in the experience and sometimes vocally I sound like crazy. It’s impossible for me to separate the singer and actor parts of me. But emotional authenticity is more important for me than a clean vocal performance. It makes the piece much more impactful. When I was in my twenties I wouldn’t get this feeling, now it all comes from my experience of all emotions – pain, anger, disappointment that resonates and arise in the scene. That’s the process of getting older – you follow where voice and body wants to take you.
I think there are two kinds of performers. One is the one that examines and controls emotions in order to produce a perfect sound. For second the voice is just an instrument to express emotions. It’s beautiful as an actor to be able to show so many different aspects of humanity. One is looking for the beauty and other – for the truth. These are two completely different directions. I don’t think you can fight your nature, so you have to choose. For example, Placido Domingo is somebody, who is always committed and interested in telling your story. You can see when he is completely immersed in the character. So the best compliment is when the audience member didn’t realize it was me on stage.
So the words are also more important to you than music?
I prioritize the words, I always over articulate. Sometimes I even get into trouble because of it.
Do you find comfortable to express negative elements of your character and life experience?
It’s great to play an evil character because it’s always rewarding and fun. I enjoy making villains human and normal, not cartoonish. This subtilty of approach is always way more impactful. And the normality of something awful is really scary. In opera there are certain emotions that you need to kind of reach and they have to change according to the story. Anger and all the other negative emotions are physical. I remember my colleague looked at me and said “I was so terrified – you had been building up so much anger before you snapped.”
I have a rule to be respectful of my and my colleagues’ auras. The better everyone are, the easier it’s for all of us to give the best possible performance. And I enjoy when colleagues throw me curve balls, when they do something unexpected, different than from the rehearsal. It allows me to invent something new and keeps the overall performance fresh. My personal idea of hell is repeating the same staging identically than the last time. That would be catastrophic. So the creation of something new, something that has never been written before, is the most important for me.
Was it difficult in the recording to choose only one interpretation and imprint it forever?
That’s the curse of doing a recording. It’s like taking a photo of something in a specific point of your career. With every recording now I would sing them completely differently. And it’s so difficult to listen to them. Pavarotti once said “if you want to ruin a friendship with me, invite me for dinner and then put on a recording of me singing”. It’s a nightmare, but you have to live with it. You say to yourself that this is the best you can do and once you approve it, you just never listen to it again. At a certain point, you just have to let it go.
The recording received many accolades, press reviews. How do you deal with it?
I can’t take neither good reviews nor bad reviews. If I could cut the applause at the end of a performance, I would, because it’s almost uncomfortable. I consider it a private and personal moment. Having people talking about it is challenging. Your work is so close to your heart and you put so much energy, you delve deep, you are involved. So it hurts and you start doubting your own judgment, suddenly start thinking that the performance might have been superficial. But it’s part of the job. And audience also makes the performance special – they hold their breath when something heartbreaking is happening, they laugh when you make a joke.
How was the last year for you?
The pandemic has been very challenging, because the were projects I was looking forward to, I put effort in preparing for. After an emotional and mental roller-coaster, I decided to take some time to regroup and now I feel much more stable. One thing this pandemic taught me is that I really love being on stage, performing for people and communicate to an audience. Not being able to do this for a long period of time is challenging.
Thank you for a conversation!