The soprano stepping into Maria Callas's shoes
Bellini’s opera Il Pirata may be rarely performed, but it was famously recorded in 1959 with a cast led by Maria Callas. Now soprano Carmen Giannattasio is stepping into her shoes in a new recording on the Opera Rara label.
What’s the opera about?
The character I play is a real heroine of the 19th century – she’s very delicate and sweet. She’s in love with Gualtiero, a pirate, but she was forced to marry another man who she doesn’t love and the two rivals – the husband and the lover – have a duel and the husband dies. So she’s sad because she loved the father of her child but at the same time she’s going crazy because her lover, the pirate, is condemned to death for his murder. And that’s how the opera ends – with her big scene of madness – it’s similar in a way to Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti.
Why do you think this opera is so rarely performed?
It’s a very demanding opera in terms of technique, interpretation, skills, ability – and trying not to make it boring. It can be boring, but if you find the right way to approach this music it’s marvellous. It was a big success when Bellini wrote it but perhaps because it’s so demanding – for both the soprano and tenor roles – it’s not so often performed now. It’s scary for everyone – my colleague tenor José Bros and I had a fantastic time but at the same time we’d look at each other after we’d sung particular sections thinking ‘We’ve done it!’
This opera has played quite a pivotal part in your career so far, hasn’t it?
Yes, all the important things in my career happened because of the music of this opera: I was able to get into the academy of La Scala because I sang this piece, I won first prize at the Operalia competition because I sang this piece and then this recording lablel, Opera Rara, discovered me and thought I was the right interpreter of this opera. I consider this music the soundtrack of my life – especially the opera’s final scene (listen to the clip below for an excerpt).
What was your reaction when Opera Rara approached you to take part in this recording?
I was really scared – I asked them to give me a week to think about it – because it’s a really challenging role. But after one week I thought to myself ‘the music is marvellous all the important things happened in my life because of this music, I should accept.’ Sometimes I was crying during the recording session because I was very moved by the beauty of this music. I love bel canto and this is maybe the highest example of bel canto music.
You also have your debut coming up at the Metropolitan Opera, New York – in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. That’s very different music…
Although Verdi is a different composer, he’s not so much later than Bellini because Il Trovatore was written only about 20 years later than Il Pirata. So for me, the way I see it is Trovatore is still a bel canto opera but with something new, something coming from the genius of Verdi – a little bit more dramatic. Verdi has filled the score with lots of pianissimo in the voice – there are dramatic moments but they’re just moments. It’s not like Aida, or Un ballo in maschera, where I could say, yes this is a completely different style. For me Trovatore is a bridge between Bellini’s operas Il Pirata or Norma and things like Verdi’s La forza del destino, which in turns leads to Puccini, Mascagni and Cilea.
Audio clip: from 'Oh, Sole! ti vela di tenebre'
Opera Rara's recording of Bellini's 'Il Pirata' is available from 1 May
Interview by Elizabeth Davis