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Piotr Beczala [Photo by Kurt Pinter]
27 Nov 2011

Piotr Beczala

Piotr Beczala, the Polish lyric tenor, stars in the current La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, London.

Piotr Beczala — An Interview

By Anne Ozorio

Above: Piotr Beczala [Photo by Kurt Pinter]


Richard Eyre’s production premiered in 1994 and has been revived many times. Indeed, there are three different runs this year alone, with three different casts. Two DVDs are available, one conducted by Georg Solti, and another released this year with Renée Fleming, Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson. It’s a hardy perennial. Must the role be daunting to take on?

Piotr Beczala flashes a brilliant smile. He loves this staging and is delighted to be taking part. “The winds of time are blowing away the good Zefferelli and Schenk productions. It’s a pity in my opinion, but you have to live with it”. So he’ll be singing with special pleasure because it’s a historic production. In the second act, Alfredo and Violetta are in the country house. “It’s so beautiful, the colours are lovely pastels, and the dimensions of the set put attention on the singers. Productions like this give the singers a chance to tell the story. It’s not just the directors”.

This is Beczala’s ninth Alfredo since 1993, so the part is close to his heart. So it’s an advantage that he’s coming to the Eyre staging he likes so much, for he will be singing with fresh enthusiasm. “There is no such thing as routine in this business”, he says, “We start every performance like it’s completely new. Every performance has new ideas because the singers and conductor are different”. Dynamic relationships change. “Of course it’s more or less the same, but every time the tension between performers is new. That is what we transport to the public even if they’ve seen the staging many times”.

“Absolutely”, he adds, “because the words I’m singing express something I feel at that very moment. We have to learn to be the character together with the other characters. Every Violetta is different, and you have to work with the person who is singing the part. So the connection on stage is unique, and we create an experience. We communicate to the public the beauty of the opera”.

“So even though we know every note, we have lots of time to prepare. So we talk and work out in rehearsal what kind of energy to use in each scene so we create a unique picture in each production”.

In one season in 2010, Beczala sang Roméo in three different productions of Gounod Roméo et Juliette. At the Staatsoper in Vienna, he sang with Anna Netrebko, at the Royal Opera House in London with Nino Machaidze and at the Met in New York with Hei-kyung Hong (replacing Angela Gheorghiu). “Twenty four or twenty five performances, but never the same. It gave me the chance to really develop the role in different ways and get it 'in my throat'".

“Alfredo is not as easy a role as people might think. Any student can skip the high C’s but the really important challenge is to show how Alfredo’s character is changing. At first he’s naïve, but in the final act, he’s mature and adult confronted by Violetta’s death. This production is moving because it’s so realistic. Blood on the pillows!”

“Alfredo is struggling not to be like his father. Young people need to break from family tradition and make their own mistakes and learn responsibility. Alfredo wants to save Violetta because he thinks that the power of his love can change things. But life is brutal, it never works out as simple as that. We were talking in rehearsal about why Violetta needed a big country house. Why not rent a smaller place so the money would last longer ? She’s not like Manon, who was rich but can live simply when she needs to. Maybe in the back of her mind, Violetta needs champagne and caviar”.

Beczala looks amazingly young, even close-up, a great advantage for a singer who specializes in lyric Romantic heroes. But he greatly reveres the heritage of the past. He recalls wearing a costume which had been used by Nicolai Gedda. “It was very special, like the ghost of the past passing on energy”

“All my heroes are in the past”, he adds, “like Fritz Wunderlich, or Jussi Björling”. Beczala is a friend of Eva Wunderlich. “We talk about him a lot. I do a lot of the same repertoire that he did, like Tamino and Belmonte”.

“I was listening to Tito Schipa yesterday, singing the Siciliano from Cavalleria rusticana from 1913. It’s amazing how beautifully he sings. He used his voice intelligently. Singers like he and Caruso had to create the personality, the phrasing. No models. It’s good that we have so many wonderful recordings, but it’s also a handicap because we also have to create. Technique is always changing. Caruso was the first who sang with versimo fire “ but he didn’t overdo it. Too much verismich is histrionics, not real emotions and real singing”.

Beczala beams happily. “One of my dreams is to take my colleagues from today back to, say, 1907, to a studio and sing arias with very old microphones. Nowadays there is so much pressure from the media to create ’stars’, but I’m more interested in creating the characters through music”.

Anne Ozorio

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