The sweet sound of success – George Hall – April 2004 – from magazine of the Royal Opera House

April 2004

The sweet sound of success

Meeting Marcelo Alvarez for a pasta lunch in Covent garden, I find I’m quickly swept up by his energy and enthusiasm.  The argentinian tenor has become a great favourite with the Covent Garden public over the last few seasons, and the personality and sheer brio that he brings to his stage portrayals are equally apparent over the lunch table.  Here is a man, you feel, who really enjoys life, and his singing, too.

He’s certainly extremely affable.  He laughs a lot, talks in Italian (he has lived in a small town not far from Milan for several years) and chats confidently to me about his career and where he wants it to go but, refreshingly, he seems absolutely without arrogance.  Like many singers he regards his voice as a gift, though this special talent clearly hasn’t deprived him of a sense of humour.

His has been a fairly swift rise to the top.  Indeed during his twenties the idea of such a career would have surprised Alvarez as much as anyone else, because he had settled into a job in his family’s furniture business in his native city of Córdoba, inArgentina.  Singing wasn’t even a sideline.

His family, he explains, weren’t musicians. ‘They liked music and singing, but weren’t really opera specialists.’ As a child, though, he’d attended a school where music was a speciality; he learned several wind instruments and played in the school orchestra, though he now regrets that his piano studies came a poor second to sport. ‘I could read music well but my hands were slow, which annoyed me.’ Singing was more important, and his participation in a children’s choir that toured widely and won many prizes was a clear augury of things to come.

As an adult, he maintained an interest in his voice, even though, so he tells me, ‘I never thought I would sing opera.’ But the wonderful discovery’ of his tenor potential in 1992 would lead him, after just a few months’ study, to give a concert for his friends that proved to him that he was good enough to sing in front of a public.

‘I really didn’t know much about what I should sing, so I learned all sorts of arias, including French and German ones.’ That same year, he also saw his first opera – La Traviata, which he fell in love with – in his home town of Córdoba. He was 30. At an age at which most of us are just settling into our careers, Alvarez was gamely contemplating completely new terrain.

Chance plays its part in most careers, as well as a readiness to seize an opportunity. For this young tenor, his stage debut came in Córdoba in 1994, when just a fortnight before a production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia the Count Almaviva fell ill. 1 didn’t know the opera, but the conductor who called me said, “well, let’s try”, and after a few days I had learned it.’ Later, he made his debut in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, in the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda at a theatre that specialized in the genre, and followed that with Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Meanwhile, after a number of unsuccessful attempts, Alvarez triumphed in an all- South American competition judged by Luciano Pavarotti.

With such credentials a solid career beckoned, and the crowning glory was a further competition win in Italy (where he and his family moved in 1995), whose prize was the chance to sing a role of his choice at La Fenice in Venice. Alvarez picked the high-lying, florid role of Elvino in Bellini’s La Sonnambula– anything but an easy option — yet his success was real enough to launch his European career. Why, I wondered, had he chosen something so difficult? ‘Actually, I had studied only the duets -1 did not know the whole opera! But they suited me, and so it seemed a good idea. I learn quickly, and 1m always in a hurry.’

In addition to speed, of course, Alvarez possesses enormous talent, and Elvino was his springboard. Next he was asked to sing in Genoa, where the star attraction was soprano Mariella Devia, and where he had to replace another ailing tenor. ‘I was really nervous,’ he admits, ‘because instead of doing just the last two performances I had to sing the first night, and many critics had come to hear Devia.’ Other Italian theatres took notice, and within a couple of years Alvarez was here, there and everywhere. In three years I made my debuts in the most important theatres,’ he recalls quite matter-of-factly. ‘Many people take ten or 12.’

His Royal Opera debut – not his Covent Garden debut, because it occurred during the closure period — was once again as Alfredo in Traviata, which he sang at the Royal Albert Hall in the company of Elena Kelessidi and Vladimir Chernov in 1998. ‘When I saw the immense auditorium I thought, “Oh my god!”, but it was fine. My colleagues were all very nice to me and the public very warm.’ Next came another off-site venture, with the Royal Operas appearance at the Baden-Baden Festival, when Sir Georg Solti was due to return to conduct ‘his’ Traviata. ‘A lovely thing was when I went to sing to Sir Georg at his home in London. He was extremely kind. When I had sung the aria and the cabaletta, he spent an hour and a half with me talking about my future. “How long have you been singing? You must sing French opera! Prepare this, this and this!” Unfortunately it was the last time I saw him, because he died shortly afterwards.’

Solti’s prophecy about French roles would be amply fulfilled. In 1997 Alvarez sang his first Werther in Genoa (he remembers his nervousness about having to take over from Alfredo Kraus, who had cancelled because his wife was ill), and – finally his Covent Garden debut proper – in 2000 he sang the title role in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann in the long-running John Schlesinger production. Manon has also been a great success for him, not least in Paris with Renée Fleming.

Next at Covent Garden came the Duke of Mantua in David McVicar’s Rigoletto. ‘When I arrived, and I saw the aggression of the production, I thought I couldn’t do it. I was used to playing the Duke as a libertine but as more of a romantic seducer. This was far more vehement, but I soon realized how well the director had done.  I believe very much in acting. My voice enabled me to work on the stage. Opera is sung theatre, and its important that it is credible.’

Most recently Alvarez has been seen in the Royal Opera’s new productions of Luisa Miller and Lucia di Lammemoor, but he’s particularly looking forward to his next assignment — Werther—because it will enable him to collaborate for the first time with Antonio Pappano. Having regularly sung French roles, he’s very aware of differences in style between that repertoire and the Italian. In French music there’s more flexibility of tempo – often you sing against the rhythm in the orchestra, not with the regular Verdian beat – and you need to achieve the delicate effects with much more nuance.’

Werther himself— the doomed lover created by Goethe in his early Romantic novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, then translated musically into the late Romantic French idiom of Jules Massenet – he sees as complex, almost contradictory. ‘When you first see him he sings of nature and appears to be an optimistic man who embraces life, but it’s not true. There is his anguished side that needs a dark vocal quality as he realizes that the happy romance of love is not for him. His is a passion that is held back, and that’s not always easy for a Latin!’

Perhaps not, but Alvarez has shown his adaptability. One of a group of South American tenors now storming the worlds stages, he believes that singers from his continent have held on to a vocal tradition even more tenaciously, in some cases, than the Europeans.  In South America, people love opera with heart and passion. That has enabled us to enter this market again. People can hear the passion, the honesty and the sincerity.’ And, one might add, the energy and the enthusiasm.

A interview with Marcelo Alvarez by George Hall, published in the magazine of the Royal Opera House, April 2004