Riccardo Massi, the Italian tenor currently making his Melbourne debut as Rodolfo in Luisa Miller, must be feeling at home in Australia by now. He made his debut for Opera Australia in Sydney in 2013 as Alvaro in La forza del destino, which was performed in the rarely heard 1862 Saint Peterburg original version, which, though conceding that is “dramatically more powerful and even shocking because of Don Alvaro’s suicide”, he finds musically somewhat inferior to the 1869 final revision.
After another O.A. appearance as Cavaradossi in Tosca, Massi had a phenomenal success with his performance as Calaf in the Turandot staged by Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, internationally known as a producer of spectacular, visually breathtaking operatic events. Riccardo Massi found the grandiosity of the mise-en-scène, the sheer power of the event, “the emotional vibration of a 3,000 enthusiastic audience as well as the special feeling of having the Sydney Opera house and the bay as a backdrop and a sea of human warmth on the front” energising, and prompted him to give his very best. He received rave reviews for his vocal potency as well as for his refined and noble interpretation of what has probably become the best known tenor role in the entire repertoire.
The echo of such a triumph still reverberating, the role of Rodolfo in Luisa Miller is once again under the aegis of Opera Australia, an engagement that intensifies Massi’s bond with this company and its nation, where he is able to find that “magical combination of the highest professional standards and organisation typical only of the major international companies, as well as a friendly laid-back approach”. After lavishing praise on the opera itself, written shortly before and anticipating the originality of the immensely popular trilogy (Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata), Massi affirms that Rodolfo, a new role for him, presents special hurdles for the tenor, because “it starts as a pure ‘lirico’ and turns into an Edgardo-style invective in the first act finale. Then come the double aria everyone is waiting for, “Quando le sere al placido”, where the tenor is required to give expressive variety to each strophe, and the cabaletta calling for vocal weight and fierce passion, “slancio”. Finally, it almost foresees Otello in some recitatives of the last act”.
“As a whole”, the tenor continues, “Rodolfo has a lot in common with many of the Verdi tenor roles from the 1850s such as Manrico in Il trovatore, Arrigo in I vespri siciliani and Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra.” (When I point out that despite its title Luisa Miller is a de facto tenor opera, Massi gives proof of high collegiality by promptly adding that Luisa and her father have equally outstanding roles with plenty of chances to shine.)
Before entering the operatic arena, Massi used to labour in an another more physical arena, as a stuntman in the so-called sword and sandals films and TV series such as Rome, and this “scenica scienza” (as Floria Tosca would say) comes in handy when he is called to engage in sword fights, observing that stage directors seem to be particularly delighted with his natural looking fall at the end of Tosca.
Working as a stuntman was however only a way to pay for his musical tuition: becoming an opera singer has always been his ambition since he was a child born to an opera loving father who would constantly play the recordings of the greatest Italian tenors. His dream came true when his teacher, David Holst, encouraged him to apply for admission at the famed Accademia del Teatro alla Scala, the young singers program of the foremost Italian opera company. He was admitted, and in 2009 he made his operatic debut.
In just seven years he has become one of the most sought-after tenors, specialising in some of the heaviest roles in the standard repertoire; nature may have given him a handsome, very Italianate timbre, but singing such strenuous parts requires an iron-clad technique for which he credits Mr. Holst, who is still following him, providing that “essential pair of trusted ears” and honest advice; furthermore, they have “dedicated their professional lives to attempting to understand to the vocal secrets of the best singers of the past”.
Very soon this technique will enable him to sink his teeth into a notoriously arduous role, Des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, at the Staatsoper in Schillertheater in Berlin. Massi concedes that this role stands in a class of its own; it is “long, exposed and extremely varied”. The first act – Massi points out – “does not lie easily and I will have to work very hard to find the right position”. Regarding the big duet with Manon which forms the major part of Des Grieux’s second act, he has already performed it in concert with Anna Netrebko at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, and the last two acts are “typical Puccini tenor”.
With Des Grieux he will follow the same procedures that have served him so well for all the other demanding roles such as Don Alvaro, Enzo Grimaldo or Andrea Chénier, that is to get them in the right vocal position first, which will then enable him to work on their musical and dramatic requirements. Stage directors and conductors may help define other aspects of his interpretation. “Fortunately I have already worked with this conductor (Mikhail Tatarnikov) and have some direct experience of his tastes and style”.
When asked what are the roles – among the ones he has already performed – for which he feels the strongest affinity, Massi answers that Cavaradossi in Tosca, Calaf in Turandot, Radamès in Aida, Enzo Grimaldo in La Gioconda and the title role of Andrea Chénier are those that most deeply affect him. His goal for the future is to keep delving deeper into Verdi; apart from an already scheduled Gabriele Adorno, Massi has set his eyes on Foresto (Attila), Arrigo (I vespri siciliani) and Don Carlo, and who knows, perhaps one day even the Mount Everest of Italian tenor roles, Otello. “But”, he concludes, “I would love to explore also some major roles of the French repertoire, such as Faust, Roméo and Werther”.
Massi seems to have everything in hand to achieve his goals.
Portrait credit: ⓒ Benjamin Ealovega
The above article by Nicola Lischi is published in collaboration with Classic Melbourne.