The music of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier is just so overwhelmingly exciting. I’m such a fan of verismo, so I’m really looking forward to doing it again with Opera Australia in concert. The first time I did it was for a radio concert actually, in Amsterdam in 2003, and then the Covent Garden production in 2015 directed by David McVicar. That’s all the experience I’ve had with the opera, but it’s one that I really love and can’t wait to return to.
Eva-Maria Westbroek. Photo © Fazil Berisha
My character Maddalena, a noblewoman, starts out as a girl who is sort of spoiled, but then finds her whole world turned upside down once the French Revolution begins. She has to live on the run and is constantly in fear, and she turns to Andrea Chénier [an historical figure and poet] for protection and they fall completely in love. And it’s through love that we see her character evolve – Chénier becomes a wanted man and Maddalena is so in love with him that she’s willing to sacrifice herself and die with him. Her journey is just amazing.
She’s extremely loving and passionate, which is how Giordano has written the music for her. All her vocal lines show her to be this very intense, excitable person, and I love how complex she is. She might appear like a spoilt little brat at the start of the opera, but you quickly see that in fact she doesn’t really enjoy her life at court. She feels all the dressing up and acting and dancing that the nobles concern themselves with is all nonsense really. It’s such a great challenge to show how this bored girl quickly becomes engulfed by fear when she loses everything that she has, and then it’s all about the fight to survive.
The other challenging aspect of the role is the relatively limited time you’re actually onstage, which means you have to make a big impact whenever you are. I find that quite difficult. But the thing I try to do is just stay in the role when I’m offstage, which is a new thing for me. It’s important that I really have some sort of backstory for the character so even when I’m not on, I’m trying to trace how she comes from one place to the next.
As is the case with verismo, with this kind of music you have to take care not to get completely lost in the emotions because then you might lose yourself. There are so many different things I would like to do with Maddalena, and you just want to make it sound like you feel it should sound, and I guess that desire is present for me in every role. To keep a bit of balance is always a challenge because I always want to go further and find more ways of doing something.
My favourite singer in this role has always been the Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi. I’m a huge fan of hers – she’s my idol assoluta. It’s just the most beautiful sound, with that amazing Italian diction and tone, which is perfect for Maddalena.
But I’ve also started studying with a new teacher recently, and she’s also performed the role phenomenally: her name is Diana Soviero. I actually didn’t know of her until I read an interview with soprano Christine Goerke, who said that she was a great teacher, and I just knew I had to work with her. I’m actually breaking off my holiday to go study the role with her before Australia. She’s so brilliant. She’s 77 and just stands in front of me and sings out – you all should have hired her, people would have been thrilled! We sang the big aria together [La Mamma Morta], and her sound is just absolutely exhilarating. I can’t tell you how excited I am to coach the role with her.
I’m so looking forward to working with Jonas [Kaufmann] again. He was of course the Chénier in the Covent Garden production, which was a brilliant time. The role fits him like a glove. We also did a wonderful La Fanciulla del West at the Metropolitan Opera late last year and it’s so wonderful to have a colleague that also dares to lose themselves in the music and role. It means we’re entirely different people onstage, and there’s no limit to that kind of exploration which means it is really exciting. And of course, he’s a brilliant singer so it’s really nice to stand next to somebody who sounds as beautiful as that. It’s sort of distracting sometimes because you’re just like wow!