Santiago, sadness and strife

Otello's-MetamorphosisMy Santiago debut took place in 2006 in Otello. I had just completed a run of Alfano’s La Sakuntala, in Rome. I took a flight from Rome to Madrid, where I connected with the flight to Santiago after a four-hour stopover. Thankfully, I was flying Business Class, so was able to get some rest on the plane. I was met at the airport and taken to my hotel, where I was given a note from the theatre, asking me come straightaway to rehearse. My contract said that I was due to start the next day, but I went in and started my rehearsals practically asleep.

The conductor was Roberto Rizzi Brignoli, with whom I had already performed Otello at La Scala in Milan. My Iago was Frederick Burchinall, whom I knew well from my early days in New York. On my arrival at the rehearsal room, the stage director said, ‘we have an Otello and Iago who look like brothers’. We were both bearded, but I was a little more rotund than Fred. It was good to get into bed at last that first night.

RamonVinay3The rehearsals went without any untoward event, but, prior to the dress rehearsal, we gave a press conference as this was the first time Otello would be staged at the Teatro Municipal since Ramón Vinay (pictured right) performed it some forty years earlier. I was asked by the press if I was intimidated by following such a famous Otello. I told them that I could not emulate Vinay’s vocal power, but that my voice was big enough for the role. I assured them that I would sing it to the very best of my ability, and that in no way would it be inferior.

However, at 6.00am local time on the day of the first performance, my wife Diana called me and told me that my mother had just died. I didn’t even know that she had been ill. Apparently, she had been taken into hospital because had cut herself while on Warfarin – a drug that thins the blood. Whilst there, she contracted pneumonia and passed away very quickly. My father had died three months earlier, prior to my departure to Rome. So, at fifty-eight years of age, I became an orphan.

I was very upset indeed. I showered, dressed and went to the Iglesia San Francisco (a beautiful colonial stone building) next to the hotel to pray for both my mum and dad. At about 10.30am, I went to the theatre and told them what had happened. They asked if I intended to return to England. There was nothing I could do by going home, so I told them that I would stay and complete my contract. That first performance, with the sword of Vinay metaphorically hanging over my head, and the sadness of my mother’s death made me very nervous, but once my feet were on the stage I threw myself into the role and put every other thought out of my mind. There was a first night cast party following the performance, at which I just lost all composure and burst into tears. I sang to the assembled the Welsh folk song that my mother taught me when I was ten years of age, which was followed by copious amounts of Pisco Sour, great food and lots of wonderful Chilean wine.

One of the performances was captured for posterity by a single camera placed at the back of the theatre. The video quality isn’t great, but fortunately the sound is good. Here I am in the Act 2 duet with Iago (Frederick Burchinall)

[youtube:http://youtu.be/KTmNA2E5XwU%5D

Between performances, my colleagues and I would travel out of the city to the coast, to the wine growing regions, and up to the mountains (Andes) to the north. It is such a beautiful country, with desert to the north and the most fertile land to the south. Chile has the longest coastline in the world

A dear friend of mine, Christian Bösch, with whom I had performed Die Zauberflöte at the Opéra Bastille in Paris had retired from singing and bought a large farm in the south of the country. He still had contacts in the Teatro Municipal who told me that he was going to travel (eleven hours on a bus) to see the last performance. On my arrival at the theatre that day I was told that the performance could be cancelled because the orchestra were threatening to strike over pay. The performance was delayed for over an hour, the public waiting to enter the theatre, the cast in make-up and costume ready to go on. Then came the news that the performance was cancelled. We, as the cast, said that we would perform the opera with a piano just to save the evening and the disappointment of the audience. This offer was rejected, so we all went out to an early dinner and lots of wine.Ballo2-(edited)I returned to Santiago in 2008 for Un Ballo in Maschera. (The picture above is from one of those performances.) Again, I arrived the day before my contract was due to start, and was once more asked to go straight to the theatre to rehearse. I obliged yet again. This time the rehearsals were very hard. The conductor, a young Israeli, insisted on having music rehearsals every day before and after the staging rehearsals. Even if you didn’t know he was Israeli, it was easy to tell; his accent, his swarthy handsome features, but more significantly, he wore really tight trousers, thus rendering his religion immediately apparent to the eye.

Everybody was completely exhausted, me especially. He even tried to get my contract cancelled because he said that everything I sang was flat, not surprising when we had no time to recuperate whatsoever, but we were still in REHEARSAL. However, the director of the theatre refused to cancel my contract. After numerous ensemble rehearsals and during one of my solo sessions with him I said, ‘the only reason we have so many music rehearsals is because you don’t know the score, and you are using us to learn it.’ I asked when he had started learning the work, and suggested that it was no more than three weeks prior to the beginning of rehearsals. He did not deny this but I could see acknowledgement in his eyes.

I don’t have a recording of Ballo from Santiago available, but here is a performance of the Act 2 love duet, with Rosalind Plowright as Amelia, from a later concert performance at St. John’s, Smith Square.

Un ballo in maschera - 'Teco io sto'

I already had another signed contract for the role of Tannhaüser the following season, which I discovered that he was conducting. I was ready to cancel this contract myself, as I didn’t want to go through the same humiliation again. However, before I could cancel, the theatre cancelled my contract, as he didn’t want me. I was paid for the cancelled contract, but it turned out that the whole production was eventually cancelled, as the theatre couldn’t afford the cost of the new staging. They mounted an old production of Tristan und Isolde instead. I wonder if he knew that opera before he arrived?!

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3 thoughts on “Santiago, sadness and strife

  1. Thanks for posting the Otello clip, David, although I’m sorry to learn about the circumstances of that production; I saw you sing the role at ENO and then again at Glyndebourne. I always thought it such a shame that BBC did not deem either occasion “worthy” of broadcast because I certainly felt that something special was happening at both performances; this also applies to the ENO Tristan, in which you were simply breathtaking.

    I was fortunate enough to see you at ENO many times, including Tosca, Butterfly (with your Isolde/Desdemona, Susan Bullock!), Forza, Rigoletto. Also Boccanegra at the Glyndebourne Prom and Pagliacci in Southampton (WNO).

    So sorry that the concert organised by James (yes; my son) had to be cancelled – I was really looking forward to seeing/hearing you again and to finally meeting you in person.

    This blog is a brilliant idea as it enables the many, many opera lovers to whom you gave so much enjoyment, to express their appreciation of your wonderful career. I hear fine things about your son Huw, and have listened to some very promising stuff on YouTube…another Rendall/Montague to hit the boards!

    I hope you are feeling much better these days and send you my heartfelt best wishes,
    Richard

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