Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova is currently performing the role of Tatyana in Kasper Holten’s much-anticipated new Royal Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. It is her second time performing the role, having previously sung in Stefan Herheim’s production for Netherlands Opera. Both productions make use of flashback techniques, so I was keen to seek her views on how she felt they compared, as well as to find out which roles she was preparing, both for stage and for disc. Krassimira made her role debut here in 2002, singing Mimì, but is seen far too infrequently in London, being more often found in Vienna, New York or Germany’s opera houses. I caught up with her in her dressing room at the Royal Opera House. We began by talking about her musical roots.
Your career started off as a violinist. How did you make the transition to soprano?!
‘I always knew I had a voice, because at home everyone in the family was singing all the time. For example, my father and my sister used to sing a lot. My father had a beautiful tenor voice, to the point where he won a competition, but his family wouldn’t allow him to make a career from singing, but he always had this idea that he wanted to be on the stage, so I come from that environment.
‘I still play the violin very often – more often at home, because it’s not always practical to carry around the world in a suitcase. It would be very romantic to travel the world with my violin, but it’s not very comfortable!’
You’ve performed the role of Tatyana before in a production at Netherlands Opera.
What do you like about the role?
‘Tatyana is not a normal girl. She’s not interested in looking nice or how she’s going to dress today; instead, she’s immersed in her books and her romantic stories. She’s not superficial. She’s a very introverted person and I like to emphasise all these nuances of her character when I’m playing her. For example, not only the sadness within her and the romantic aspect, but also this intense love that she has in herself. She suffers so much from this unrequited love, because she thought love was as easy as in her books, whereas, on the contrary, it’s more difficult, possibly because for Tatyana it was love at first sight. It’s the sort of love that only happens once in a lifetime. Even when she’s married to Gremin, she never forgets about Onegin.’
And what are the vocal challenges?
‘Technically, Tatyana is not a very difficult role. When Tchaikovsky wrote this opera, he didn’t call it an opera, but ‘lyrical scenes’, so it doesn’t have elaborate arias which are difficult to sing. It’s more an opera about what happens to the characters within, about the intimacy of relationships.’
What has it been like working with the Royal Opera’s Kasper Holten?
‘Kasper Holten is a very intelligent person, very outgoing and easy to get on with. It’s very easy to work with him because his ideas were extremely clear, so you know exactly what he wanted. He was very prepared with his work before they even started, even with the difficulty of an opera in Russian. It’s not only a question of language, but also a question of cultural mentalities and cultural differences, as happens with all Slavic operas, which have a different psychology. Kasper knew the whole text by heart, in Russian. He told me he learnt Russian as a teenager to read Pushkin. I was very impressed by this.’
As a singer, how much input do you have into how a new production is created? Did Kasper Holten welcome your ideas or did he come with a fixed view as to what he wanted his Tatyana to be like?
‘It’s always a mixture. It’s not just about the stage director, but the singers, the conductor, but you always have to come back to the composer and the poet. It’s most important you always start from the composer’s intention, the poet’s intention. Only from there can you work on the mixture of what the stage director, the conductor and the singers can bring to it.’
In both Stefan Herheim’s production and in this one there is a use of flashbacks to present Onegin and Tatyana looking back on what might have been.
‘I like flashback very much. It shows all the characters from every possible angle. I don’t like all these productions which are visually beautiful to look at, but the singers don’t delve into the intimate side of their characters. I really like it where there are these little moments when you can really discover what the character is thinking on the inside… to see them blossom. Glossy productions are superficial and sugary.’
How do the two productions compare?
‘They are very similar in exploring this idea of revisiting the past to interpret the present, but there are differences too. In Amsterdam, the idea was that Tatyana was remembering through Onegin’s eyes and thoughts, but here the characters are true to themselves. I think there is more self-analysis here, like a dialogue with yourself.’
Holten’s production uses a pair of dancers to represent the younger Tatyana and Onegin, a decision which hasn’t met with universal audience or press acclaim. What has it been like working with dancers?
‘I really love working with ballet dancers because they have a strong sensibility and use their bodies to express all these feelings.’
I share with Krassimira the way John Cranko handles the Letter Scene in his ballet version of Onegin, which overlapped the opening of Holten's production of the opera. Cranko has Onegin appear in Tatyana's mirror as she dreams, stepping through it to dance a pas de deux. Krassimira expressed disappointment at missing it.
Your previous album for Orfeo focused on Slavic Opera Arias. What is it that draws you to the heroines of Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Rimsky-Korsakov?
‘As a Bulgarian woman, I have a natural sensibility towards these Slavic characters. Bulgaria is a mix of nationalities and origins, so these heroines share my sensibilities. When I recorded Tatyana, I hadn’t sung it on stage by that point; I had only performed Rusalka and Xenia (in Dvorak’s Dimitrij). I think the role of Marfa in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride would really be for me too.’
What’s on the new album which you’re recording this summer?
‘Originally, the plan was to include classical and bel canto arias – Gluck, Handel and moving into early bel canto – but things have changed! There was a second idea to focus on verismo/ late romantic arias by Boito, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Mascagni and Cilea – very beautiful arias from the period. It will be conducted by Pavel Baleff' (who also conducted on her earlier album).
How important are recordings to a singer’s career?
‘Recordings are very important to a singer’s career. It’s not just because it is a permanent record of your voice, but you can study yourself and what you do with your voice when you’re preparing a recording. When you’re recording, you can listen to all the little defects and discover all the little changes in your voice. A microphone is almost like a microscope. You have to be careful to every detail, but not forget the bigger picture of the melody and the emotions… in recording different takes, there is a risk of losing the idea of the emotion of the character because you concentrate so much on little details.’
What part will Verdi play in this bicentenary year?
‘The new role which I’ve learnt for this year is Giovanna d’Arco, which I’m singing in Bilbao. In March, I am singing Desdemona in Otello for the Metropolitan Opera. There will be a handful of Verdi Requiems in London, Munich and Vienna. I will also be singing Amelia (Simon Boccanegra) for the Bavarian State Opera and Leonora in Il trovatore in Munich.’
You recently made your role debut as Elisabetta di Valois at the Vienna State Opera.
‘Initially, I was really afraid of this role. I thought it was a very long role before I started singing it, because Verdi uses much denser orchestration for this opera. We performed the version in four acts, where it’s not easy to understand the character of Elisabetta – you really need the five act version to do that…’
This was in Daniele Abbado’s new production of Don Carlo and not Konwitschny’s?
‘Thank God! I am very happy it wasn’t Konwitschny’s because I don’t like his productions. I like modern stagings, but not when they are cynical and empty. What is important is the relationships between the characters on stage and the rest – the décor, the props – is just for the visual pleasing of the eyes.
‘I understand that you can do different things with a production, but you cannot change the story. It says the opera is based on Schiller. You have to respect Schiller and what Verdi’s intentions were. It does not say Konwitschny on the score!
‘I saw a production at Deutsche Oper Berlin of I Pagliacci directed by David Pountney and he decided the story was just not interesting enough, so he changed it completely! The story for him was very boring. You know, Pagliacci was a true story. Leoncavallo’s father was a judge who presided over the criminal investigation tribunal of the real-life Canio (Gaetano D'Alessandro). Pountney decided this story wasn’t interesting or relevant so changed it into Pountney’s Pagliacci rather than Leoncavallo’s. How dare directors have the arrogance to do that!
‘However, I’ve been very lucky to often have fantastic stage directors and thank God I’ve rarely had to deal with this sort of situation where you don’t like a production at all. Some of my colleagues really suffer from that because they have to go through so many of these productions. That’s just my opinion.’
I tell Krassimira about David McVicar’s production of La traviata. Having initially vowed not to direct it, when he did it was noticeably closer to Alexandre Dumas’ La dame aux camelias rather than Verdi’s Traviata, but is still a great production. She smiles: ‘But David McVicar is a great director. Some operas are really difficult to put on stage, so sometimes directors have a really difficult job.’
What other roles does the future hold?
‘I’m going to sing Amelia in Un ballo in maschera in two years and, having sung Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in Vienna, I’ve been offered the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier for the Salzburg Festival in 2014, then Aida in Rome with Riccardo Muti (another opera with heavy orchestration like Don Carlos), plus Manon Lescaut in Barcelona in 2018.’
‘I’m in talks with Antonio Pappano about coming back here in 2017 as my diary is full until then.’
Finally, a bit of fun. Imagine you were a mezzo for the day – which role would you want to sing and why?
‘Fantastic question! It wouldn’t be Carmen. Perhaps Eboli because it is such a fantastic role and it’s also in this ‘almost soprano’ range.’
Tebaldi recorded Eboli’s ‘O don fatale’, of course!
‘If I can be a real mezzo for a day, then perhaps Amneris, which is very special.’
For now, we’ll happily settle for Aida with Muti in Rome.
Photographs © Cesare Bellafronte; Bill Cooper (ROH production image)
Many thanks to Patrick Lemanski of Harmonia Mundi for acting as our translator for much of the conversation.