Italian Tenor Sabbatini Rocks Met
Verena Dobnik, Los Angeles Times, 12 February 2001
NEW YORK--Another "great tenor" candidate has arrived at the
Metropolitan Opera -a one-time rock guitarist who says he got into
singing by default.
But Giuseppe Sabbatini's Met debut Saturday in Jules Massenet's
"Manon" was hardly a fluke. The Italian tenor has appeared for a dozen
years in the world's top opera houses, including Vienna's Staatsoper and
Milan's La Scala.
"I am a musician, above all, and I don't feel like only a tenor.
Being a tenor is my last thing," the 43 -year-old singer said in an
interview, his Italian tinged with inflections of his native Rome.
On Saturday, he sang the role of the Chevalier des Grieux in the
season premiere of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of "Manon," the
tale of a schoolgirl who falls in love with des Grieux, abandons him to
become a rich man's mistress and eventually dies in disgrace in her
first lover's arms.
Des Grieux's two big arias demand a vocal finesse that explodes
both with dramatic bite and sensual lyricism.
Sabbatini didn't quite live up to Italian critic Carlo Boschi's
description of his voice as "a real miracle" -a combination of "the
richness of (Giuseppe) Di Stefano, the facility of (Luciano) Pavarotti,
the technique of (Alfredo) Kraus."
But he embraces Massenet's irresistible melodic charm as well as
any tenor today. While his voice was a bit pinched in Act I, not cutting
well through the orchestration, he opened up by the next act, a
passionate presence with a focused, subtle sound he sustained to the
The 19th-century French composer's most famous opera about a string
of love affairs is based on the novel by the Abbe Antoine Prevost, who
was at various times a Jesuit novice, a soldier and a Benedictine
Soprano Ruth Ann Swenson was Sabbatini's partner as the
self-destructive French courtesan, a role that demands acting on a par
with the singing. Swenson delivered on both counts, wrapping her lyric
coloratura around the mercurial Manon, the innocent country girl felled
by her jaded inconstancy in Paris society.
Swenson follows two other fine American sopranos who have made
their mark in the role -Beverly Sills and Renee Fleming.
Sabbatini's lyric voice begs comparison with Kraus, the late
Spanish tenor who was a great des Grieux and had coached Sabbatini.
During a performance of "Manon" in Rome, Kraus ended "The Dream" aria
about his beloved with an astonishing final note on "Manon ... " that
lasted 26 seconds.
Sabbatini set no time record on Saturday night. But he portrayed
des Grieux as a character who, the tenor said, "before love, doesn't put
on the brakes. He give his all, to the point of destroying himself."
Sabbatini has been called the "Fourth Tenor," after the "Three
Tenors" -Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.
The Roman tenor also sings roles such as Donizetti's "La Fille du
Regiment," which made Pavarotti famous with its nine high Cs.
Sabbatini's vocalism rests on his solid musical background. After
playing electric bass guitar as a young man, he studied classical double
bass and became a principal player with Italy's best orchestras while
keeping up the vocal art he learned as a boy soprano at Rome's Academy
of Santa Cecilia.
From his rock music days, what's left in opera is "my long hair!"
And, he adds, "the idea of improvisation. Being always ready to
welcome a new idea from others. On the stage, you cannot always be a
machine. For instance, if a colleague says 'I love you' in a different
way than expected -you should respond."
The tenor plans to quit professional singing by 2007, when he'll be
50, and wants to turn to his initial ambition -conducting. "I chose the
career of a singer as a shortcut, because I thought then, 'Who'll give
an orchestra to an unknown bass player?"'
In short, "I'm a crazy man who loves challenges and doesn't like to
be restrained by anybody. That's life!"
© Los Angeles Times
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