By Fred Plotkin | This, my hundredth post on the Operavore blog, finds me musing on how we perceive the messages and lessons that life and music hold for us. Put another way, if we limit what we think is possible merely to that which we can envision, how emotionally and intellectually poor we will be!

If you have been reading my missives since the first one appeared almost eleven months ago, you know that I care deeply about opera, an art form that is at once fragile and tenacious, and I revere the fragile tenacious people who help it thrive. I refer, above all, to artists whom we see and those we do not. But there are also those enlightened managers and generous patrons who put service ahead of ego to make it possible for artists to work. And there are the audience members for whom it is an article of faith to buy tickets to live performances, aware that not every night will be sublime but confident that greatness is within reach and we want to be there when it appears.

The work of two artists, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Luca Pisaroni, saturated my thoughts as this article evolved. Both are basses from Northern Italy, though Pisaroni was born in Venezuela to Italian parents and moved to Italy as a toddler. Thinking of Furlanetto, 61, and Pisaroni, 36, means considering the career of a magnificent artist who gets better all the time and looking at a younger singer whose immense gifts and potential mark him out as perhaps one of the few who might achieve comparable things.

Although Furlanetto has sung heavy dramatic roles for his whole career, Mozart has always been part of the mix, not only because of the splendid music and characters, but because it keeps his voice flexible. On March 6, 1992, I attended a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Met with a Golden Age cast: Furlanetto (Figaro), Dawn Upshaw (Susanna), Kiri Te Kanawa (Countess), Thomas Hampson (Count) and Frederica von Stade (Cherubino), all led by James Levine. I can remember every detail two decades on.

Pisaroni has made Mozart central to his repertory and, in short order, has created portrayals that most older singers will never achieve. Watch and listen to his performance of Leporello’s Catalogue Aria from Don Giovanni, and note how rich and detailed are his use of music and text.

Here is Furlanetto singing the same aria at about the age Pisaroni is now. Each singer has created a very distinct characterization that draws from many gifts without calling attention to them.

Now watch Furlanetto in a recent performance of the same aria. It is a master class of artistry and evidence that it is possible to take something familiar and, with age and experience, make it profound and fresh at the same moment. This is a concert, without scenery or costumes, and yet Furlanetto brings all of the characteristics of Leporello to this setting. His eyes tell us all we need to know.

This performance reminds me of the Longfellow’s observation that “Age is opportunity no less than youth itself, though in another dress, and as the evening twilight fades away, the sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.” (By the way, the woman you see in the audience at 2:50 is the legendary Christa Ludwig, about whom I promise you a post in due course).

That adjective, “legendary,” has of late been attached frequently to the name of Ferruccio Furlanetto. He is widely acclaimed as one of the finest singers of our time for his beautiful and distinctive voice, his wonderful phrasing with its sensitivity to language as well as drama, his superb acting skills and the natural ease with which he commands total attention without ever detracting from other singers on the stage. In fact, every artist I know who has worked with Furlanetto says he is the ideal colleague.

While I am not sure that anyone still in his active career is ready to be called legendary, if that word is to be used for singers now before the public, Furlanetto certainly would merit that designation. He is currently in New York singing an impassioned Silva in Ernani (HD broadcast on February 25) and a very oily Don Basilio in Il Barbiere di Siviglia after having recently sung Méphistophélès in Faust. He will sing the title role in Verdi’s Attila in June at the San Francisco Opera and has future engagements at the major opera companies in Europe and North America, including his definitive portrayal of King Philip II in Don Carlo.

To operagoers in Western Europe and the US, Furlanetto is a master of the great bass roles of Mozart and Verdi, with a few works by other Italian composers and the occasional French role. He was outstanding as Cardinal de Brogni when the Met presented Halévy’s La Juive in 2003. One of his signature roles (not yet heard in New York, sad to say) is Massenet’s Don Quichotte, a French-language version of Cervantes’s hero who tilts against windmills.

Furlanetto is a major star in Russia and not just for his Italian and French repertory. He is the only Westerner to have sung the iconic role of Boris Godunov at both Moscow’s Bolshoi and St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky theaters. Watch an interview with him in which he reflects on the virtues of age and how he brings life experience to his portrayals of Philip, Don Quichotte and Boris Godunov. He says, “These are roles where the maturity of a singer is more important than anything…You are constantly in contact with the concept of death…You approach these kind of matters much better and in a more interesting way when you are less young. It is something that goes together with your experience of life.”

Must Italians Sing Only Italian Repertory?

Luca Pisaroni (whose father-in-law is Thomas Hampson, another artistic paragon who has followed his own stars and the path they have illumined), shares with Furlanetto the gift of being alive to text and how music gives it wings. If you saw The Enchanted Island at the Met, you know that his English was as good as the native speakers in the cast and, though his face was heavily made up, his portrayal of Caliban was heartbreaking because he expressed the character’s feelings with his whole body.

When Thomas Quasthoff recently withdrew from a joint recital with tenor Michael Schade to be held on March 25 at New York’s Alice Tully Hall, I was impressed that Pisaroni was asked to step in to do a traditional German-language program including music of Brahms, Kreutzer, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann. This showed an unusual openness to using an Italian to sing repertory they are seldom asked to do. Why do we think that northern Europeans, British and American artists can do this while Italians are expected to stick to music based on Romance languages?

This was reinforced for me the other day when I was in a record shop (they still exist, you know) and spotted two new recordings by Furlanetto, both with the young Ukrainian pianist Igor Tchetuev. There was a remarkable collection of songs by Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky, imbued with heart and soul as Russian as they were Italian. Then there was Schubert’s Winterreise in an emotionally shattering rendition that found poetry in music as well as words.

To my knowledge, Furlanetto does not do recitals in America because, I am guessing, presenters would expect him to sing Italian repertory rather than works in German and Russian. The bass has lived in Austria for most of his career, speaking excellent German. And if his Boris Godunov is good enough for the Russians, his Mussorgsky songs should be good enough for the Americans.

Which brings me back to one of the themes of this article: Many artists are confined not by their own lack of talent but the lack of imagination of those who would offer them work. Our concert halls welcome many singers who are not of Furlanetto’s stature to do recitals and yet he has been absent. If there is a programmer wise enough to engage Pisaroni in German, what would it take to hear a recital of Schubert by Ferruccio Furlanetto? Or to see his Boris Godunov or Don Quichotte? Tell me, please, that I am not dreaming the impossible dream!

Photo: Luca Pisaroni as Caliban and Joyce DiDonato as Sycorax in ‘The Enchanted Island’ (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)