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A deep-thinking bass

As he works his way through the opera repertoire, Ferruccio Furlanetto puts his mind where his mouth is.

September 22, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

In the new Los Angeles Opera production of Verdi's "Don Carlo," the "money" notices have gone to a singer who has long been a stalwart of San Diego Opera but is only now making his L.A. company debut, Ferruccio Furlanetto. The Italian-born basso is playing not the opera's title role but one that may be even more important: Spain's Philip II, "a ruler," as Times music critic Mark Swed put it in his review, "torn between his lust and responsibility, between the church and state."

"It is a complicated role, but it's so beautiful," Furlanetto said recently as he sat in a lounge at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "It's so well written, and it's so much the real Verdi cantabile that it's really a promenade."

In fact, singing Philip II for the first time was a career turning point for Furlanetto. In 1986, he stepped in for an indisposed Jose Van Dam at a Salzburg Easter Festival production led by Herbert von Karajan.

"I basically jumped in without any rehearsal in a production that is still available because there are videos," he said, enunciating slowly in his sonorous, dark-toned speaking voice. "The day after, everybody in the world knew who I was and that I had been chosen by Karajan. Immediately, Vienna came calling. Then I was performing all over the world."

Not bad for a lad who hailed from Friuli, a relatively isolated region of Italy between Venice and the Austrian border.

Born in 1949, Furlanetto was a natural singer who, he said, had "a tiny tenor voice" as a kid. "I remember my great-grandfather teaching me arias. I loved to sing. It didn't matter if it was opera, pop or whatever. In the second half of the '60s, with the incredible explosion in pop music, of course I had a group. I had a guitar. My voice at that time was already a dark voice."

But opera prevailed. He made his stage debut in 1974 as the sinister assassin Sparafucile in Verdi's "Rigoletto," at Lonigo in northern Italy, and his La Scala debut in 1979 as Banquo in Verdi's "Macbeth" under Claudio Abbado. For the first 15 years of his career, he sang mostly Mozart.

"Mozart gave me everything, opened all the doors," he said. But as he's grown older, he's given up singing most of those roles onstage.

"When I was in my early 30s, Figaro was pure happiness," he said. "It was joy because the character of Figaro was very much linked to that moment in my life. Giovanni, I still do. Figaro, Leporello" -- Don Giovanni's long-suffering valet -- "are quite physical, and you should be a young man in your 30s or 40s to do them.

"Now when I do Leporello in concert, it's better than ever vocally. But when it comes to being onstage, I do it, but I am also cheating very well because while I still jump around, instead of pure happiness, sometimes it's fatigue."

Besides, there was the big Verdi repertory waiting for him.

"I started with the Verdi, the deep Verdi, because I felt that it was the moment to find again that kind of happiness," he said. "And I realized it was in the big Verdi roles."

For L.A. Opera audiences, the third act of "Don Carlo" is the one that has most likely raised the hair on the backs of their necks. It's special for Furlanetto too. The act begins with Philip's agonizing lament that his young wife, Elisabeth, doesn't love him; proceeds to the king's duet with the dreaded Grand Inquisitor, where the struggle between church and state reaches a peak; continues with Philip's confronting Elisabeth about her apparent infidelity; and ends in a thrilling quartet for Philip, Elisabeth and two other principal characters.

"It would be enough to have this third act to make 'Don Carlo' a sensational masterpiece," Furlanetto said.

The first Italian to sing Boris Godunov at St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater, where the work premiered, Furlanetto will sing his first American Boris to open the San Diego Opera season in January. He has appeared with that company for more than 20 years.

"Boris is, of course, a universe of everything," he said. "In Boris, you have love for the kids, the politician, the mad scene -- even somebody becoming mad is extremely interesting, and madness leading to death in the theater is always extremely interesting."

But his favorite role is the title character in the rarely performed "Don Quichotte" -- Massenet's 1910 version of Cervantes' masterwork -- which he is scheduled to sing in San Diego in February 2009.

"It's mostly an unknown opera," he said. "Nowadays, they don't do it anymore. But the character of Don Quichotte is so beautiful, and Massenet did so sensationally well with it."

Otherwise, he said, he's pretty much sung "all the roles" he's wanted to, except for one -- the overbearing nobleman Baron Ochs in Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier."

"He's often played as a caricature, but Ochs has this fantastic spirit in the words he says and the way he lives," Furlanetto said. "It would be extremely interesting from the acting point of view because you need to be a country noble -- which is different from a city noble. It's more interesting, the country noble."

Although no dates have been announced, he said he's talked with the Salzburg Festival about tackling the role.

"Maybe I would need two years of full immersion in the text because it's not just German, it's Austrian, with that dialect influence," he said. "Therefore you need to do it properly.

"If I cannot do it properly, I won't do it. Simple as that."


`Don Carlo'

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7 p.m. Sunday and Thursday, 12:30 p.m. Oct. 1

Price: $30 to $220

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or

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