When Ferruccio Furlanetto enters the room, he presents the calm, distinguished appearance of a member of the diplomatic corps. Only when he speaks—in the thoughtfully measured cadences of his sonorous basso profundo—does he hint at his actual calling.
The seasoned 63-year-old Italian bass is back with San Diego Opera to sing the lead role in Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral, an obscure opera (to American audiences at least) based on the T.S. Eliot play of the same name. Although this role of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, is one Furlanetto’s signature roles, it is more than mere coincidence that he is singing it here.
“A couple of seasons ago, I was doing a production of this opera in Milan, and I asked Ian [Campbell, General and Artistic Director of San Diego Opera] to come over and see it,” Furlanetto explained. “He brought with him two San Diegans who were likely sponsors, and they loved the opera.”
It is not that unusual for a company to mount a production for a singer with a significant draw. In recent seasons, for example, both the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera have produced Franco Alfano’s little-known Cyrano de Bergerac for tenor Placido Domingo. Furlanetto’s relationship with San Diego Opera and its General Director goes back to the 1985 season, during the first years of Campbell’s tenure, when the bass sang the title role in Verdi’s first—and rarely staged—opera Oberto.
Murder in the Cathedral marks Furlanetto’s 10th production with San Diego Opera, a level of loyalty he has shown to no other American company. When asked to explain this unusual local allegiance, he gave the expected reply about the “perpetual spring” of San Diego’s climate and added that a cadre expatriate Italians in North County favor him with parites and dinners when he arrives in town.
On a more serious note, Furlanetto narrated an incident from his 1985 experience here that convinced him that this was a company he wanted to work with. Another Italian singer in that Oberto cast had come down with a serious illness shortly after arriving in San Diego to start rehearsals, and Furlanetto was impressed by the way the company rallied to his aid.
“The administration took complete care of him. They sent him to Los Angeles for treatment and put him up in an apartment there so he could undergo his treatments.” Unfortunately, the singer’s condition proved more serious that anyone thought at first, and he died two months later at the age of 46. “I was impressed by the amazing warmth of this company, and I knew I wanted to return,” he concluded.
Furlanetto noted that he made his opera debut exactly 39 years ago this month in the opera house at Lonigo where he sang the role of Sparafucile in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Five years later he made his debut at Milan’s La Scala, arguably Italy’s premier house, and the following year his debut at the Met.
“It was easy for me in those first three or four years,” he explained, “singing minor roles and getting experience without exposing my voice to roles that were too big for me.” Care for his instrument has been paramount as he pursued his career. For his first 25 years he concentrated on singing Mozart: Don Giovanni, Leporello and Figaro were his calling cards.
“Singing all that Mozart preserved my voice for the second tier of my career.” The list of these roles includes King Philip in Don Carlos, Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, the title roles in Boris Gudonov and Don Quichotte, and Beckett in Murder in the Cathdral.
These roles draw him because they call for equal attention to their dramatic portrayal as well as their musical interpretation, an approach to opera performance demanded by directors he worked with early in his career, the French director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and the Italian Piero Faggioni.
Singing Pizzetti’s Thomas Becket presents the dramatic challenge of portraying an essentially introverted character whose
conflicts are internal. “He realizes that the Law of God must come first, so when he returns to England from exile in France, he knows he has made a fatal choice. All of the struggle goes on inside his mind, but the opera presents this with four characters who represent his four temptations, the last of which is matyrdom.”
Furlanetto’s back-burner “Murder in the Cathedral” project is to mount a semi-staged production of the opera in England’s Canterbury Cathedral, where the climactic scene of this opera took place in the 12th century. His cohort in this project is the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, with whom he has worked at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.
“The clergy of the cathedral are eager to have such a production in their church, if only we can get the London Symphony to bus its orchestra up to Canterbury for the concert.”