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A balm for the soul

Canadian superstar Adrianne Pieczonka debuts in Verdi’s thrilling A Masked Ball

Adrianne Pieczonka had a spectacular 2013. The Canadian opera star wowed critics and audiences in a string of high-profile performances: as Senta in a new production of The Flying Dutchman for the Bayreuth Festival (her first appearance at Bayreuth in five years in a season marking the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth), as Chrysothemis in a new production of Elektra directed by the legendary Patrice Chereau for the Aix-en-Provence Festival (a role she repeated in another production for Covent Garden), and as the Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten for the 50th anniversary of the reopening of the Bavaria State Opera.

Pieczonka’s kick-off to 2014 suggests this year will be equally stellar. She makes her role debut as Amelia in A Masked Ball by Giuseppe Verdi with the Canadian Opera Company. “Verdi is peerless in my opinion,” says the Burlington-born soprano.

“I have just sung three different Strauss opera productions back to back and, though I adore the operas of Richard Strauss, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to sing some Verdi again. It’s like a balm for the voice and for the soul.”

While she has sung Verdi roles before—Desdemona in Otello, Amelia in Simon Boccanegra and Elisabetta in Don Carlo—Pieczonka considers this Amelia the most dramatic so far. “It suits me well vocally and temperamentally,” she says. “I can’t wait.

At the heart of A Masked Ball’s fast-moving tale of passion, jealousy and betrayal is an incredibly tight love triangle. All three principals love each other, which makes the betrayals so much more harrowing.

As Amelia, Pieczonka plays the wife of Renato (sung by Roland Wood), the trusted friend and advisor to the royal governor Riccardo (Dimitri Pittas, in his role debut). Amelia and the governor have fallen in love but they never consummate their affair; neither wants to betray Renato. Throw in a young child, a fortune-telling witch and a plot to assassinate the governor and you’ve got a potboiler of a tragedy—for mature audiences.

“Amelia is unique in that she is married and a mother of a small child,” says Pieczonka. “Many Verdi heroines are very young in comparison.” Pieczonka shares a home in the Annex with her wife, Laura Tucker, also an opera singer, a mezzo, and their eight-year-old daughter. “I get a heartbreaking aria in act three where I sing that, before I die, I want to be able to hug my son one last time so that he knows how much his mother loves him. I know I’ll be able to draw on emotion here. I hope I don’t end up choking up too much.”

Working in the same city as her family is a much-cherished opportunity. “This past fall I was away for over three months,” says Pieczonka, “and this was really hard. Our daughter is used to me being away for several weeks at a time. However, it doesn’t mean it’s not hard to bear. I have a rule that I am not away at Christmas time and I also like to take a proper summer holiday for several weeks.

“For me and Laura, we try to keep communication open and flowing. We Skype several times a day—thank goodness for technology—often, just a few minutes at a time. I send small packages and cards home so they know I am thinking of them.

“Laura and I have been together for nearly 10 years and I am proud of the way we have been able to cope. Many marriages cannot withstand the separation and pressures of this crazy lifestyle.”    

A Masked Ball premiered in 1859 at a time when much of Italy was under foreign rule. Originally set in the court of 18th-century Sweden, censors balked at the depiction of a royal assassination. Eventually a compromise was reached:

Verdi demoted the king to a governor and moved the action to colonial America. Many find the setting anachronistic (though Verdi was happy with it and never tried to switch back). The COC co-production, directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, attempts to make weakness a strength by tweaking the setting, moving it to the American south of the 1960s where southerners resented the power and influence of the federal government and where political assassination would become all too familiar. The production premiered in 2008 at the Berlin Staatsoper to mixed reviews.

A Masked Ball is considered late-early Verdi, meaning it comes at the tail end of a hugely prolific period—20 operas in 17 years—that cemented Verdi’s position as the preeminent Italian composer. A Masked Ball anticipates the mature genius of Verdi’s later masterpieces like Otello and Falstaff. As such, the role of Amelia demands a mature artist at the height of her powers. She needs power to soar over top complicated ensembles and big choruses and she needs control to imbue the shortest of phrases with a full range of expressive colours. There are two show-stopping arias for Amelia. But there are also countless moments where the action turns on a word or phrase that erupts seemingly unannounced in the back-and-forth dialogue dancing atop Verdi’s sophisticated, volatile score. Power and control at all times: when delivered with emotional sensitivity, it offers a thrill-ride for audiences.

“I hope I can rise to the demands of this part,” says Pieczonka. “It’s always a bit daunting trying out a role for the first time.”

Like the epic soprano roles that populate the operas of Wagner, the big dramatic Verdian roles are treacherous for the untested. “It can be dangerous if a singer attempts a role which is beyond his or her capabilities,” says Pieczonka. “He or she may be able to pull it off a few times, but the effort and exertion to sing outside their comfort zone could well take a toll vocally. [Like athletes] they can suffer from overextension or overexertion and may never recover.

“I know of several singers of my generation and of other generations who have made the wrong choices in terms of repertoire,” she says. “I’d rather not name names, however. I have the utmost understanding and compassion for anyone in this business. It’s not easy to navigate through a long career of, say, 30 years or more.”
For an artist like Pieczonka, it’s a delicate balancing act to line up the roles she wants. Try them too early and she risks damaging her voice, but leave them too late, and she may never get the chance. Time, too, takes its toll on the voice.

It’s a cruel twist of fate—but cruel twists of fate are the lifeblood of opera storylines.

“I do feel lucky that my career is still going strong, after being in the business for 25 years. I keep working at my technique, at keeping my voice healthy, flexible and strong. I’ve just turned 50 so I am not singing the way I was in my early 30s.”

In 2014 she won’t have time to worry about the ticking clock as she reprises her Strauss and Wagner roles from last year, including Patrice Chereau’s Elektra at La Scala in May. Chereau is a cultural icon in France, equally adept in film (Queen Margot), theatre and opera (his 1976 Ring Cycle at Bayreuth is a watershed). The gay director died last fall, a few months after the Elektra premiere.

“I feel hugely privileged to have been able to work with him before his death,” says Pieczonka. “It was a career highlight for sure. We will revive this Elektra production in Milan, at the Met in New York, in Berlin and Barcelona. We will dedicate our performances to Patrice.”



Fave Verdi CD of your own?
“I am proud of my Falstaff recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label with Claudio Abbado conducting. It’s from 2001 with Bryn Terfel singing Falstaff.”

Favourite A Masked Ball recording?
“With the great Bryn Terfel as Riccardo and Aprile Millo as Amelia from The Met, with James Levine conducting.” 1991. Deutsche Grammophone.

Best Verdi singers?
“For me, Pavarotti is my favourite Verdi tenor. My favourite Verdi soprano is probably Renata Scotto or Maria Callas. Legends, all three of them.”


A MASKED BALL. $45-$332. Sun, Feb 2-22 Four Seasons Centre. 145 Queen St W. 416- 363-8231. coc.ca.