Although a mainstay of top European opera houses, Italian bass Riccardo Zanellato remains relatively unknown in the United States. The reason is simple: He has yet to appear in a fully staged American production. “Unfortunately I do not perform as often as I wish in your beautiful country,” he said via e-mail. “So far, I have sung only in concerts, and I would really like to sing some nice roles from my repertoire in your prestigious theaters. I hope to have this special opportunity soon.”
Chicago audiences will have the chance to hear Zanellato as part of a season-ending program June 22-25 of excerpts from Italian operatic masterworks with music director Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Included will be selections by composers such as Pietro Mascagni, Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi.
The choice of Zanellato as soloist is hardly happenstance. Muti has long championed the bass, and the two have worked together often at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome and elsewhere. In November, they will participate in performances of Verdi’s Requiem with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich, Germany.
“I think I’m a particularly lucky singer for having often been honored to work with Maestro Muti, who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, conductors of our time,” Zanellato said. “I love the sacredness with which he approaches the compositions he faces, the way he respects the intent of the author and his ability to dig into the score to give the audience the emotions that deserve to be experienced. When I work with Maestro Muti, it is like I find myself immersed in a musical encyclopedia where every comma is a source of teaching. I will never stop thanking him for what he has given me so far, especially in dealing with the Verdian repertoire and all the scores in general.”
Zanellato, 48, who previously appeared with the CSO twice in 2014, including a concert on tour that year at the Musikverein in Vienna, will perform for the first time the Prologue from Mefistofele, Arrigo Boito’s 19th-century operatic take on the Faust legend, at Symphony Center. “I’m so excited to debut [in this role] with Maestro Muti, accompanied by this prestigious orchestra, which is absolutely a unique companion,” he said. “I will definitely put all of myself into this concert.”
Although the bass has ventured into French operas and hopes to explore to some of the major Russian roles, he has primarily concentrated on the Italian repertoire, largely because it is in his native language. Among his repertoire are roles in Verdi’s Macbeth, (Banquo), Attila (title role), Don Carlo (Filippo II), Nabucco (Zaccaria) and many others. “Inevitably,” he said, “you specialize in the repertoire that best suits your voice and personality, and that is for me Italian.”
Speaking five years ago in an interview for Operafocus, Zanellato emphasized that the best age for basses, whose voices tend to mature later than that of higher registers, is 45-55. His own experience has borne this out. Since moving into that age group, he said, he finally feels ready physically and mentally to tackle certain roles for which he was not suited before, including Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo.
“Clearly,” Zanellato said, “it’s all about a natural physiological maturity that, if intelligently supported and managed, can allow you to achieve what you need for artistic growth with the voice.”