If you haven’t already heard of Rosa Feola, it’s a good bet that you soon will. The young Italian soprano has soared since she took three honors at the 2010 edition of Operalia, Plácido Domingo’s world opera competition. Then, last year, she made a breakthrough appearance at the Welsh National Opera in Bellini’s I Puritani, for which she was honored at the Wales Theatre Awards and cited for outstanding achievement in Great Britain’s What’s On Stage Opera Poll 2016.
In his review of the production, Telegraph opera critic Rupert Christiansen touted Feola’s “blazing star potential” and heaped praise on her performance: “… Feola, a protégé of the great Renata Scotto, sings the dippy heroine Elvira with all her mentor’s questing intelligence. Warm and easy in her top register, she phrases sensitively, shaping the line into expressive meaning and coloring words with imagination. Her mad scene in Act 2 was exquisitely done, as was the miraculous (if implausible) recovery of her senses that ensues.”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra audiences will have two opportunities to hear Feola, starting April 14-24 when she teams with Music Director Riccardo Muti as the vocal soloist in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. The work’s unconventional fourth movement incorporates “The Heavenly Life” from an earlier set of songs by the composer titled “The Youth’s Magic Horn.” In addition, she will sing the role of Nannetta in full-length concert performances April 21, 23 and 26 of Verdi’s beloved final opera, Falstaff, with baritone Ambrogio Maestri in the title role and Muti on the podium.
“I enjoy working with Maestro Muti, and [I] am looking forward to these performances,” Feola said via e-mail. “Maestro Muti is unique. He is the only one to be able to create a magical atmosphere in rehearsal as well as in performances. With him I can really enjoy the music in the best way — the one that the composer wanted.”
After graduating from the Conservatory in Rome in 2008, Feola attended master classes at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under the tutelage of Scotto, as well as Anna Vandi and Cesare Scarton. Two years later came her prizes at the Domingo competition, which thrust her into the international spotlight.
“Operalia was my first look into the wonderful world of opera,” Feola said. “Before that moment, I had no idea of what theater really was. I only had the lucky opportunity to know Mrs. Scotto, and she was my example of a role model. With her I felt so happy, understanding and learning about giving music the energy it needs. I was a very young singer and was generously supported by famous people who gave me the possibility to start my career. Without that I’m not sure I would be here now.”
Feola made her professional debut in 2009 at the Accademia Nationale di Santa Cecilia as Corinna in a concert performance of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims with noted conductor Kent Nagano. She has reprised that role a few times since, including recently at the Zürich Opera House, where she has become something of a regular.
The young soprano first met Muti when she appeared in the modern premiere of Saverio Mercadante’s little-known opera, I due Figaro at the Teatro Alighieri in Ravenna, Italy, in 2011. (The performances were recorded on the Ducale label and remain available.) “Our first meeting was in Ravenna for an audition for I due Figaro, which would have been performed the year after. Unfortunately, I was sick that day but I went to Ravenna, anyway. I remember crying for the whole journey because I was sure I would lose the most important opportunity of my life. I didn’t sing that day but only because Maestro was very nice and let us postpone the audition. I was so unbelievably excited when he chose me for the opera after all of this.”
The two have gone on to work together regularly. Indeed, it was with Muti and the CSO that Feola made her American debut in 2012 in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. She has since performed with Muti and the orchestra in Schubert’s Mass No. 5 in 2014 and Mozart’s Requiem in 2015.
Feola’s other big accomplishment of 2015 was the release of her first solo album, “Musica e Poesia,” on the Opus Arte label, with selections by such composers as Franz Liszt, Amilcare Ponchielli and Ottorino Respighi. “I was so critical of my recording,” she said. “I only had the thoughts of what I didn’t do ‘right’ instead of appreciating and concentrating on enjoying the music. Now I can really enjoy the wonderful work that has been done and I love the choice of the songs.” The recording was selected as an editor’s choice in the March issue of Gramophone magazine. The soprano will perform selections from the disc when she makes her American recital debut in May in San Francisco.
Among her upcoming projects, Feola is especially looking forward to her debut as Violetta in a not-yet-announced production of La traviata in Great Britain in the summer of 2017. “It’s a challenge for me because I know that it will be very hard,” she said. “Verdi is very special. He writes that everything should be perfect. It’s up to you to read his notes well. I know I’ll have to balance my energy between the music and acting without letting the other slip. That’s why I’m already studying the score and not trying to fit it all in last minute. Fingers crossed!”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
TOP: Rosa Feola as Elvira in the Welsh National Opera production of Bellini’s I Puritani. | Photo: Bill Cooper/WNO