Roberto Sacc’s big breakthrough came in the mid-90s when he sang opposite Cecilia Bartoli in Haydn’s Orfeo in Salzburg, and since then has been in demand throughout the world in the tenor roles of the operas of Mozart and Rossini. He made his Royal Opera debut in 2001, opposite Bartoli in Haydn’s L’anima del filosofo in 2001.
The last few years have seen him expand his repertoire to include heavier roles such as Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos and Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten. This expansion continues as we caught up with him on the eve of his debut as the eponymous hero in Prokofiev’s The Gambler at Covent Garden.
Half past five on a Friday afternoon may not seem the most conducive time to expect the lead tenor from the Royal Opera’s first-ever staging of Prokofiev’s The Gambler to sit down and discuss his debut as Alexei, but despite coming from a whole day of rehearsals with director Richard Jones, Roberto Sacc is enthusiastic about the rehearsal process as I ask what it’s like to work with the maverick director: “He’s very precise. Every bar is significant to the music, and working with him is great. The process is strong and intense, but for this piece it’s perfect. I enjoy his energy and he has good pictures in his head for all aspects of the piece so yes, working with him is good.” He agrees when I suggest that Jones’ exacting methods can be tiring for singers, but adds: “the product at the end is a good one. I have worked with a lot of directors and eventually you come to a point where you have a feeling for your body that what you’re being asked to do is right and with Richard it’s very good as he has this eye for the right movement and knows how to make it interesting.”
As The Gambler is a conversational piece he goes on to describe that “it’s all acting, acting, acting. Of course there is singing, and sometimes it’s very tough, but there are a lot of words so we are doing it in English, so that everything is understandable.” As this is the first time he has sung the role, I’m intrigued to know if his approach was different as it was being performed in translation as opposed to the original Russian. “Not really. I know the novel in German (his mother tongue), but when I began learning the role a couple of years ago I learnt it in English as I didn’t have time to study it in Russian as well.” The Royal Opera are using David Pountney’s translation, and Sacc was fortunate enough to work with him recently when he sang Der Kaiser in Pountney’s new staging of Die Frau ohne Schatten in Zurich. “We also had time to discuss his translation of The Gambler, and work through some of his ideas on how to do the pronunciation of the words with the rhythm of the music. This is not like Britten, because the pronunciation is for Russian, and in English the accent is not necessarily on the right beat, but I think we are making it work.”
Many singers, even native English speakers, often say that English is a difficult language to sing in and Sacc is no exception: “It is, especially when it comes to the vowels, as you have to make sure that the vowels don’t close your voice legato. I am half German, half Italian and bilingual and sing in German, Italian and have recently sung Peter Grimes for the first time in Dsseldorf.” This was a notable role debut for him as it was the first time that he had sung a major role in English. “Britten is slightly different as he writes so poetically, but you need to try very hard to make melodies when singing in English, maybe you need to underline it with O sole mio’ or Mimi or Rodolfo which enables you to keep the singing line. It’s not so bad to sing in English, but it’s also not very easy.”
The role of Alexei seems a natural progression for Sacc whose solid vocal technique and grounding he puts down to not being pushed too far too soon as a young singer. He began by singing Mozart and Rossini, and although he confesses that his voice is no longer suited to Rossini, still has the flexibility to sing Mozart. After several years spent learning his trade in the opera houses of Germany, notably Stuttgart and Wiesbaden, his major international breakthrough came in Salzburg in 1995 in Haydn’s Orfeo. Since then he has performed in all the major opera houses of the world, making Zurich his home one of the very few opera houses that still has an ensemble – and has recently started adding some of Strauss’ tenor roles which are notoriously difficult: “Yes, but I try and sing them leggero, lyrically and with a lightness of touch.” His eclectic musical background is evident as he cites and Elvis Presley, Fritz Wunderlich and Nicolai Gedda amongst his role models, so it comes as no surprise that he sings the role of Bacchus with the musical intelligence of a born Mozart singer.
With only a week left of rehearsals before the first night of The Gambler he is quick to emphasise how much he enjoys working at Covent Garden a perfectly-sized opera house’ and is full of praise for the rest of the large cast and Tony Pappano’s musical direction. As his voice continues to get heavier I ask if there is any Wagner on the horizon. He smiles ruefully: “Who knows, maybe. It is very difficult to find the right Wagner role as the problem is not the high notes but the middle voice. I don’t know, I think Lohengrin could be interesting or possibly Walther von Stolzing one day why not?” Either sounds like a mouth-watering prospect, so watch this space!
Roberto Sacc sings Alexei in the Royal Opera’s new production of The Gambler, directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Antonio Pappano, from 11 February. The top price ticket for these performances is 50 (5-50), which is the best value ticket you’ll find in London this year!