Morning rehearsals for Un ballo in maschera have just finished: Ramn Vargas saunters past in a bloodied penguin suit, costume lackeys fuss over a rack of velvet frocks and I find Angela Marambio in her dressing-room, freshly changed and happily tucking into a dish of sushi.
As Amelia, the leading-lady in Verdi’s bitter-sweet opera, Marambio is subject to a torrent of emotions, torn between loyalty to her husband, Renato, and longing for her beloved, Riccardo. Happily, though, she seems to have shrugged off her character hang-ups in time for lunch, and she strikes up a lively conversation about the sights of London before turning to the subject of her Covent Garden debut perhaps her most important fixture to date. Mario Martone’s staging received mixed reviews at its premiere in 2005 but Marambio is enthusiastic.
“That could be because the productions I did before weren’terthey didn’t fulfil my expectations,” she says, with careful tact, “but this one does completely: all the emotions are there and the sets don’t prevent us from expressing ourselves.”
Ballo is noted for its troubled gestation: originally inspired by events surrounding the life and death in 1792 of King Gustav III of Sweden, Neapolitan censors ordered Verdi to change its Swedish setting to Boston, MA, to avoid diplomatic friction, and as a result the work has a confused universality. Martone’s production sticks to the Boston setting, although the context is shunted forward to the time of American Union, but the casting for this particular run has acquired a Latin flavour: Marambio herself hails from Vina del Mar in Chile, Vargas (who plays Riccardo) is from Mexico and Italian conductor Maurizio Benini takes the baton.
Although Marambio has played Amelia before, in Santiago and Hamburg, she describes it as one of her most demanding roles: “She’s noble and from high society, of course, but she cannot express herself and that’s the most difficult part, because it could look cold but there’s a volcano erupting inside that can’t escape.” Vocally, too, it’s challenging. “If you don’t have a good technique you’re not going to get through the opera,” she says, “Act 1 is ok, Act II is a killer and then there’s Act III and the beautiful pianissimo lines during the ballo.”
As far as the wider repertoire’s concerned, Marambio is on familiar ground. Over the last few years she has focussed almost exclusively on the operas of Verdi, Puccini and Bizet, and it’s easy to see why: Rubensesque and raven-tressed, fast-talking and wonderfully, ebulliently expressive, she is everything you want from your nineteenth-century heroines well except the consumptives, perhaps and has a voice to match. Critics have praised the strength, evenness and rich communicative power of her soprano, and although there are as yet no official recordings (her views on those anon) there is a growing catalogue of YouTube clips.
It was these qualities, no doubt, that helped win her the Audience Prize at the 2003 Cardiff Singer of the World competition with three morsels (cynics might call them crowd-pleasers) from Carmen, Turandot and Le nozze di Figaro. As Marambio explains, the competition offers an amazing “opportunity to sing things you haven’t sung with an orchestra before,” but she had already made a strong impression in the UK with her concert performance in Granados’ Goyescas at the 2002 Proms astonishingly, her first international engagement and was mid-way through playing Mimi in La Bohme at Welsh National Opera when she scored at Cardiff.
As a teenager Marambio yearned to be a pop singer “like Whitney Houston!” but she was always surrounded by classical music: “I grew up with my dad playing the piano and the organ in church, my mum would sing with him, and my grandma also played the piano.” After considering a career as an architect, like her father, she applied to study voice and piano and was propelled through the Musical Institute of Santiago on a scholarship.
Now that her schedule is international, and increasingly hectic, she divides her time between her family in Chile and her fianc in Hamburg. “I have one little thing,” she says, as if divulging a guilty secret, “I don’t speak German yet.” This doesn’t just effect the practicalities of everyday life, it is inhibiting her from singing Wagner, “her most favourite” operatic composer (Berg and Mahler are also much loved) and delaying her dream of playing Isolde because she holds him in such esteem that blagging her way through a score “would feel like a betrayal. I’m going to do it, I have no doubts about that, but everything has to come at the right time.”
Clearly, Marambio values honesty above all else and it’s maybe this principle that informs her rather old-fashioned views about modern recordings. “I don’t like recordings,” she announces. “Miracles happen in recordings. You can have the greatest line ever in recordings but it’s not going to happen on stage. It’s not what you’re going to hear live, so that’s fake.” Still, Marambio’s no Luddite: she admits to owning an iPod and CDs, and she enjoys listening to an eclectic range of music, from Christina Aguilera to the comedy a cappella group The King’s Singers “Oh my God, they’re so cool, I heard them on TV and I was amazed, they’re hilarious!”
These last few weeks have been highly focussed but once ballo kicks off she will allow herself to relax and enjoy some free-time. Critics will be scrutinising Marambio’s debut but she’ll be oblivious to their judgment because she never reads reviews. Is that a rule? I ask. “No, it’s not a rule, it’s just that I don’t feel I have to. When I’m on stage I feel energy from the audience that comes and goes, comes and goes, and that’s Heaven, that’s enough.”
Un ballo in maschera opens at the Royal Opera House on Friday 26 June at 7pm with Angela Marambio (Amelia), Ramon Vargas (Riccardo) and Dalibor Jenis (Renato). Maurizio Benini conducts.