I bow to the convention of opera interviews in reporting that Patrizia Ciofi arrives in true diva style: fifteen minutes late, but that’s really as far as the stereotype can stretch. Of course, the Italian singer is immaculately dressed and effortlessly glamorous, but she is also smiley, rather diminutive in stature and profuse with apologies. In fact, Ciofi very quickly proves herself to be completely at odds with those super-bitch sopranos of popular mythology.
Perhaps it has something to do with her relative obscurity. Although Ciofi has performed in over seventy different operas so far and is revered by an adoring fan-base, her name has yet to be honoured or cursed with celebrity status. This is not to suggest professional setback; she has beguiled critics around the world (her Gilda at the Royal Opera in 2002 was described by one as definitive’) and her credentials are considerable. Born in Tuscany in 1967, Ciofi grew up surrounded by music and the arts: her father was a violinist, her mother an actress, and she displayed a talent and interest in performance from an early age, though it took a while for her to develop a passion for opera.
Her parents would play her records but she always found it a difficult medium to understand and, moreover, there seemed to be a lack of inspiring role-models: “At that time singers weren’t good actors you’d have these really big people on stage with no emotion, just beautiful voices.” Like most self-respecting opera singers these days, Ciofi takes the theatrical demands as seriously as the vocal, and not least because acting was her first love. Even now she finds opera recordings lacking in intensity: “I prefer to listen to other classical music symphonic, piano, even pop music. When I listen to opera I am always taken by the beauty of the voice but after fifteen or twenty minutes I get bored, I want more, I want an emotion that recordings can’t provide.”
Certainly Ciofi’s own work has a great dramatic range, spanning the full spectrum from the frothy and flirtatious Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore to the psychologically unhinged Lucia of Lammermoor, with many of the other major nineteenth-century bel canto roles in between. It is the challenge posed by these characters that particularly appeals, she says. “People think it’s boring if it’s not real life characters being portrayed. What I really want to do is to make them feel alive and really put some life into them the virtuosity that is required for most of these roles is never meaningless for me, it always comes out of something: rage or love or death, and is there for a reason.”
“Working in different styles helps me get myself centred again and it helps to refresh my voice”
Ciofi admits that the bel canto style also suits the nature of her voice, but there have been some remarkable performances of earlier operas, perhaps most notably the Grammy Award Winning recording of Le Nozze di Figaro with Ren Jacobs. “Working in different styles helps me get myself centred again and it helps to refresh my voice,” she explains. Her CV seems to betray a loyalty to the Italian repertoire, which is perhaps not surprising, but there have been some interesting exceptions. Berlioz is a composer who she had “real problems with” when working on Benvenuto Cellini. “I began to think I really hate this, I don’t want to do it,’ but after some time I was bowled over. It’s complicated music but rich and refined and musically very inspiring.”
This month Ciofi reprises her part as Gilda “my London role” she laughs at Covent Garden, in the latest revival of David McVicar’s acclaimed production of Rigoletto. Having made her Royal Opera debut with the part in 2002 she is clearly delighted to be back but explains how the experience inevitably feels different: “Five years have passed and I’ve changed and my voice has changedOf course, I felt I knew what was going on and I’ve found the emotion that I did five years ago, but every time I work on the role it’s always a fresh experience.”
“There’s a reason for everything that happens on stage and there’s always a great deal of thought behind it”
One clear advantage of this run was the opportunity to rehearse with McVicar himself, as opposed to a slavish revival director, who was at liberty to adjust things according to the new cast. He demanded a more thorough and rigorous character analysis but Ciofi enthuses about his talents. “He’s a very special person to work with. He can change mood very quickly and it’s often tricky to work with him because he’s always changing and shaping things in rehearsal, but whether you like it or not there is no doubt he’s a genius,” she says. “There’s a reason for everything that happens on stage nothing happens by accident and there’s always a great deal of thought behind it.”
Performances have already begun but so far have attracted only lukewarm reviews from the press, although Ciofi has won much praise. I tentatively ask how the cast respond to them and whether they affect her performance. “I never read reviews during the production run,” she replies. “I prefer to remember my experience of each evening the reaction of the audience and from the other members of the cast so that’s what I focus on after the performance. I’m also very sensitive, so I try to protect myself,” she adds with a nervous giggle. Not the sort of confession one would have extracted from the likes of La Callas.
Despite the great diversity of her work so far, Ciofi has new roles in her sights, in particular Massenet’s Manon “I’d like to do more French repertoire, I think it’s very close to me and to what I am able to do” and next season she returns to London as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Ciofi certainly has the looks and talent to woo British audiences but she might need a few tantrums to her name to hit the headlines.