The most revelatory individual performance at the 2017 season of Wexford Festival Opera was that of French soprano Anne-Sophie Duprels, as Katiusha, the tragic heroine of Franco Alfano’s Risurrezione, a long-neglected verismo gem, based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection.
My full review of the Wexford season will appear in one of the winter issues of Opera News. Before I left Ireland, however, I sat down for a face-to-face interview with this gifted artist. (Accompanied at the piano by Stephen Barlow, Medea’s conductor, Duprels also gave a memorable song recital at St. Iberius Church in early November.)
BK: Did you have any previous history with Risurrezione?
ASD: No, no. I only listened to a recording, and I knew of the big aria. But that’s it. I never had the opportunity to see it.
BK: What about with Alfano’s other works?
ASD: Nope. It’s my first Alfano. He’s known for Turandot, but they don’t ever play exactly what he wrote; they usually play the reduced Toscanini version.
BK: I was stunned by Rosetta Cucchi’s production of Risurrezione. It’s one of the most completely fleshed-out stagings I have ever experienced. Did she lay out her production vision clearly from the beginning of rehearsals, so all of you knew what was coming?
ASD: Yes. She was very clear. Everything was very precise. What I like about the production is that she is really telling the story. There is no fuss about it, and it goes directly to what is important.
BK: Any arguments or disagreements about the direction in which you were all headed?
ASD: No. A very nice process we had. We had interesting talks and trying to get to the bottom of the characters and trying to understand them as best we could and bring everything we could out of them. The Tolstoy book is very deep. Really beautiful. I loved working with Rosetta, and the combination of her and Francesco Cilluffo (the opera’s conductor) was a dream team, honestly.
BK: Which did you find the most complicated scene in the opera, both from a singing and an acting standpoint?
ASD: I would say that for me I have to find Acts Two, Three and Four coming kind of easily. Act One, with my character being very young and innocent… I have to work a bit more to find those colors. I had to find a good starting point and then build from there My natural tendency is to start with the big drama. You have to take the audience on a journey.
BK: Did all of you discuss the Tolstoy novel a great deal throughout the rehearsal period?
ASD: We talked about it a lot, and tried to find more details and subtleties.
BK: Any changes from the book that you find effective?
ASD: In the book, the journey is more about Dmitri, and in the opera, it’s more focused on Katiusha’s journey. That would be the biggest difference and I can’t complain. (Laughs)
BK: Risurrezione reached a level of dramatic truth and emotional complexity that opera seldom gets to.
ASD: It was completely organic. You can’t play a part. You have to be the part; otherwise, it doesn’t sound real. You have to inhabit it.
BK: Your recital at St. Iberius Church was lovely—you did a set of Ponchielli songs that I didn’t know at all. Generally speaking, in recital, do you try to stay away from tried-and-true crowd pleasers and challenge your audience a bit?
ASD: Nobody knows the Ponchielli set. It’s never been recorded; maybe one of them has been recorded. Wexford asked me to do a recital and I thought, “I need to do unusual stuff, because that’s Wexford’s specialty.” I don’t like to to do arias in recital. I always find opera is to be sung onstage because you need the orchestra and staging and the whole story. I like to sing songs in recital. And the audience in Wexford is used to discovering new things. I put a bit of Massenet in the mix to ease things a little. (Laughs) I love Massenet. Fantastic composer.
BK: I have a close friend who is a composer. He was brought up on serial music, but he always says that every time he listens to Massenet, he expects not to like it and always surrenders to it happily. Can you tell me a bit about your thoughts on the state of music education in France today?
ASD: The thing is that I can’t really talk about what it is now, because I studied a few years back. I can’t talk about precise things, but I do know you can always improve everything. That’s for sure. Arts should be part of the educational system from a very, very young age. I have children. I don’t think they had enough music at school. I thought they should have more of music and the visual arts and a real background in arts education. I really hope things will improve, because the new government we have is quite keen on the arts, and I hope it will help with more funding. It’s often about where you want to put your money. I’m not teaching in any conservatoire or anything. I do teach privately, but very occasionally, because I am traveling all the time. I give master classes—but not in France, so I am not the best person to ask.
The only thing I can say is that for young singers right now, it is quite difficult, because you have to get into an opera program, and it’s fine when you’re in one, because you’re given small roles and you’re not paid a lot of money. And as soon as you should be fully employable, that’s when the trouble starts, because there isn’t much money. You have to love what you’re doing, because there is not much money. I’m not sure the younger generation is well informed enough about how the business works.
BK: Which French operas mean the most to you?
ASD: I would love to sing in Dialogues of the Carmelites anytime. I haven’t done it yet. The story is amazing. The music is incredible.
BK: Blanche de La Force?
ASD: Either Blanche or Madame Lidoine, depending on the circumstances. I’m also very fond of Messiaen’s Saint-Francois d’Assise, even though it’s not an opera i would ever sing. And I love Massenet. I have sung Manon and Thaïs. And I’m always eager to discover new things.
BK: You have an appetite for new things.
ASD: Yes. I am very lucky to do what I’m doing, and I feel grateful when a company trusts me to do something. I’m like a child when I get a new score. It’s such a privilege to love doing what you’re doing.
BK: I understand that you have not long ago moved into a very different phase of your career, singing more challenging roles—such as Katiusha in Risurrezione. Was it that just singing lyric roles began to bore you?
ASD: I think that comes with experience. I’m not twenty anymore, which is great! I’m loving it! it gives me enough experience and I feel I’m stronger than I was ten years ago, because of life experience and doing things onstage and learning things with new directors and conductors. I feel I’m opening a new chapter, and it is very exciting. I’m enjoying this new repertoire. I feel like I’ve come home—where I’ve always meant to be. It feels right.
BK: Last summer you sang Leoncavallo’s Zaza at Holland Park in London; this is an opera that was performed here at Wexford in the early 1990s. The soprano who sang it at that time, Karen Notare, told me that she loved it so much that after the run ended, she had post-Zaza depression!
ASD: I understand that! Zaza is so much fun and so strong. We had an amazing director, Marie Lambert. Absolutely fantastic. It’s so amazing to play such a strong woman who makes her decisions. She’s not pushed around by both people. She says “I want that, I’m going to get that.” It’s not often as a soprano that you get a character who has so much strength. You’re usually the one who’s going to die, because your fate is so terrible that you’re going to kill yourself! And again, Zaza is onstage all the time. I like that, when a character is so rich, and you have to play so many different emotions.
BK: Do you have an obscure opera in mind that you would like Wexford Festival Opera to stage for you in the future?
ASD: Well, let’s talk! (Laughs) The only thing that comes to mind is if they would ever consider another Massenet. Hérodiade is not performed very often. That might be a good one. And I would love to do GIordano’s Fedora. It’s a wonderful opera. I’m always happy to discover new things.
BK: It refreshes you.
ASD: Absolutely. It feeds everything you’re doing. When you go back to a known role, you discover new things. So it’s good because of that. After this, I’m going back to singing Butterfly, but I know I will bring new things to it. It’s a production I’ve already done, but with a new tenor and another conductor.