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Vasile Moldoveanu Interview

(Versiunea în limba română, aici: Opera este oglinda unei țări)

I wrote to him as if I was writing to Enrico Caruso, hoping that he would answer this time. And he did answer, happy that one more person had discovered him in Romania. We are so few…

The first DVDs with opera performances appeared around 15 years ago, and in Romania they arrived at the beginning of the 2000s. We did not have a LaserDisc era. After 2000, I could see a performance from the Teatro alla Scala or the  Metropolitan Opera and I could see the three tenors in an opera. The more I discovered the beauty of such shows, the more I wanted to find out about this world. I was thrilled in front of my TV, while watching the evolution of Angela Gheorghiu’s career (such a beautiful Traviata!), and I soon got to discover other Romanian opera singers who had successfully sung on the important stages of the world. This is how I discovered Ileana Cotrubaș, just to give you an example.

As I was searching for information on the Internet, I found the website of an American opera aficionado: an aviation mechanical engineer, retired for health problems. This man, Michael Richter, was writing amateur reviews for the operas he saw on TV, VHS tapes, LaserDiscs or DVDs. And he  used his engineer skills to organize all these reviews together in a document, Opera on Video. I simply devoured it, as it contained hundreds of performances with comments, with all the famous names of the opera. This is how I discovered the existence of a Don Carlo from the Metropolitan, where the main character was played by a certain Vasile Moldoveanu. Then an Il Tabarro, where Luigi was the same Vasile Moldoveanu. And a Simon Boccanegra, where Gabriele Adorno was the same mysterious Vasile Moldoveanu. Unfortunately, both Don Carlo and Il Tabarro were mentioned as TV broadcasts (telecasts) and Simon Boccanegra was a LaserDisc. No chance to find them…
I waited nearly 10 years since that moment, sure that I would see these performances one day.
In 2010 I found the DVD with Simon, from Deutsche Grammophon, at the music stands in the foyer of the Romanian Atheneum. I had just seen a modern production of this opera, in Frankfurt, with Željko Lučić as the doge, and I had realized the beauty of Gabriele Adorno’s part, which was then sung by a Korean tenor, Alfred Kim. After  Claudio Abbado’s CD of 1977, with José Carreras as Adorno, I might as well say this is one of the best tenor parts Giuseppe Verdi ever wrote.

It was extraordinary to discover Vasile Moldoveanu exactly in this character. I did not have the faintest idea about the sound of his voice. I was even a little afraid: what if I heard another heldentenor, like Ludovic Spiess, who just sang all the notes correctly and nothing more? But, to my total surprise, I seemed to hear the reincarnation of Franco Corelli! Such a beautiful lyric spinto tenor voice, which reminded a little of Richard Tucker in the average register, but had an aplomb à la Corelli, definite. I instantly became a fan of this voice. And, at the same time, I was furious for not having discovered it earlier.

The DVDs with Don Carlo and Il Tabarro were issued only in 2011, and I got to see them only recently. Absolutely superb. I have already written about this in the article Tripticul lui Vasile Moldoveanu.

While documenting for this article, I hopelessly looked for photos on the Internet. Sure, there are the two official photos from Don Carlo and Simon, then there are the black and white photos in Mrs Ioana Diaconescu’s book, but they all seemed insufficient for my enthusiasm. Therefore, I made some image captures from the DVD and I posted the most beautiful of them.

Filippo: Tu resti in mia regal presenza e nulla ancora hai domandato al Re?
Rodrigo: Accetto, e non per me. 

This is how I got to make this interview, with the greatest Romanian tenor. I just want to add something about his voice, which maintained the beauty of its timbre even in speaking, while enveloping the words in a light vibrato, produced, maybe, by the emotion of speaking his mother tongue, that he speaks as if he has never left Romania. In this voice I discovered a man of unimaginable modesty. Vasile Moldoveanu has been a professional of the opera, who respected his art as a rare profession. The contemplation and the reflection on his position towards Opera as an art and as an institution of the European civilization came in time. And now, when he is outside the active zone of his career (the stage) and when he has the perspective given by 11 seasons at the Met, my interlocutor can say that The Opera is the mirror of a country. The details of this definition can be found here below…

The Artist from the East

Despre Opera: You left Romania due to an opportunity: when invited by an impresario to sing in Germany. When did you decide to leave forever? Had you been thinking about this? Were you aware of your value, were you sure you were going to make it, or you had also thought of changing your career in case things did not turn out ok?

Vasile Moldoveanu: First of all, you must know I was not a member of the Communist Party and this caused me a lot of troubles while in Romania but also if I wanted to sing abroad, because I could never get a visa. I had taken the decision long time before receiving the invitation from Friederich Paasch (German impresario n.n.). I had decided that, if I ever got to sing in a Western country, I would never return to Romania.

Another thing you must know is that in Germany there are  many opera theaters, hundreds of them, with different artistic levels. At that time, there were only four opera houses of international fame, Hamburg, Munich, Stuttgart and, of course, Berlin. If I did not have an international success, I could have still lived decently in a smaller opera, in the province. But I was confident, and I was invited for auditions in Germany and in Vienna. And, it is true, in a very short period of time, after only two years (I left Romania in 1972), in 1974, I was in Stuttgart, where the manager was Wolfgang Windgassen, the great wagnerian tenor of Germany. This man wanted to break the tradition of this opera, which had seen only German repertoire for decades. Windgassen wanted to introduce the Italian opera, La bohème, Manon Lescaut, and this is the reason I become interesting for him, for this project. This is where everything started. In Stuttgart they treated me very well, according to the contract I had to sing 4-5 times per year, but I was paid for the entire season, which allowed me to go and sing in many other places. This is how I got to sing in Munich, in a  Roman Polansky  production, and this was the starting point for my career in Metropolitan – a Don Carlo in Munich…

Returning to communism, I must tell you that, once I had received the death punishment for not retuning to Romania, it was impossible for me to return any more. Ten years after my departure, my father told me having read in a newspaper that I had been pardoned and I could come to visit him. But the newspaper did not mention the fact that this pardon meant a change from death punishment to imprisonment. I did not come at that moment because I did not trust the information in the newspaper, and I was right, otherwise I would have been put in prison. But, I don’t want to talk too much about this, it hurts me to remember these things…

Despre Opera: In the ‘70s-‘80s, did you meet Romanian artists?  What did they tell you about the situation in Romania? Why didn’t more artists leave for the West?

Vasile Moldoveanu: To be honest, I did not meet many of them and we talked very little. Yes, I met Tumageanian or Ileana Cotrubaș, but they lived abroad more than in Romania.

Why didn’t more Romanian artists emigrate? I cannot give you a clear-cut answer and I cannot talk for other persons.  All I can tell you is that, when I was hired by the National Opera and I came to Bucharest, I received a house that looked like a hut in the middle of nowhere, with the toilet at the back of the garden: “This is all we can give you for the moment…”. You see? From this point of view, I had almost nothing to lose. Maybe for other artists, who had a  consistent career in Romania, things were different, they had a lot of things to lose, because here, in the West, everything has a different rhythm. Life is expensive, one must work a lot to live a decent life.

Despre Opera: Did you have any Romanian partners on stage, in those times?

Vasile Moldoveanu: Not many. I sang with Maria Slătinaru in Tosca, with Eduard Tumageanian in I Vespri siciliani and that is all, as far as I remember.

Despre Opera: Did you ever talk with Stella Roman or Beverly Sills or Richard Tucker? They had Romanian origins. If you met them, did they mention this? How did they behave?

Vasile Moldoveanu: Well, Tucker had already died when I  arrived at the Met. You know, in New York, there is a square named after him. I did not know that Beverly Sills had Romanian origins. She sang more in the New York City Opera, and less in the Metropolitan. I never talked with her, but I saw her in an opera and I liked her very much, she was an excellent soprano. Stella Roman had retired a long time before my arrival, of course I had heard of her: she had been the stage partner of Martinelli, and Björling, it was impossible not to know her. But, believe me, I did not know she was still alive at that moment.

But I met Virginia Zeani, a great soprano, I think you know her, for example a great Traviata. She was married to an important artist, maybe the best Italian bass, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni. When I met her, her husband did not sing any more, he had retired. Yes, I met her in America, she then moved there.

Despre Opera: The Metropolitan Opera and the National Opera of Bucharest – a difference that we cannot even measure. Though, what makes the Americans come to the opera? What needs the National Opera of Bucharest or the operas around the country to attract the audience? What could be done in this direction, when we know that money is scarce?

Vasile Moldoveanu: What is needed… Romania does not have the culture of sponsorship. Such an activity does not exists, as it has always existed in the Metropolitan. But the problem is with the politicians, who do not encourage cultural sponsorship. Today, no politician is interested in supporting the Opera. This is very bad and very sad. I will give you just one example: besides the well-known funding received from the Rockefeller Foundation, there were many private contributions. For instance, there was a lady, Mrs Sybil Harrington, who contributed important amounts of money to the budget of the Met. She came one day to a rehearsal, she went backstage and saw that the big curtain had some stains. The administrative staff started to fret around and to promise they would clean it and make it look brand new for the premiere, but Mrs Harrington stopped them with a gesture towards the curtain: “No, we will just change the curtain!”. And she paid a considerable amount of money for this, as the curtain was huge, with expensive fabric and embroidery. But she loved this opera so much, that she just paid for a new curtain. Another anecdote: this lady was head over heels in love with Franco Zeffirelli’s art and she paid around 3-4 of his productions. And I am sure you know that Franco Zeffirelli is a very expensive director, those productions cost a fortune, millions of dollars!

Well, can you imagine such a thing in Romania? It is nearly unconceivable, and this happens only because we do not have the necessary mentality, we do not have the culture needed for cultural sponsorship. What we have is indifference, and this affects everyone, including artists. I see this very well. In Romania people gained their freedom and this is an extremely important thing. In my times, everybody wanted to leave, to build a career, to move the mountains! But today, because of this lack of interest that the state owes to the Opera as an institution representative for the country, all enthusiasm melts, and we have this  indifference that I see even in young people, who have just graduated the Conservatory…

Dear Sir, the Opera is the mirror of a country! Abandoning this institution is like giving up a part of the civilization of your country.

The music and the dreams

Despre Opera: What tenors did you prefer when you realized that you were going to become a real soloist, on the stage? And then, when you already were in the Metropolitan, what tenors did you admire?

Vasile Moldoveanu:  I adored Corelli, like you adore him, like everybody else, I adored del Monaco, di Stefano, whom I met personally, he even came to Romania. I loved Placido, and his musicality, I loved Luciano (Pavarotti n.n.), I met them all, I loved and admired them… Later, when I met them, we used to exchange performances, you know? They sang 2-3 times, then I sang a few, then again them… And I talked with them, as they were high quality people. Corelli had already left when I arrived at the Met, he was a very nervous guy and he retired pretty early. And I thought I was the most nervous one, but Corelli was even more nervous than me. (he laughs n.n.)

Carlo Bergonzi? I met him personally, once at the Met and once at a gala, in Vienna, I do not remember exactly. But Bergonzi was like a teacher on the stage, he had an extraordinary phrasing, he was a cultivated man. But, honestly, I did not like the quality of his voice, one can like or dislike this. I liked high quality voices, Corelli, del Monaco, di Stefano, Jussi Björling… Jussi Björling! I liked him very much.

Despre Opera: When I first heard you, in Simon Boccanegra, I had the impression that you timbre reminded of Corelli.

Vasile Moldoveanu: I know, everybody compared me to Corelli or Martinelli. Maybe some sounds are similar, sometimes the timber of the voice, the position in which you sing, etc. Maybe I was more similar to him than to others. Others told me, at the beginning, that I sounded like Björling, it also depends on the ear of the listener.

Despre Opera: Have you ever refused an important role? The typical example is Otello – still, I heard a recording with Giuseppe di Stefano, the type of lyric tenor who avoids this type of roles. He sang this role only a few times, but he tried it and the result was  good. Pavarotti, too, sang it once. Were there any other roles you turned down?

Vasile Moldoveanu: Maybe, but I had my counsellors. When I premiered with Manon Lescaut, in Europe, in Stuttgart, the director was Giancarlo del Monaco. His father, Mario, was still alive. He came to the opera, we had lunch and he told me one thing: “Vasile, take care, if you start singing Otello, this is not good. I made the same mistake and I gave up three quarters of the repertoire I used to sing before, I just could not sing anything else.” It is like a barytone tessitura, one must force. Maybe Domingo, with his musicality and intelligence, managed to do this, even if his voice was not adequate for Otello when he started singing this role. To tell you the truth, I was scared… At that moment, I sang a lot of Manon Lescaut, Tosca, La bohème, and I couldn’t have sung any of them after Otello. Good bye Turandot, good bye Tosca… These were the roles I sang the most and with great success…

Well, Mario del Monaco had no rival in this role, he was extraordinary! I also talked with his wife, she was a canto professor in Monaco, and she told me the same thing: “Be careful with Otello! Otello… one must be too passionate about this opera to sing it, because it makes your acute notes disappear… “

I did not do it. With or without Otello…

Another proposal was Lohengrin, but I had the examples of some other tenors who had sung Lohengrin and then… nothing else. So, these were the two main proposals: Wagner and Otello, and I refused them saying I was a lyric tenor,  and I didn’t sing Wagner…

Don Carlo

Despre Opera: How do you see the character? Did you have any revelation when you read the score and the libretto of this opera?  What impressed you in this character, besides the technical details?

 Vasile Moldoveanu: I fell in love with this character from the very beginning and I also had the chance to meet some people who guided me very well – I sang it in Hamburg, under the direction of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who was a dreamer and coordinated me with extreme beauty. From the musical point of view, I was highly trained for this part by Kubelik, for the version in five parts, including Fontainebleau. Therefore, after my first Don Carlo sung at the Met, they offered me a five year contract.

At first, I fell in love with the beauty of the music, of the musical phrases, they are unique! And with the complexity of the characters, for instance, Don Carlo: love, friendship, faithfulness, at the same time a fighter and a very frail man. And this was due probably to his age, too: when I was 19, me too I fell in love every week! For the rehearsals for Don Carlo, we came with love to the opera, we loved him as an opera character.

But not all tenors loved Don Carlo. The opera is gloomy and it is not a hobby-horse for the tenor. You sing like a madman with everybody, but in the end the glory goes to Posa, or to Ella giammai m’amo, the bass, or then to the soprano’s final aria, everybody, but not the tenor. You cannot expect an enormous success as a tenor, but the role is so beautiful that you forget about success.

Despre Opera: But Don Carlo has an aria just for himself, at Fontainebleau, “Io la vidi…”

Vasile Moldoveanu: Yes, you are right, but it is not Tosca, or Aida, or Turandot, it is just an aria that goes unnoticed many times. Don Carlo is a profound opera, and I adored it.

Despre Opera: I must confess that I prefer your DVD with Don Carlo to the one with Placido Domingo, partly because the duos with Posa are better, your partner is Sherill Milnes, who is much better than Louis Quilico.

Vasile Moldoveanu: Yes, Milnes has been a very important   interpreter. Well, we were also good friends and this helped us a little. We admired each other. He came to Romania for a recital, in the ‘90s.


Despre Opera: Did you make any connection between the character and your memories from Constața, your life near the harbor, etc?

Vasile Moldoveanu: I loved Il Tabarro enormously, because I  simply projected myself in the past, I was the young man in Constanța, the one who visited the harbor…

Of course, there is a relationship with the memories from my childhood, my father who worked in the harbor and often took me with him, I spent time on the tug boats, my father had friends among the tug boats captains, and I loved all this, the atmosphere in the harbor. All that loading-unloading activity fascinated me, I used to sit for hours and watch foreign ships… Of course this influenced me!

And then, when you sing with Renata (Scotto n.n.), you sublimate, you start trying and being at the level of these great artists, like she was. Her Lucia di Lamermoor was unique!

Despre Opera: Even though Il Tabarro is a short opera, in just one act, Puccini outlined the characters in detail, in the libretto but mainly in the music he composed. For Luigi, the final touches, those of jealousy, passion, violence, are added in the duo with Giorgetta. At the end of this duo, you sang with such passion and“commitment”, as we rarely see on an opera stage. The audience burst into applause after “folle di gelosia”, almost like a release after so much dramatic tension accumulated during the duo. How do you see Luigi here? What made you sing this way,  as the Americans put it,“like there was no tomorrow”?

Vasile Moldoveanu: Yes, yes, yes… You must know this is   so hard, it is terrible… It is very difficult from the vocal point of view… Maybe it’s Constanța… There was something happening in my soul during that performance, this is clear. You know, at the Met, people used to call me Luigi, not Vasile.

But it also depends on the audience, on the night… I sang with all my soul, this is sure, but Domingo, too, this is why he is so appreciated. Luciano had that superb voice, but he was colder on stage. The figure did not help him, he gained a lot of weight lately, but his voice was superb, his performances were a delight. I saw  Un Ballo in maschera with Pavarotti, Nucci and Aprile Millo, and his voice could be heard like a trumpet, over the orchestra, everywhere, distinct, clear, luminous, like a sun. Domingo had a very beautiful voice, with a strong timber, but he did not have that sun like Pavarotti, none of us had it…

Gabriele Adorno

Despre Opera: Who is this Gabriele Adorno?

Vasile Moldoveanu: In fact, I sang Simon Boccanegra later. I think this was the penultimate premiere at the Met, before Madama Butterfly. It was directed by Tito Capobianco, who  had been an actor at Hollywood. There, he used to replace a great actor, George Mistral, when this one played with Maria Felix. But he gave up movies and became an opera director. I will be honest – I did not feel close to Simon Boccanegra. I loved the music, it is so beautiful! An aria, a duo, yes, but I could not find in this opera the depths of Don Carlo.

And then I fell in love with verismo. I started with Manon Lescaut, Il Tabarro, La bohème and I fell in love with the beauty of the phrases… The verismo transposes reality on stage, it is everyday life on stage. When I sang Cavalleria rusticana at the Met, I was the happiest man in the world! I loved all these roles very much, but the closest to my heart was Des Grieux, to my heart and my temperament. At the same time, my greatest success on stage was in Manon Lescaut, even though it does not exist on video. I even made some recordings with this opera in Romania, and at the Met it was a broadcast. I sang the role almost all around the world.

Simon Boccanegra is a beautiful opera, the music is wonderful, the action is exciting. But the baritone gets the entire attention. Sure, Gabriele Adorno is an interesting role, but I was at the end of my career. I sang it at the Met and at Monte Carlo, but I did not love it very much.

The years have passed…. (he sighs n.n)

Despre Opera: Yes, it’s true, but you have the telecasts from the Met, they are a legacy, even though you do not sing any more, you have these extraordinary images. In fact, there are very few Romanian interpreters who have such recordings, I do not know any Romanian tenor or baritone to have at least one DVD from the Met. Sopranos have a better position, for instance, Angela Gheorghiu…

Vasile Moldoveanu: Angela Gheorghiu… when I heard her sing, I felt for the first time in my life sorry for getting old. She is so beautiful and she sings wonderfully… She has it all!

As for being acknowledged in Romania… This is an old problem in Romania, and it won’t disappear soon. No one is a prophet in their own land. I am not angry or sad. I do not know if I deserved more attention than I got.

I have been a discreet person for 45 years. There was a life-or-death fight, critics were merciless. One day you had a good article in the New York Times, the next day they destroyed your entire career in the New York Post. And this happened to everybody. I could not fight this battle, I did not have the strength to do it. I had already lived the war,  the poverty, the communism, when I left Romania I did not have the nerves of a young man who would fight the entire world. I was like all Romanians, an oppressed.

Before 1989, people did not know a lot about me, and maybe the people in music did not want to know a lot. I was supposed to be in prison, so by talking about me they would have recognized their mistake…

Despre Opera: Is there any tenor today who reminds you of your youth at the Met? I will give you some names: Kaufmann? Villazon? Calleja? What do you think about them?

Vasile Moldoveanu:  I have stayed away from the opera lately. But from what I hear, on TV or in recordings, the only tenor who has a confident voice and a good school is, in my opinion, Alagna. Of course, he is not very young any more, but he is very good.

This is all…

Despre Opera: Thank you very much! Soon, on the 6th of  October, you celebrate your birthday. I wish you “Happy birthday!”

Vasile Moldoveanu:  Thank you!

Some videos from Vasile Moldovenu’s telecasts from the Metropolitan Opera:

Câteva secvențe video:

Don Carlo: Fontainebleau!

Don Carlo: Dio, che nell’alma infondere

Don Carlo: Autodafe

Don CarloMa lassu ci vedremo

Il Tabarro: Hai ben raggione

Il Tabarro: O Luigi, Luigi

Il Tabarro: Folle di gelosia

Simon Boccanegra: Sento avvampar

Simon Boccanegra: Vieni a mirar

Simon Boccanegra: Tu qui? Amelia!

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