Ferruccio Furlanetto in Concert

OA-Ferruccio-Furlanetto-photo-by-Igor-SacharovIn between a season just completed as Arkel in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in Los Angeles and as Don Alfonso in Mozart’s Così fan tutte in Muscat next month, acclaimed Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto touched down in Melbourne for an intimate recital on Saturday evening at Elizabeth Murdoch Hall. 

About to celebrate his 74th birthday, Furlanetto shows no signs of slowing down and his ability to beguile an audience with his lush and deeply resonant, tobacco-timbred instrument continued. 

Showcasing his rich character-driven vocal treasure that reached into the depths of a soul, asserted with authoritative ease or occasionally flirted with his audience, Furlanetto demonstrated impressive form alongside Russian accompanist Natalia Sidorenko.

It was wonderful to welcome him back to the city after his imposing Opera Australia concert appearance in the title role of Boito’s Mefistofele last May. A scheduled recital shortly after was cancelled but, almost a year later, the calendar has been memorably marked with the same intended program.

The first half began with a landscape of affecting songs by Brahms, Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov, followed in the second half by a full-blooded immersion into hefty bass arias from The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Don Quichotte, Boris Godunov and Don Carlo.

Furlanetto began the evening in commanding form with the heavy air that Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121, brought – four songs on the theme of the transience of life based on text from the Lutheran Bible. 

Matching the meditations, pain and reverence the songs impart, Furlanetto paced his performance calmly behind the music stand, often with arms crossed and head down. With such seemingly natural ability to bind mind and text with sublime vocal incisiveness and shading, one could’ve been convinced Furlanetto himself was afflicted with the pain embedded in the music. 

With the captivating air of a speaker at his lectern, Furlanetto generated notes with assured control while exploring the full range and colour of his voice. The third song, O Tod, wie bitter bist duparticularly stood out for the relaxed and heartfelt account given of death’s contrast for those who have and those who have not, a song Schoenberg considered the greatest lieder even written. 

Mussorgsky’s four-song cycle followed, Songs of Dance and Death, composed in the mid-1870s and considered to be his masterpiece in the genre. For each of the dark-hued and individualistic songs of the sadness and horror of death which arrives in various forms, Furlanetto sang in signature enigmatic storytelling style and swathes of chromatically diverse beauty.

Culminating in The Field Marshall, a battlefield setting in which Death gruesomely assures that all memory of the fallen will disappear, the fluidity and fire in Furlanetto’s interpretation, moving  from beastly to near-angelic with remarkable adroitness, became the first half’s highlight.

For the following three Rachmaninoff songs, O stay, my love, forsake me not, Op. 4, No. 1, In the silent night, Op. 4, No. 3 and Spring Waters, Op. 14, No. 11, Furlanetto established an immediate connection to the spirit of the songs, extracting their nuance and colour as he occasionally stood to the side of the piano, leaning a hand on it to take the weight of an impassioned narrator until the powerful soaring finale of Spring Waters.

After interval, a sample of roles Furlanetto has stamped his mark on in all the major opera houses came to life in theatrical perfection and  psychologically rich interpretation. For lovers of opera familiar with the stories, Furlanetto immediately captured his characters’ purpose and circumstances while painting the bigger picture of a single aria.

The three Mozart arias trace Furlanetto’s early career emphasis – despite having started with Verdi and verismo Italian bass roles – after having been inspired by his idol Cesare Siepi and to whom Furlanetto credits his vocal longevity.

As a sagacious high priest (Sarastro from The Magic Flute), an unfaithful count (Count Almaviva from The Marriage of Figaro) and an exploited servant (Leporello from Don Giovanni), Furlanetto not only demonstrated his expertise in morphing from one character to the next in quick succession, but brought a subtle uniqueness to their musical expression only experience and expertise can provide. The music stand became more of a prop with Furlanetto obviously in his element personifying his characters about it. 

Two magnificently contrasting death scenes followed. In the first, from Massenet’s Don Quichotte, Furlanetto brilliantly evoked the title character’s hallucinatory final vision of seeing a bright star and hears Dulcinée’s voice. In the second, from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a rivetingly aching, burning and penetrating rendition became the overall highlight of the evening as Furlanetto dug deep into already remarkably mined reserves for Boris’ warning to his son of dark forces after he collapses and begs God to protect his children.

For the finale, Furlanetto performed the heartbreaking aria, Ella giammai m’amò from Verdi’s Don Carlos. As King Philip of Spain, Furlanetto delivered a devastating portrayal of a an ageing man who has taken a young wife his son is in love with. The smooth, clear tonal quality and perfect diction combined with passages of prayerful introspection and bursts of overwhelming emotion indeed reflected a role he has been performing for a staggering 40-plus years.

Both Furlanetto and Sidorenko gave the impression of a profound knowledge of the music. Sidorenko’s dexterity and touch at the Steinway felt as wide-ranging and intricately shaded as Furlanetto’s vocal instrument and their partnership set the mood superbly – a generally weighty one at that in which infinite colour and texture were drawn upon.

From German to Russian and Italian to French, Furlanetto flipped fluently from one to the other. Nevertheless, it could have benefited if summarised titles were projected. And while he has been unafraid to try something new, there was no English on this occasion. Given the program, it is hard to imagine that in 2009 he took on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific

But that’s not what the audience came for. A fearsome encore of Aleko’s Cavatina from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko ended the night with heaving sinister tones and the brilliance of Rachmaninoff’s rich piano writing. Melbourne would love to welcome you back again, Ferruccio! 

Ferruccio Furlanetto in Concert
Melbourne Recital Centre, Corner Sturt Street & Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Performance: Saturday 22 April 2023 – 7:30pm

Ferruccio Furlanetto in Concert will be presented at Sydney’s City Recital Hall on Thursday 27 April. For more information, visit: www.opera.org.au for details.

Image: Ferruccio Furlanetto – photo by Igor Sacharov

Review: Paul Selar