Murray Dahm profiles David Parkin, Il Trovatore and basses

July 17, 2022 by Murray Dahm
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Not long into my interview with bass David Parkin, we discovered a mutual admiration of the great Italian bass Cesare Siepi (1923-1910).

David Parkin

I was even able to tell David about a wonderful recording he did not know about (of the character Marcel’s Lutheran hymn “Seigneur, rampart et seul soutien” from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots). Things, therefore, evolved into a discussion of all things bass. Parkin, who takes on the role of Ferrando in Opera Australia’s production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (15-30 July). Famously, the great Italian tenor said that all you need for Il Trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world. This, Caruso meant to apply to the characters of Manrico, Leonora, Azucena, and the Conte di Luna – Ferrando is missed out in these four (we quipped that Caruso meant to say five greatest singers in the world). In the past the was sung by great singers too (such as the sublime Ezio Pinza; I sang the opera with Conal Coad in the 1990s).  He is also a vital character (at least for the audience), giving us much of the necessary (and complex) back story to the opera. And he sings a great deal (indeed, he opens the show) – the singing is “diabolically difficult” – the weight of a Verdi bass but who is required to sing coloratura.

What initially attracted Verdi to the story was the two women – he had intended to name the opera after Azucena. The opera was based on the 1836 Spanish play El trovador by Antonio García Gutiérrez with a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano (although he died before the opera was finished). This, therefore, presents something of a mystery. The play had not been translated into Italian, and Verdi did not read Spanish. He may have got the play through his lover Giuseppina Strepponi (she had been the first Abigaille in Nabucco in 1842). She began living with Verdi by 1847 at the latest, although the two would not marry until 1859 – they, therefore, represented a somewhat scandalous couple in rural Busetto where they lived for most of that period. Verdi’s relationship with Strepponi can also be reflected in several of his operas where love is the most important facet, not morals, what society thinks or its mores. The importance of love over status and convention can be seen in operas such as La traviata and, yes, Il Trovatore where Leonora loves the gypsy Manrico over the possessive and violent affection of the conte di Luna. It would seem that it was Giuseppina Strepponi who found the play and may have suggested it as an opera (she may even have translated it). We find Verdi calling it ‘our’ Trovatore.

Parkin has sung Ferrando before, in 2014 with Western Australian Opera so returns to the role. This is a new production directed by Davide Livermore, with sets by Giò Forma and costumes designed by Giuanluca Falaschi. It is also a production that will incorporate the fourteen moving digital LED panels as has been seen in recent productions such as Madama Butterfly and Aida. Here the digital content will be by entertainment design company D-Wok who have worked with Livermore before and incorporating illustrations by Francesco Calcagnini. Parkin is used to the panels (having been the king in Aida and the Bonze in Butterfly) but here, in addition to the panels, is a giant revolve the full width of the stage (in fact, a doughnut revolve (a second revolve inside the first)) and some major set pieces – all the stops have been pulled. The panels are capable of great variety and although Parkin considers himself a “theatrical purist”, their use is evolving. Certainly, the use of the panels in this year’s revival of Madama Butterfly were breathtakingly effective. The panels are also solid walls so good to sing next to! The complexity of several of the scenes in Il Trovatore are even made easier with the panels (outside the nunnery/inside the nunnery, prison/castle). The setting has been updated from fifteenth century Spain to the period of the Spanish Civil War (a popular period for operatic updates). We shall see whether this update provides more understanding to the original context of the opera – who today understands the context of King Martin of Aragon – although the contorted family trees of Spanish nobility vying for the thrones is certainly part of the story.

We have already seen Parkin this year in Madama Butterfly and Halevy’s La Juive (in previous seasons, he has done as many as four roles at once). I complimented his performance in the latter, including his management of the staircase. He told me that he did, in fact, miss a step on opening night (I did not notice), but this led to an enlightening discussion of what to do when things go wrong on stage (as they so often do, in spite of every endeavour). “All sorts of things go wrong all the time, and one of the great lessons of being a singer is just don’t stop” – meaning keep performing and people will often not be able to tell that something went wrong in the first place – they will assume that the ‘mistake’ was a deliberate part of the performance. When words go wrong (as they sometimes do when you are singing foreign language) you keep singing – Parkin’s word is ‘schmearing’ the phrase until you get it back on track (based on the German schmear “to spread”).

When we talked roles and repertoire, we lamented that “poor basses” have to sing almost everything today – there are no longer types of bass (basso cantante, basso profundo, bass martin) – these days a bass is expected to singe the entire bass repertoire. Yes, there are bass-baritones but often they are expected to sing bass roles too. But there need to be nuances of timbre. In Don Giovanni, for instance, the bass voices of Leporello, the Commendatore and Don Giovanni are (and must be) different. Today, we are going through a trend of giving the role of Don Giovanni to a baritone but from the 1930s-1960s, the two greatest Don Giovannis were basses – Ezio Pinza and Cesare Siepi). Parkin admits that “The opera that made me want to become an opera singer was Don Giovanni, and that was before my voice had even broken and I just saw Donald Shanks sing the Commendatore; and I thought “oh my goodness, that’s amazing”; he ripped apart the set with the power of his voice.” Similarly, the basses of Philip II and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos or Pimen and Boris in Boris Godunov must feel different. We then finished our discussion gushing about our mutual admiration of Cesare Siepi – Parkin aims to get a bracelet that says ‘what would Siepi do.’ Having as great a singer as Siepi as a role model for his career, Parkin is in safe hands, or if I may, in safe voice.

Editor’s note:

“revolve” is the part of a stage that revolves

“mores” “the essential or characteristic customs and conventions of a society or community.

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