Basso Buffo Paolo
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
The Italian bass Paolo Montarsolo (1925 - 2006) enriched
side of opera throughout the second half of the twentieth century,
first with performances of "buffo" roles, and later through his
direction of works he loved. He was known throughout the world
from live performances, and his artistry continues to be on display in
recordings and videos.
With Lyric Opera of Chicago, he made is debut in 1958 as Don Basilio in
The Barber of Seville (with Tito Gobbi and Giulietta Simionato).
[Names which are links refer to my
Interviews elsewhere on my website.] In later seasons he
returned as Don Magnifico in Cenerentola
Valentini-Terrani, 1976), Geronete in Manon Lescaut and Basilio (this
time with Richard
Stilwell, directed by Gobbi, 1977),
the quack Doctor Dulcamara in L'Elisir
d'Amore (1981), and as the stage director of Don Pasquale in 1995.
It was during 1981 that we met on a day between
performances. He was gregarious and energetic, and very
enthusiastic about what he
was saying. There was much laughter, but he was also concerned
that his ideas were being
communicated since he was speaking in English, which was, of course,
excellent. He peppered his responses with a few simple Italian
words which he knew I would understand, and even paid me a very nice
compliment on my Italian pronunciation by saying, "You
pronounce not like an American usually pronounces Italian; it is almost
like an American who lived in Italy."
As is the case with boisterous and wide-ranging conversations, he often
got side-tracked and mentioned ideas or details as they came to his
memory. Some of these have been left in this text as they
happened, and a few times I have gathered the topics together and
placed the interjections at more appropriate places . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: How much
does it affect your performance when you
with colleagues that you've worked with before?
Paolo Montarsolo: There
is a great
importance, especially for the character in the buffo operas of Rossini
— The Barber
of Seville, L'Italiana in
— and this case Donizetti, L'Elisir d'Amore or Don Pasquale; all
the character things. There
must be a real sympathy between the females and the males of the
company. It must be a sympathy more than the usual
sympathy. Otherwise, everything will stop; it will not
go forward. We must like each other.
BD: This is more
important in comedy
than in tragedy or drama?
PM: Sure. In Verdi, the
action on the
stage is quite limited. You can stand there singing those
beautiful arias; it is fantastic music,
but the action is really not very, very important. In the
comedies, if you have to do an action — if
you run around a table, just to show an example —
partner in the opera, if she is your wife or fiancée
or lover, must really act like I am
going to take her. Do you understand? It's quite difficult
BD: It's the comedic
PM: Yes, the
timing! But the timing comes out strange
depending on the sympathy and how much we like each other. It is
know each other. Here in Chicago, we began the rehearsals and
there is this lovely singer, Isobel Buchanan,
who is doing
Adina. [Also in the cast were Carlo Bergonzi,
and Dale Duesing.]
We were redoing the production made by
Chazalettes a few years ago, and there was an assistant who
was resetting everything. I thought that surely the assistant
will follow all that he wrote down in the production book, but I said,
"We are other singers now. This is another company with other
feeling, other sympathy, other
everything. I understand that it is important to follow
the main movements and the main things, because
the production must remain of Chazalettes. But if we feel
something new — a
little breathing more or less — why not?"
So with this lovely
girl, you know the
importance to meet and to know each other. I have a terrible
defect... I have everything on my
tongue, as we say in Italy. It means that all what I think I must
say; I'm not very clever at hiding what I think. So suddenly,
while doing the duet between Dulcamara and
Adina, I gave to her my hands to be
taken by her! But she remained straight
without taking my hands because it was not in the
prepared-action. It just came out like that, but she
did not reply. So I stopped the rehearsal and said, "Please,
know each other. Understand that Paolo Montarsolo, just because
has a little gray hair does not feel to be a genius or to know
everything; no! It is only that if I give to you my hands to be
taken, take them even if it is not written in the
production-book!" That's a kind of education. From when
we are young singers, we are taught that you must
follow all of what the director says, and not to do one comma more or
less. One thinks and believes that this is the truth. No!
BD: You have to be
yourself and bring more to it.
PM: Bravo! This is why I insist
it is better
to know each other and to love each other. If I knew one of the
many singers with whom I have
already played, they know that they must follow. For instance,
the joke of the spaghetti is
mine. This is really mine. I did it the first time in San
Francisco and also at La Scala, and it is always quite funny because
this duet is quite difficult to feel as regards
the action. So the spaghetti gives the
opportunity to give the impression that Nemorino is so insisting
with Dulcamara that he says, "This
man is ruining me!"
BD: Then the audience is
more in sympathy
with you, because you're more in sympathy with the others on the stage!
PM: Bravissimo!! This is the
secret. Think of all the
things we did at La Scala with Claudio Abbado,
including the famous
Cenerentola by Jean-Pierre
Ponnelle. We have just done the
film in Vienna, and it was recorded
with the Orchestra of La Scala and Abbado conducting. We finished
just before coming here in Chicago, and I
think Ponnelle is very happy. But for Cenerentola, Italiana in
Algeri, Barber of Seville,
we were a group. There was Teresa
Sciutti, many singers, and we were all in many operas
together. Someone of the audience said to me, "I saw that you
were enjoying it," and they say the truth! We must enjoy.
imagine how many tricks and little jokes go on during the
BD: In the Barber, are
you Bartolo or Basilio?
PM: Basilio. Now I
always do Basilio, but I did many times
BD: Is there any problem
going from one to the other
— do you
occasionally sing the wrong recitative?
PM: It can happen, but I
must say it's so
clear now in the mind. Sometimes, especially in the concertati —
ensembles — you can have
the will to sing the line of the other one! [Both laugh] I
remember when we did premiere of the production of The
Barber of Seville at La Scala — also,
we opened the
season in '76 with Italiana in Algeri
— and the feeling among
us was not less
serious. We remained serious and professional, but happy and full
of joy to do this work, and to try to amuse the public.
BD: Do you find it
easier to amuse the public in Italy because
you're singing in Italian, as opposed to here in Chicago where the
language is going to be lost on many of us? [Note:
was before the era of Supertitles in the theater!]
PM: [With a big smile on
his face] In general when I do an
interview, I know when the questions are well put. Often the
questions by people who do the
interview can be good, deep, and sometimes not good, not deep.
This is a very nice question.
BD: [Almost blushing] Mille
PM: [Patting the
interviewer's hand like a proud papa] Prego. Let me preface my
answer with this... When I give advice to young singers,
especially for the foreign
singers — Americans and so
on — I say, "When you will
be singer, you will earn money almost for 80 or 90
percent with the Italian language because almost all the operas done
now in the world are Italian." So I tell them to learn
Italian very early. Why? Because you can enter
into the meaning of the words much better than if you know only a
general meaning of what you say.
BD: And you'll also have
a better rapport with your colleagues!
So now to answer your nice question, surely you can
imagine when the text jokes really on the words, in
Italy they can understand better. I can tell you a famous phrase
in Cenerentola. When
the stepfather, Don
Magnifico (the part I am doing) has the duet with Dandini, Dandini says
to him, "I am not the prince
as you thought. I am a false prince; I am only the
servant." Then he goes on in an ambiguous manner, "You will see
something strange." So I look aside and say, "Does he want to
marry me instead of my daughter???" [Both laugh] So you can
important this sentence is if it is understood or
not by the audience. If it is understood,
surely there will be a laugh!
BD: Of course!
PM: When we went on tour
with La Scala
— it was a beautiful tour to
Moscow, Washington, London, Vienna, Edinburgh — every
time we performed
this Cenerentola, I tried to
say this phrase in the language of the country. So I said this in
Russian in Moscow and in English
in London and in Washington because this sentence cannot be understood
by people who don't know
objection] Ponnelle let you say it in the
PM: Ehhhh... not in the
[Much laughter all around] Not in the first performance, because
we give to
the first performance an importance in which everything must be just
right, and the critics are looking for the possibility to write
something. But going on in the later performances, I did
this. Abbado is here in Chicago now doing concerts with the
Symphony, and I went to watch this beautiful orchestra. He
reminded me of when I threw to him my wig. At the end
of an aria, Don Magnifico is very out of spirits because
something has gone wrong. So during rehearsal, I finished the
and instead of throwing my wig on the stage, as I
should do, I threw it to the conductor. He took it! He
didn't put on, but he was so nice that
he said, "Why don't you do it also in the performance?" So I did
Edinburgh, and the public, as you can
imagine, went [imitates the sound made by a wildly surprised
audience] "Ahhhh!" [Again, much laughter all around]
BD: You have to be
careful it doesn't get caught on a bassoon or
a double bass!
PM: Right! It was
the professors of the orchestra! [Chuckles] But going back
to the question, I must say I
admire very much the foreign public — the
German public, the American
public, like here — because
if they don't
understand everything, they follow so well. I don't
know how they can do it, but really they laugh in the right moment;
they follow like they know Italian. This is the preparation that
sometimes we, in
Italy, have not done. We go to the theater to watch an opera, but
we follow with our ear. Here, just because they don't know the
language, maybe they read the libretto; they want to know. In
this manner, they can follow better. I must say, I consider the
American public one of the best publics in
the world, just like the German one. First of all
there is no claque. We
have in Italy the claque,
people who are there
just to begin the applause and to take all the public with
them. In Germany or here, this thing doesn't exist at all.
BD: Is the claque still
really bad in Italy?
PM: Yes. I'm sorry
to say so, but it
depends also from the public. It is the feeling of the
public, and it is the manner how the public goes to the theater to
watch and hear an opera. In Italy they go and they enjoy, but
they are shy, especially at La Scala. The
atmosphere which is going on at La Scala and in La Piccola
Scala is a little
cold because they are in this beautiful temple of art and of
feel this to be at La Scala. So often the public is afraid.
BD: There's a reverence
for these theaters?
PM: Right, there is a
reverence, and often they are afraid to
begin an applause. I am afraid because people can look at me and
"What are you doing? It's not a moment," and the one near
me is thinking the same thing, so nobody moves. So I think it is
a little necessary that someone can begin the applause. At La
Piccola Scala in
the '60s and '70s we did beautiful, fantastic performances of
Cimarosa, Pergolesi, Scarlatti and Mozart chamber
operas. I remember the cold, strange feeling because it is the
manner of how one can be free in ourselves to find the courage to
attack the applause. That is why in Italy it is difficult for the
audience and terrible for the singers because, as you can imagine,
after an aria that was well sung and you know that it was good, you
don't feel any hand going on.
BD: Do you only sing
PM: Well, yes. I began
when I won the national scholarship
in the '50s for the La Scala School with a serious aria from Don Carlos, Filippo Secondo, "Ella
giammai m'amò." But when we
were at the school, they had the idea to do a company called I Cadetti della Scala (The Cadets
of La Scala). We were doing all these 17th and 18th century
operas of Cimarosa and others, and in general the bass is a
buffo. I was in that moment the only bass at the
school and they said, "Do you want to try to see if you could do this
that moment I remember the very first time we did an opera by
Cherubini, L'osteria portoghese
(The Portuguese Inn). It has beautiful music,
and we were very young and I had immediately a great success. I
remember today the compliments of the director of La Scala. At
that time it was Ghiringhelli, the famous director, and he came to me
"Montarsolo, complimenti vivissimi."
It was special to have these
words coming from him to a pupil of the school.
BD: Was your production
in the big theater or in the Piccola
PM: [With pride]
In the big theater! Yes, it was done
in the big theater, and you can
imagine the feeling. But from that moment,
everyone said, "You were at home on the stage; you were
enjoying yourself." This has followed me for all my
career; it means that I enjoy. This is important, and the
public understands that I enjoy my part, and they enjoy, also.
BD: We enjoy it with you!
BD: Would you sing any
roles now at all? If they ask you to sing Filippo Secondo, would
you do it?
PM: I can! Why
not? Really I
can, but agents and theaters, when they do a cast of an opera,
they like to be sure that it will be a singer who will have success in
BD: Are there fewer
singers who can have success with comedy than
PM: The comedy is more
difficult than tragedy. Doing both
is impossible. I must say, it is very important today to
specialize ourselves in something. You cannot do everything well;
that is impossible. You should be only something great, really
great. But in general I
can tell you that the passage from the buffo and
the character parts to the serious parts is easier than from
the serious parts to the buffo parts. This is strange because if
are an artist, a great artist inside of you, you do buffo parts but
you can do also a serious thing. On the contrary, if you do
serious parts... [Pauses to think how to phrase this idea]
BD: [Picking up on his
doesn't guarantee that you would have the comic timing!
PM: Bravo, bravissimo! Often it's
not sure that you are
a great artist when doing the serious parts, but when they try to
a buffo part, you perceive immediately if the talent is inside
or not. We have to be born with this talent of
buffo. It must be inside of us; otherwise you cannot build
it. You can develop it, but not really invent it.
BD: How do you keep a
buffo character from becoming slapstick?
PM: Another fine
question. This, I can tell you,
what you feel, or what you have inside of you. As an example, I
was doing Leporello in Glyndebourne in '68 or
'69, and in the meantime, very near, in Covent
Garden in London, there was another Don
Giovanni with another
Leporello. So in one newspaper, the critic wrote the review for
both the productions. Very modestly, I had the satisfaction
because I knew what was going on with the other
singer, my colleague who was doing Leporello in Covent
Garden. Often, as you say, there is the danger to do
things for easy laughs, to play to the gallery. The critic said,
"We saw in Montarsolo how human he
was." If the public laughed just because of the situation, I love
this. One has to be very careful not to do gags, especially now
that I am directing many productions myself. I have now and in
many things to do including Cenerentola
and Don Pasquale, but in the
meantime I am singing the roles; I am not doing only directing.
BD: Do you direct
productions where you also sing?
PM: Yes, and for the
moment I must continue to sing.
Directing is more difficult because the spoken language is more tiring
than the singing. They are very far apart, as far as the position
in the throat. For instance, now I am speaking, and this is
me more than if I would sing.
BD: This is why I didn't
want to meet with you before a performance.
PM: Yes, thank
you. Speaking is hard in general, and here I am forced to speak
in a foreign language. My English is not so good, but at least I
get me understood. No?
[Enthusiastically] Oh yes, you're doing very well!
PM: But when I do my
directions, I am avoiding, especially for the buffo
things, all the gags invented for laughs. One of the operas in
everything has been done is The
Barber of Seville.
Everything! And just because everything has been done,
now my Basilio is really straight; I don't do anything.
sadness] No umbrella??? No nothing???
PM: No. No
umbrella because it's not necessary for
this great part, and for this fantastic aria, La calunnia.
BD: Do you sing that in
D or in C?
PM: In D. Yes, in
the original tone. It was a little
shock that Abbado gave it to me. We were doing our Barber in Salzburg for the first
time, and had done this aria for many years one tone down, in
C, when he suddenly says, "Paolo, surely you do it
in D!" I said, [incredulously] "What???"
BD: That key takes you
up to an F-sharp!
PM: Yes! For us,
even to go up a quarter of a tone is something, so you can
imagine one full tone! Well, he said to me, "Paolo, try," and it
very well. The recording on Deutsche Grammophon is in D, and also
the film is in D. Now I do it that way every time. Soon I
am doing the Barber at the
Metropolitan in New York. I will do only the last six
performances because during the first performances I am in Naples doing
Cenerentola, and after that I
direct Cenerentola in the
Canary Islands. There is a good
season there. But right now I am waiting for a reply from the Met
about doing my aria in the original tone. For me there is a great
BD: Is it better in D?
PM: Much better, just
for the tonality. That is why Rossini chose that tonality.
He choose this D major which is brilliant, which
BD: Putting it in C
makes it much darker.
PM: Yes, it is darker
and a little sadder. That is why, when I direct, I like to do
what was written in the libretto by the authors, by the
librettist. Why? Just for this. In general, the habit
change just to change, and I hate this.
BD: What about the fact
that Ponnelle is one that a lot of
people scream about because of his changing so many things in his
PM: It's a pity, because
especially for this
Cenerentola, he did a great
very glad because really, this
Cenerentola will be not done
again forever. This is my opinion. It is something very
important to say
BD: It's the ultimate?
PM: I think so because
he really got to the center of the work.
BD: Did he do it as it
is written, with everything that is in
PM: Yes. He used
the score and also he
imagined the scene with so intelligent manner. I know that
changes things. In general, I hate the
flashback. For instance, in Traviata
I know that sometimes during the introduction you see Violetta already
dying on the bed. I say it is useless, completely useless to fill
the introductions and the overtures. I hate this; I don't know
author asked for the introduction and the overtures.
BD: It seems like the director
feels there has to be something visual going on!
PM: Yes! Maybe it
is just to explain what will happen!
BD: I wonder, is that
the fault of the public expecting too
much because of watching so many films and so much television?
PM: Yes, you are right,
just for this we must be careful because the eyes and the ears of the
public have become better and better. They see better; they hear
better. So I say let's do
something good, something which can be appreciated by them, and not
to be stupid in the buffo parts just to get
laughs. [Montarsolo begins musing on a very dramatic
situation] In Don Pasquale,
Norina, the girl who pretends to be a wife to Don Pasquale, gives him a
terrible slap. In this moment the public immediately has a
strange is the reaction of public. I don't know why they laugh
moment is quite dramatic. She
says to him, "I am going to the theater!" He protests and she
gives this slap. One second after this little laugh
public — and this is very important —
I want them to realize how this poor man is
really feeling. He is about 70 years old and a lifelong bachelor,
and now he wants to be happy with this
woman. How sad is the situation.
BD: There you are a
PM: Right! I must
say this strange little laugh comes
always and I don't know why. Maybe they
imagine that the reaction of Don Pasquale could be terrible or could be
funny, so they begin to laugh.
No! The moment is dramatic. Right after the slap is a
fantastic duet in which I say, nearly crying, "It's the finish of Don
Pasquale. I will go to the river and I will throw myself
in." In the audience there is a deep silence.
BD: Everyone is startled
by that, and all of a sudden they have this empty feeling. I've
experienced that feeling when Lyric Opera has done this work.
PM: Yes, yes. But
as I told you, the public is
getting better and better to understand everything. Going back to
the buffo operas, they
understand when you
do things just to be funny, just to get laughs, rather than when you
are real comic.
BD: Being a real comic
is an art, and you do it very well.
PM: No, I am not saying
that I am doing this, but I
try. I try.
BD: Thank you very much
for all that you have given us, and for speaking with me today!
PM: It was a pleasure.
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© 1981 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on October 3,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1985, 1994, 1995, and again in 2000. This
made and posted on this website in 2011.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.