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Lyric Tradition

All eyes are on soprano ELEONORA BURATTO, who sings Micaela in Chicago this season.
by Stephen Hastings. Photographs by Dario Acosta 

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Buratto, who begins 2017 as Micaela in Chicago and Mimì in Zurich
Portraits by Dario Acosta
“I was awestruck when I first stepped onstage at the Met.”
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Portrait by Dario Acosta

THE PASSION FOR OPERA  came late to Eleonora Buratto, who makes her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut in February, as Micaela. When she began her vocal studies, at sixteen, at the Conservatory in Mantua, she was more interested in rock stars than in prima donnas and had little idea of where her singing lessons would lead her. It was only when she finally consolidated her technique with Paola Leolini in Rome, some twelve years later, that her career suddenly took off. 

Her artistic personality developed so rapidly that her successful La Scala and Met debuts in September 2015 and March 2016, as Donizetti’s Adina and Norina, respectively, were also her farewells to those light-lyric parts. In the same period, she significantly switched from Mozart’s Susanna (her career-debut role in Minorca in 2007) to the Countess, and from Verdi’s Nannetta (with Zubin Mehta in Salzburg) to Alice Ford (with Riccardo Muti in Chicago). She will make her only 2017 role debut as Donna Anna, in Aix-en-Provence in July. 

The soprano has also made the transition from Puccini’s Musetta, which she first performed in Spoleto in 2007, to Mimì, which she first sang this past June in Jonathan Miller’s staging of La Bohème at Barcelona’s Teatre Liceu. Our meeting at the Café de l’Opera, opposite the historic Catalan house, comes a day before her final performance of the run. That particular switch has a special significance for her. “At the conservatory, I was lucky enough to have a teacher, the bass Gabriele Monici, who was a friend of Luciano Pavarotti and decided to ask his opinion of my voice,” she says. “I went for an audition at the opera house in Modena, and after I sang arias for Zerlina and Lauretta, Pavarotti asked me if I knew the conclusion to the first act of La Bohème. I hadn’t a clue how it went, and I turned anxiously to my teacher, who was standing in the wings. He quickly sang the phrase to me—‘Amor! Amor! Amor!’—which I then repeated for Pavarotti, who started giving me free lessons at his homes in Modena and Pesaro. Once I went to a lesson prepared to sing Musetta’s aria, but he asked instead for ‘Mi chiamano Mimì,’ which I had heard on television but never tried out. I sang the aria to the best of my abilities, and when it was over he took off his panama hat and said, ‘Chapeau!’ adding, ‘If you like, you can sing Musetta’s aria now, but personally I’m satisfied with what I’ve heard.’ He was very much on my mind when I made my debut here as Mimì.”

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As Mimì to Saimir Pirgu’s Rodolfo in Barcelona, 2016
© A. Bofill

The debut was painstakingly prepared with Leolini, who flew over to check up on Buratto’s voice during rehearsals. At the final performance, on July 8, her singing had the mellowness of a Cremona-made viola, her voice expanding effortlessly and energizing the words to heart-warming effect. All that eluded her was the black despair that momentarily takes possession of the sick Mimì in Act III, but the death scene in Act IV was finely judged. “I drew on my memories of my grandmother’s death,” she says. “She was at home with the whole family around her, and I was holding her hand when she passed away. I thus shared her final breath, and that helped me understand how it is possible to die serenely, as Mimì does, tranquilizing those around her.” She felt too that she had learned a lot from Natascha Metherell, who directed the revival for Miller. “One could sense that she came from a strong English theatrical tradition. While other directors just indicate stage movements, she asked me why I made those movements, ensuring that every gesture was motivated.”

Among her musical colleagues, Buratto has received the most encouragement from Riccardo Muti. “He has given me many opportunities. I was very inexpert when I turned up for the first rehearsal of Jommelli’s Demofoonte in 2009, singing melodic repeats in the arias without any variations. ‘Aren’t you going to do anything here?’ he said. Three years later, he made me aware of how my voice could develop by casting me as Amelia in Simon Boccanegra. For the first time, I learned to employ a mixed chest resonance in the lowest register. When you sing with him, you are continually aware of the clarity of his interpretive ideas. His moods have a strong influence on the cast. He projects enormous energy when he smiles, while if he is tense it is easy to make a mistake.”

Buratto actually begged Muti on one occasion to smile at the beginning of a performance, and he responded with a big grin, asking, “Is that alright?” She herself smiles readily and contagiously—qualities that helped make Norina in Don Pasquale an ideal role for her debut in New York last season. “I was awestruck,” she says, “when I first stepped onstage and realized that the entire population of my native village [Sustinente, on the River Po] could fit into the auditorium. But the voice seemed to project easily, and the audiences seemed to like me.” spacer 

Stephen Hastings, author of The Björling Sound (2012), is OPERA NEWS’s correspondent in Milan. 

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