Three ladies and a primadonna
by Rino Alessi
After further expanding her operatic repertoire with a number of new roles in 2013, Stefania Bonfadelli – world-renowned Italian soprano, entrepreneur, and primadonna – has started 2014 with a great surprise: Damen Trio’s first concert. Bonfadelli’s brainchild, the ensemble debuted at Verona Lirica with a performance in the Sala Maffeiana of the Verona Philharmonic Theatre.
“I have worked at this project for fifteen years,” she says. “It all started when I first studied Patricia Adkins Chiti’s ‘Almanacco delle virtuose, primedonne, compositrici e musiciste d’Italia’, which classifies the music composed by a group of 19th-century bel canto divas and dedicated to prominent figures of the time’s political scene and aristocracy.”
Once Bonfadelli had defined her refined and original project – inspired by primedonne of the past such as Maria Malibran, Carolina Ungher, Isabella Colbran (Rossini’s first wife), Marietta Brambilla, Giuditta Pasta, Pauline Viardot and Adelina Patti – she decided to involve talented mezzosoprano Laura Polverelli and pianist Nicoletta Olivieri (who is also the first woman in Italy to have been artistic secretary at an opera foundation).
“These compositions give us great insight into 19th-century singing,” Bonfadelli adds. “Take ‘Invito alla campagna’ by Giuditta Pasta, the first author I studied and performed during the concert in Verona. Pasta was a good friend – and perhaps something more than a friend – of my favorite composer, Bellini; she was the first to perform his ‘Sonnambula’ and ‘Norma’. As a die-hard Bellini fan, I was interested in better understanding the voice of the first singer to ever play those two roles – later played by such a range of sopranos over the years. Pasta’s aria proves she had an extremely wide vocal range. Performing it was a real challenge.”
Bellini brought Bonfadelli her lucky break in 1999, when she was asked to quickly replace Edita Gruberova in “The Puritans” at the Staatsoper – thus establishing herself as the primadonna of Italian bel canto in Vienna.
“I started listening to Bellini at a very young age. I was seven or eight years old when an opera-loving uncle let me listen to his records in Valeggio sul Mincio. I fell in love with the quartet in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’, but still believe the vocal joy and ‘pathos’ that Bellini delivers are unrivalled. Later, I listened to Donizetti, Verdi, and a lot of Rossini. I actually met Laura Polverelli at the Rossini Opera Festival, for the first modern-time performance of ‘La Gazzetta’; then we met again for a ‘Falstaff’ in Tokyo. I worked so well with her, and with Nicoletta Olivieri, that they were definitely the partners I wanted for Damen Trio.
The all-female ensemble also performs a program dedicated to Rossini, one on the great couples in 1800s’ music (Robert and Clara Schumann, Gustav and Alma Mahler), and a broader one focused on chamber music by the best Italian opera composers of the 19th century.
“At some point we would like to include Verdi as well. And I really want to find out whether his second wife, the talented and knowledgeable Giuseppina Strepponi, ever composed anything herself…”
Back from a recent performance of “La Traviata” in Beijing, Bonfadelli is about to graduate from Rome’s university with a thesis on the mise-en-scène of Verdi’s masterpiece. For the past few years, she has alternated singing and teaching at the Academy she founded – despite what she defines as an “ambivalent relationship” with the region where she was born) – in her hometown, Valeggio.
“At this point in my life, I can choose to do only what I like. Now I want to let go of past roles such as ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ and ‘The Sleepwalker’, so I can experiment with something new like Donizetti’s ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ and ‘Maria Stuarda’, or Mozart’s Donna Anna. Teaching younger generations something I believe I can do well is also very rewarding.”