Monday night, March 4, saw the first performance of Riccardo Zandonai’s opera “Francesca da Rimini” at the Metropolitan Opera in nearly 30 years. A strong cast led by conductor Marco Armiliato included Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role, Marcello Giordani as Paolo il Bello, Mark Delavan as Gianciotto lo Sciancato, and Robert Brubaker as Malatestino dell’Occhio. For a summary of the story, see the previous article titled “Opera review: ‘Francesca da Rimini’ triumphs at Metropolitan Opera.”
Despite a busy post-performance day that included an airport run to pick up his wife, Robert Brubaker graciously took time to speak to Examiner.com Tuesday evening, March 5, still basking in the prior night’s success and the enthusiastic response from the audience and orchestra members alike.
Examiner.com: You seem to portray quite a few sinister or creepy characters, sometimes both, like Malatestino. Do you worry about being typecast?
Robert Brubaker: Alviano in Franz Schreker’s “Die Gezeichneten,” which I did with Los Angeles Opera, is a heavily charactered role. I enjoy ... I love good scripts and character roles. But also I seem to get cast to do these roles. I am a singing actor, a tenor who can do many things. At this point in my life I tend to be portraying these big character roles like Herodes and Zemlinsky’s King Kandaules, which is a bit more of a straight-up young heroic tenor role.
I have also performed the Kaiser in Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” at Deutsche Oper Berlin. The production heavily cut the role. I would do the role again in a similarly cut edition, which is still a big sing; if another tenor intended to sing the role straight-on, the full thing, then I would demur.
E: Your career didn’t start 20 years ago with your first appearances at the Met. How long have you been singing?
RB: I joined New York City Opera 35 years ago, in 1978. At first I was a baritone singing in the chorus, and when I left the company, I sang Rodolfo [the lead tenor role] in Puccini’s “La Bohème.” Other tenor roles there were Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Edgardo in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” I remember fellow tenor Jerry Hadley with such fondness. I watched him grow up at City Opera. I was in the rehearsal room when he prepared the role of Arturo in “Lucia,” his debut role. He had such a beautiful voice; it breaks my heart to have lost him.
E: What roles are coming up for you?
RB: Up next, I will be performing one cycle of Wagner’s “Ring,” in May, playing the role of Mime. Now he’s more of a little quirky comedic schemer than a creep. He’s a fantastic character, so hard to describe; he’s funny at times, especially when his plans keep coming out wrong. Later in Saint Louis, I’ll be performing Luigi in Puccini’s “Il tabarro” and Canio in Leoncavallo’s “I pagliacci.” Those definitely aren’t character tenor roles. Next year, I will be doing Old Man Marshall in a new opera that is coming to Brooklyn Academy of Music called “Anna Nicole,” based on Anna Nicole Smith.
E: What about Paolo in “Francesca da Rimini”?
RB: I would not aspire to Paolo. It’s not a role that would play to my strengths. I like roles that really let me get involved in the characters. I’m not always perfect for the Italian repertory. Malatestino is a very dramatic role with dramatic lines to sing, so you’re really thinking about the words and the voice and what it’s supposed to do. Some people would call the opera old-fashioned, but I think it’s great fun. It’s wonderful music, really nice juicy stuff. It’s great to dig into.
E: Who are your favourite co-stars?
RB: This is not a case of ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,’ but I must say that Eva-Maria Westbroek is a phenomenal co-star who’s really interested in being involved in the scene. She’s really great to work with—a great singer, actress, and human being. What else could you want in a co-star? I adore working with Mark Delavan. I’ve worked with him many times. He’s a dramatic, involved performer and a great baritone. We had very good rehearsals together. I had little interaction with Marcello Giordani, because of our roles not having much overlap, but I loved hearing him sing the role of Paolo.
E: What about favourite conductors?
RB: There are so many fantastic conductors. I had never worked with Marco Armiliato before, so it came to me as an amazing delight that he is simply life-giving. He has the score so much in command. By the time you get to performances, his head is up and he communicates with you through the night. Good grief, he’s just amazing—so musical. His communication is so beautiful. Music comes out of his body even when he’s not conducting. He has such a fabulous personality. The fact that so many orchestra members stayed last night to applaud him is emblematic of the beautiful feeling that he brings to the whole situation—joyous music-making. He’s a great inspiration. I very much look forward someday to working with him again. If only I could work on every project under his direction, that would be terrific.
Robert Brubaker, who makes his home now in Milford, Conn., obviously loves his career. That much is clear whether he’s on-stage or merely talking about his craft.