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Svetlana Moskalenko: “My character can wrap men around her little finger!”Svetlana Moskalenko will sing the parts of Norina and the Queen of the Night in the upcoming premières of Don Pasquale and Die Zauberflöte. The young opera singer is rehearsing for the performances on her home stage after successful appearances at German and Swiss theatres.
— Svetlana, it’s no secret that the production of Don Pasquale was announced after your triumph at the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Invitations to the opera houses of Europe also followed your prestigious win...
— Yes, the Tchaikovsky Competition turned out to be the most important contest of my life. And also the most rigorous and difficult one. I spent nearly a year preparing for it. I took a very responsible approach, selecting an extremely difficult programme. I discussed it with my teacher at the Conservatoire, Tamara Novichenko, and with the Mikhailovsky concert masters Maria Kopyseva and Alina Makhauri. I spent a lot of time making thorough preparations.
— Did you have your dresses custom made?
— No, I made do with my own dresses. I didn’t want to make this the focal point, but I carefully selected the right dress and hairstyle for each particular piece. I have to thank our make-up girls: I can always turn to them for assistance. They were a great help. But that was not my primary focus. I was facing some very stiff competition. It was hard enough to be included among the 40 artists who passed the main section of the competition. This was the first time the competition had a preliminary selection stage. If you count the preliminary audition in Moscow and the two concerts which followed immediately after the winners were crowned, one in St. Petersburg and one in Moscow, the competition consisted of five rounds, instead of the usual three. It was a very nerve-racking, intense period. Unforgettable.
— What did you include in your competition programme?
— I enjoyed every single piece. I performed Zerbinetta from Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. With that one, you have to really go for it and try to get it spot on, or not do it at all. But I did it: whether or not I got it spot on is not for me to say, but I was happy. I also sang Konstanze from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. These pieces didn’t come easy to me. The Mozart performance was in German, and I don’t speak the language. I spent a lot of time practicing and had to ask for help. After all, it’s important to capture the right pronunciation and to understand the text.
— When you sang for the jury, could you tell how the judges felt about your performance? Or did you walk off the stage with no idea of how they would vote?
— I think you can guess certain things during the performance, just by looking at their faces. The entire vocal competition, with the exception of round three, was held in a small theatre. I could see their reactions. Of course, they might react one way in the moment, but then give you marks which don’t reflect that reaction at all. But when the results are announced, you can tell exactly how each judge feels about you: you can see who is ready with a smile or some praise, or a bit of support. After all the names were announced, the American soprano Deborah Voigt turned to me and cried, „Bravo!“ After the competition, another jury member, Tobias Richter, invited me to Switzerland to star as the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte.
— Is it now safe to say that the Queen of the Night is your signature role?
— I ended up taking the Queen of the Night on a long tour. I starred in two productions in three countries. First at the Komische Oper Berlin, a production which we then took on a tour of China. It was a fascinating take on the opera, but I didn’t need to move very much. The focal point of this role is the face: the face of a spider, which requires very unusual make-up. It was an animated version, shown like a cartoon on the big screen, but with live music and live actors. Some of the actors moved around, but for the most part the action was animated. All that was required of me was to sing and to show my face. That’s all the audience could see of me. I also went to Düsseldorf with this production. After that, I worked on a completely new staging of Die Zauberflöte in Geneva. I spent two months there, with occasional trips to Düsseldorf for performances there. The Geneva production was staged by a very interesting director, Daniel Kramer. The entire opera took three weeks to prepare. But my character was fully fleshed out. Normally, the Queen of the Night has only three scenes. But Daniel added a scene for me during the overture and at the end — throughout the opera, actually. He crafted a story arc for each character. All the actors involved were able to stretch themselves and their skills as they worked painstakingly on the finer details. Surprisingly, this staging never took off. There was no première. The General Manager at the Grand Théâtre de Genève didn’t like the production: he said it wasn’t right for Christmas, it wasn’t for children. So they took the opera off the schedule without a single performance. Apparently these things sometimes happen in European theatres! Many people I’ve told this story to say they’ve never encountered anything like it before.
— So what did they do?
— They bought in another production: a 20-year-old staging from Bonn, rather than anything new. They brought the entire thing over: the costumes, the director, anything that could be moved. And that’s the production they put on in Geneva.
— How much time did you get to relearn the role you had already rehearsed?
— Another three weeks. On top of all that, I had to learn dialogue in German. I wasn’t prepared for that: as I said before, I don’t speak German. Several performers involved in the production were German, though, and with their help I figured it out. I’m relieved that the dialogue in our production is going to be in Russian. Listening to German dialogue would have been very boring. Although most people in Geneva speak French, this wasn’t an issue for them. Naturally, it was shown with subtitles.
— After all that, how was Die Zauberflöte received in Geneva?
— Very well. I think the new cast breathed new life into the opera. To be honest, when they told us which version they were going to be using instead of Kramer’s and showed us the video, we were in shock. Perhaps it was because those actors had been performing this production for a long time and were sick of it — whatever the reason, it was boring. We tried to bring something original to our characters, and we borrowed certain elements from the version we had previously been rehearsing. In the end, the mix was completely unlike what we’d seen in the video.
— So the absence of the firm hand of a director on the tiller gave you a degree of freedom?
— Yes, this version had no firm directorial hand. We were simply told where to walk, where to stand, and that was it. And this makes the experience of working on the version that was not to be all the more valuable.
— You are now rehearsing for Die Zauberflöte at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. But first, the concert version of Don Pasquale. How are the rehearsals going?
— We started working on Don Pasquale back in September, since everyone knew I had to leave, and we needed to prepare a lot of it ahead of time. This opera is a great fit for our company. I feel very close to Norina. Not long ago, we did Il barbiere di Siviglia, and I got to know Rosina very well. And Norina and Rosina have a certain something in common. I love action roles, the kind where I can get a bit rowdy and come up with a few tricks. I love operas that require me to do more than stand still and sing, focusing solely on the vocals. I welcome the opportunity to think about the character, to engage the imagination. Although Donizetti’s music already has everything you need...
— The music is brilliant. But the storyline itself is complicated. The plot walks a fine line: it constantly seems to be on the verge of turning from a comic opera into a tragedy...
— Each character makes you feel compassion and hatred all at once. Poor Don Pasquale: you can pity him, you can blame him...
— But your character is at the root of the intrigue.
— Yes, that’s true. My character must have had a very boring life, so she craved adventure. I think it’s in her nature: she loves scheming. That’s why she and Malatesta find they have so much in common. He comes up with ideas, and she turns them into reality. On her own, she might not have known how to do these things. But Malatesta keeps egging her on.
— Norina is more than just his tool...
— Yes, throughout the opera she constantly claims that she doesn’t need anyone to teach her: she’s capable of schooling anyone herself. For example, she knows perfectly well how to wrap men around her little finger! Malatesta promises to teach her how to pretend and to scam people — but she tells him she can do it just fine on her own, without his help. These things are boiling over inside her. He simply offers her a stage, a platform to show what she can do. And it works!
— How is the cast of Don Pasquale working out?
— I really like Dmitry Skorikov, who will be performing the role of Don Pasquale. He and I also did Il barbiere di Siviglia together. The storyline is similar, but Don Pasquale has more intrigue, more passion, and more space to spread our wings. Yury Monchak is also excellent as old Pasquale. And of course Boris Pinkhasovich is playing Dr. Malatesta. I absolutely love him in everything he does — but this role really is right up his alley, it’s made for him! After Figaro, Malatesta is a very easy role to play. Boris and I are like brother and sister; we always find common ground. Last season, we did a chamber performance of the entire second act of Don Pasquale — the most action-packed, exciting act — and we were able to identify some key points and figure them out. Boris Stepanov is an excellent tenor. His Ernesto sounds great in this version. During the chamber concert, he and I performed romantic duets together, so we are already attuned to one another. I’m very happy to have partners like these.
— A concert performance offers a very particular kind of space for creativity. Will you be able to use it to its full extent?
— A concert version is not dominated by a director. The performers can express themselves and offer their own vision of the characters. This results in a lot of freedom. A full-scale production is always great, but every director is there to promote his own viewpoint, present his own vision. In a concert version, no one is imposing anything on anyone. We have to find that certain something within ourselves and come up with a vision that is entirely our own.