Interview: Giulia Semenzato talks about her influences, her love for Baroque & experimental recital programmes

Italian soprano Giulia Semenzato first came to international attention upon winning the International Competition Toti dal Monte in Treviso and the ‘Premio Farinelli’ at the Concorso Lirico Cittá di Bologna. Known for her interpretations of music from the Baroque era, tonight she sings her final performance of Cavalli’s Ercole Amante at the Opéra Comique, a production which will transfer to the Château de Versailles later this month.

We caught up with Giulia to find out more about her influences, her love for Baroque music, and her experimental recital programme, “L’urlo di Armida”.

What role did music play in your life growing up? Did you know early on that you wanted to become a singer?

I feel like music was always part of my life, despite not being born into a family of musicians. I remember I always liked singing as a child, and my favourite period of the school year was the week before Christmas because I would sing Christmas songs! When I was 7 years old, I asked my parents if I could take piano lessons after watching the movie “The Piano” at the cinema – I was so moved by the soundtrack and I quickly learnt how to play it. Later on, during high school, I joined the school choir and at around 16 I took some private singing lessons and also attended piano classes at the Conservatory of Venice. I think it was more during my twenties that I started feeling attracted to a more lyrical sound and opera.

Who were your biggest influences growing up?

I listened to various different types of music in my teenage years: I had a pop phase with Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, and a rock/hippie period with Tori Amos, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin and Joan Baez. I mostly liked female performers who sang political songs and poems such as Mercedes Sosa, Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell, and singers who sang about their beliefs and their will for political and social change. Later I got into a jazz phase and started taking jazz lessons; I actually sang at some jazz events and festivals. I slowly approached opera just after my twenties during my law studies at university and my simultaneous piano studies at the Conservatory. At home we used to listen to a couple of opera arias albums: I remember hearing Maria Callas singing La Wally and Renata Tebaldi doing La traviata, but at the beginning I wouldn’t have believed that opera was going to be my future.

I feel that my interest in music of different eras helped in shaping my musical ear and drove me to discover my love for Renaissance and Baroque music. In my studies I definitely met teachers that inspired me a lot. I can’t mention all of them here but my teacher Rosa Dominguez, who I met in Basel in 2013, definitely had a strong influence on my path. Besides technical advice, the most important message she taught me is to be always very honest with the score, to have a humble approach to music and the composer, never to shy away from asking questions about what I am singing, and to always find the deeper meanings of the music to which I am giving new life.

You’re now a champion of repertoire from the Baroque era. What it is that draws you to this music?

What has always fascinated me is the strong and inseparable connection between the text and the music. In the XVII century it was called “Recitar cantando” (and not “Cantar Recitando”!); it means that the text comes first before the music, the words can guide us and give ideas on how to play a chord, how to sing a note, which effects we should use. The music is serving the poetry. Moreover, in this kind of music the relation between the singers and the musicians is essential: the continuo players need to follow the rhythm of the words and need to express the various “affetti” together with the singer, in order to express the same intention and intensity.

You’ve made your role debut in Cavalli’s Ercole Amante at the Opéra Comique this season. What can you tell us about the opera and the production, and how you approach learning new roles?

The first thing I try to do when I approach a new score is to understand in which historical and political context it was born. In the case of Ercole Amante it was very interesting to find out that this opera was composed for the occasion of Louis XIV’s marriage to Marie Thérèse d’Austria, and that Francesco Cavalli (a Venetian composer!) was invited by Cardinal Mazarin to come to Paris to the French Court and write a new opera for the event. I find it extremely interesting to discover the reason a new score was born, who the client was, what the reaction of the public was at the time, or to find out some curious anecdotes: for example the first Ercole Amante was thought to be such a complicated and magnificent show that the court of The King of France decided to build a new theatre of 6,000 seats especially for it (the Théâtre des Tuileries). By the time the production was supposed to be shown in 1660 the theatre was not yet finished, and Francesco Cavalli was asked to play his Xerses at the Louvre. In this opera I play the role of Cynthia (The Moon), and Venus. In the Prologue, Cynthia introduces the opera to the court and honours all the actions of Ercole, whose character is thought to be an allegory of Louis XIV. From the first act, the frivolous and sensual Goddess Venus helps Ercole in obtaining the love of Iole, even though he is already married to his wife Deianira. It is a very funny show, the costumes are incredible, and I think even the youngest spectators will have fun attending the performances.

In 2018, you devised the recital programme “L’urlo di Armida” [“The Scream of Armida”] – an experimental project fusing renaissance and electronic music. How did this come about?

I was invited by the University Ca Foscari of Venice to propose a recital for the 150-year anniversary of the university. I thought of a programme that could fuse Italian poetry together with Renaissance/ Baroque music, but somehow I imagined it to be a sort of theatre performance and not just a music concert. I created a patchwork of moments of the Gerusalemme Liberata by Torquato Tasso, whose words were put to music by the greatest composers of the Baroque era: J. De Wert, Mazzocchi, Sigismondo d’India, Monteverdi… The result was a story about the most interesting female characters of the poem: Armida, Erminia, Clorinda.

It must also have been fate that in that same period I met a great team of composers, electronic sound designers and a video maker in Venice, and I thought to involve them in the creation of the project too. The music in “L’urlo di Armida” is played by historical instruments and it all melts together with new electronic compositions and effects spread out through a system of eight audio speakers. Working with early music and modern technologies and having the chance to create a new project from the beginning was an incredible adventure, and an amazing experience of personal growth.

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