On May 7, Mozart’s popular womaniser returns to the stage of the Dutch National Opera in a production by director Claus Guth. The role of Zerlina, a peasant girl on whom Don Giovanni sets his sights in the opera, will be sung by Spanish soprano Sabina Puértolas. In an interview with Operatics, the soprano talked about the role of Zerlina, why she became an opera singer and developments in her career.
Even though her days are currently filled with opera, this wasn’t always the case. As a young girl, Puértolas never even thought of becoming an opera singer.
Puértolas’ origins: Navarre and Jota
Unlike a fair share of professional musicians, Puértolas didn’t grow up in a musical family. She only became musically active because virtually all of her friends and classmates attended the local music school.
The local music school mainly taught folk music. “I’m from Navarre, a region of Spain where people still often perform jota, a type of folk music that is accompanied by dancing in traditional dress. The music school in my town had specialised in it, and attracted many students. Even today, jota is still a popular and important part of our local culture.”
“My parents signed me up for singing lessons when I was nine, and soon it was discovered that I had a good singing voice. I also really enjoyed singing, so I kept continuing my lessons. When I was fourteen, my teacher gave me some opera arias to sing. I wasn’t very happy about it – I really hated opera and wanted to sing other things! Luckily, I did give it a shot and had to acknowledge that this was the type of music and singing that really fit my voice best. After that initial experience, as my teacher gave me more and more arias to sing, my feelings about opera changed completely and I started to love the art form.”
Puértolas went on to study at the conservatory of Pamplona and, with a special scholarship, had the opportunity to continue her studies in Italy at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena and the Accademia Verdiana in Busseto.
After graduation, Puértolas, like so many young singers, faced the challenge of getting hired. Singing competitions play an important role for recently-graduated singers, according to Puértolas. “Of course there are financial prizes, but more important to young singers are the role engagements you can also win. When you’re just starting, it’s of vital importance to perform on real opera stages and show audiences, agents and casting directors alike what you can do. If you manage to impress them, you’ll generally be engaged for another role, and after that, another.”
“Unlike other singers, I’ve never had a sudden big break in my career. For quite some time, I only performed in Spain. Only very slowly and steadily did my career start to head in a more and more international direction.” Next season will see Puértolas’ career take a significant next step, as her Despina in a new production of Così fan Tutte at the Royal Opera House willbe relayed to cinemas in over 35 countries.
Puértolas was also a contestant in Operalia, a well-known singing competition founded by Plácido Domingo. There, she won the Zarzuela Prize. Zarzuela is a form of music theatre that is typically Spanish and sounds somewhat lighter than opera.
Puértolas still regularly takes on zarzuela roles. “For me as a Spanish singer, this is truly my music. It feels as though it runs through my veins. The singing requires a fresh and clear sound and is very rhythmic. When I’m singing zarzuela, I have to position my voice in a way that feels a bit forced and unnatural. I don’t have to do this when I’m singing opera. Still, I want to sing at least one zarzuela per season.
On a personal level, the role of Zerlina is very special for Puértolas. “When I returned to Spain after my studies in Italy, Zerlina was the first role I sang on stage in my own country. Also, I had just fallen head over heels in love with a pilot, who is now my husband. At the time, I just had gotten to know him and Zerlina was the first role he saw me perform on stage.”
After this debut, Puértolas sang the role in one more production, years ago. “More than ten years have passed since my last Zerlina. That’s why I really have to learn the role all over again. Some snippets of the role are still stored somewhere in my brain, but mostly it’s like learning a new part.”
In Don Giovanni, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, who belong to the higher echelons of society, each struggle with complex and confusing emotions and desires. Zerlina, a peasant girl, seems to be significantly less troubled. She doesn’t even seem to feel very bad about abandoning Masetto on their wedding day for an amorous adventure with the seductive stranger.
What should we make of this character, and why does she sneak away at her wedding to Masetto? “I think Zerlina really does love Masetto a lot. At the same time, however, she is young and adventurous. She experiences the attention she receives from Don Giovanni, a wildly attractive nobleman, as an exciting game. She doesn’t want to deny herself the fun she has in playing along simply because it’s her wedding day!”
The opening night of Don Giovanni takes place in a sold-out Dutch National Opera & Ballet on May 7. For further performances (May 10, May 15, May 18, May 21, May 24, May 26 and May 29), there is still a limited number of tickets available at the time of writing.
Conductor: Marc Albrecht
Orchestra: Het Nederlands Kamerorkest
Stage direction: Claus Guth (2008, for the Salzburg Festival and the Staatsoper unter den Linden)
Don Giovanni – Christopher Maltman
Donna Anna – Sally Matthews
Don Ottavio – Juan Francisco Gatell
Il Commendatore – Mika Kares
Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens (May 7, 10, 15, 18 and 29) and Anett Fritsch (May 21, 24 and 26).
Leporello – Adrian Sampetrean
Zerlina – Sabina Puértolas
Masetto – Iurii Samoilov.