Diana Damrau as Violetta and Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata."
Taken on March 7, 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. (Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
As he enters the stage during the dress rehearsal of Act 1 in "La Traviata" at the Metropolitan Opera, Saimir Pirgu, playing Alfredo Germont, walks across stage right to left and stands isolated from the crowd that is carrying around Diana Damrau's Violetta on a bright red couch. This outsider will eventually steal away the heart of Violetta and take a prominent role in her life. This development presents an interesting parallel to Pirgu whose official website purports that he is "a young man from nowhere" well on his way to an international career.
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Pirgu's rise in the opera world is like no other. The 31-year old singer was born in Communist Albania and from the young age of six he was forced to study the violin. As Pirgu told this reporter during an interview in New York on Tuesday, "There wasn't much choice...They pushed the talent a lot because they wanted to compete with other countries." Even though he did not enjoy it, Pirgu is thankful for the experience of being a musician from a young age. "Thank God that I played violin. It made it much easier for me to be a musician," he stated.
The youngster eventually took to singing and when he grew of age, he left the crumbling Communist regime in 2000 to study music in Italy. He applied for the conducting and singing program at the Conservatorio Claudio Monteverdi in Bolzano but eventually decided to become a singer.
The journey from the Communist state to an international career as an artist had a major turning point only six months after Pirgu arrived in Bolzano. Legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti was at a spa and asked for a singer to be brought in to perform for him. Pirgu's teacher Vito Brunetti suggested the young 19-year old and his performance impressed the superstar so much that he took Pirgu under his wing. "It was the luckiest moment of my life," declared Pirgu. "Every year when Luciano had time, he invited me to his home to sing with him. To watch my development."
Pirgu credits Pavarotti with teaching him most of his repertoire and while he implements his own interpretations, he holds onto everything that the great tenor taught him. "From Luciano I learned a lot. To have him so close and to understand everything at that time was not so clear because I was so young," he noted. Now everything is clear. "I was like a sponge. And now I'm releasing a lot of the water."
On Thursday, Pirgu gets to share the stage at the Met with another one of the legendary tenors Placido Domingo. Pirgu credits Domingo with helping jumpstart his career in the United States. The two worked together in Paris in Alfano's "Cyrano de Bergerac." "It's a good feeling. On the stage he is the best. He is a great lion. You can [feel] his energy in your body," said Pirgu.
He then referenced one of the show stopping moments from the dress rehearsal. At the end of the first scene in act two Germont, played by Domingo, attempts to persuade his son to leave Violetta and return to the countryside with him. Alfredo rejects his father constantly and leaves the old man with no other choice but to utilize "tough love" and slap him across the face. When Domingo struck Pirgu, the entire audience gasped and for a moment, a great tension permeated the hall. "This never happened before," said Pirgu in reference to the audience's audible reaction. But he believes that it happened "because the energy [between us] was so high. So real. I was so happy."
Pirgu's performance as Alfredo is only the second time that the tenor performs at the Met. In 2009, he made his debut as Rinuccio in "Gianni Schicchi," the third part of Puccini's "Trittico." He has enjoyed an international career that has seen him perform at such major houses as Verona, Zurich, Bolzano, Ferrara, Pesaro, Bologna, Roma, Firenze, London, Paris, Madrid, Valencia, Berlin, Munich, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Washington, Tokyo, The Salzburg Festival, and Vienna with such major conductors as Nickolaus Harnoncourt, Riccardo Muti, Claudio Abbado, Antonio Pappano, Fabio Luisi, and Lorin Maazel, among others. Pirgu feels very lucky about the opportunity to work with such major artists and notes that the differing experiences have shaped him in marvelous ways. He credits Abbado with being the first conductor to believe in him when the two worked together on "Così fan tutte" almost ten years ago. "He was the first mentor who believed in me," Pirgu asserted. "He told me 'I believe in your musicality and in your intuition.'"
Regarding his "Traviata" conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Pirgu could not be more complementary. "He is always breathing with us," he noted. "He knows how the voice works."
Most of the young tenor's repertoire is in Italian but he notes that he will be singing more French repertoire in coming years including the title role in Gounod's "Faust," Romeo in "Romeo et Juliette," and Massenet's "Werther." He also expresses a great affinity for Verdi's music. "Verdi will be one of the most important composers for me in the next years," said Pirgu. He stated that the Duke in "Rigoletto" (which he performs this summer in the Arena di Verona with Domingo as conductor) is the role that best expresses his voice's capacities. "It's so well written musically. It's impossible not to love the role," enthused Pirgu. "I love singing it every time." He noted that there would be more Verdi in store for him as he will sing Macduff in "Macbeth" at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and could also attempt the role of Gabriele Adorno in "Simon Boccanegra" in the near future. He did mention that his dream role is Gustavo/Riccardo in "Un Ballo in Maschera."
However, he is allowing his voice to mature in order to see which direction he takes with repertoire. Even though he is being cautious, some overzealous opera intendants have already sought him out for heavier tenor repertoire, including the titanic role of Siegfried in Wagner's Ring cycle. Pirgu states "If they hear you in a small house like Zurich, you can [project] with a huge voice. People don't understand [how the voices work]," he asserts. "You have the feeling here [at the Met] because it's a huge house and you know what happens with lyric and dramatic voices. But in Europe we don't have big houses. You can sing everything you want. The problem is, are you good or not?"
After "Traviata," Pirgu heads to Chicago to work with Muti in Bach's B Minor Mass. The tenor admits that he has never sung Bach, but he trusts his conductor and asserts, "When Riccardo Muti touches something, it is perfect."
After Chicago, Pirgu heads to Zurich to perform more "Traviata" with Damrau. "We have energy. There's chemistry," he said about his working relationship with the German Soprano. "You can't control it. With some colleagues it happens. With others it doesn't."
"Traviata" opens on Thursday March 14 and runs for seven performances.