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Melanie Eskenazi talks to the baritone Markus Werba:  about his career and his role in the Royal Opera’s ‘La Calisto’ which opens this week (ME)


Markus Werba as Mercurio - Picture © Bill Cooper


This week sees one of the most eagerly awaited operatic events on the London calendar, at least as far as lovers of baroque music are concerned – the first-ever production at the Royal Opera House of a work by Francesco Cavalli, whose ‘La Calisto’ promises to be an evening of both musical and visual fascination. After the general rehearsal on Saturday I spoke to one of the production’s stars, the rising young baritone Markus Werba.

David Alden describes ‘La Calisto’ as a ‘riotous sex-comedy production of a riotous sex-comedy’ and as Mercurio in the opera, clad in a striking metallic suit, Markus Werba had to agree – ‘It’s really the only way you can do this sort of thing, it’s crazy but everything has musical relevance too – the director has some wild ideas but the wildness really makes sense in dramatic and musical terms!’ Werba will be reprising his role in London after the production’s rapturous reception in Munich, where it was so popular that it was revived not long after its first run – unusual for a relatively obscure piece, and most of the original cast will also feature in the London version, most notably the soprano Sally Matthews in the leading rôle.

I spoke to Markus Werba about his own international career, and was surprised to find how many major roles he has succeeded in at so relatively young an age – at only 34, he already feels that Papageno, one of his signature parts, is almost behind him; he will sing it in Los Angeles in 2009, under James Conlon and with Matthias Goerne as the Speaker, and for what may be the last time in 2010. For him, ‘Zauberflöte’ presents so many challenges in production that he feels that only one or two directors have ‘made sense’ of it. He is of course fresh from his Salzburg triumph in the part, described by the NY ‘Sun’ as ‘A winning Papageno in every way… (his singing) lyrical,  unforced and smooth.’

Markus made his operatic debut in Vienna at the age of 21 as Don Giovanni, and he had a notable success with his ROH debut in the 2008 ‘Ariadne auf Naxos,’ replacing Christopher Maltman as Harlequin, and eliciting warm praise from our own Mark Berry, not one usually given to effusiveness – Mark was especially impressed with his ‘Lieder singer’s attention to verbal and musical detail’ and went so far as to say that ‘He and (Thomas) Allen outshone the rest of the cast.’ High praise indeed, and a reminder of the reaction of the many critics who were bowled over by his first Salzburg Papageno under Muti in 2005.

Markus Werba comes from a very musical background – from Carinthia in South Austria, a part of the country steeped in the choral tradition; his family is rich in singers and players, most notably his great-uncle, the renowned accompanist Erik Werba, whose advice was instrumental in setting the young Markus on the road to a singing career. He was a finalist in the 2003 Cardiff Singer of the World, with a fine showing in the Song Prize competition, and he has won many first prizes in Japan, Italy and Austria. With two Wigmore recitals already under his belt and another scheduled for next year, he makes his Edinburgh Festival recital debut next season, and more imminently his Rosenblatt Recital debut at St John’s Smith Square on December 3rd, with an enticing programme of Schubert, Brahms, Mozart, Thomas, Gounod and Korngold.

Markus has also established himself as one of William Christie’s favourite collaborators, having sung Guglielmo under him at Lyon in 2006 and the Count in 2007, as well as taking part in a notable – and subsequently recorded – ‘Die Schoepfung’ at the Aix en Provence Festival. His career has taken him to most of the world’s great opera houses, but he admits to a special affection for Covent Garden – ‘It’s an incredible place, there is nowhere else with quite this same feeling – I love the auditorium, with its feeling of being a little theatre inside a big one, the acoustic is unique, and everyone here is so wonderful to work with.’  

Coming back to ‘La Calisto,’ it’s clear that the singers have been enjoying it as much as the director hopes the audience will - ‘ It’s a crazy, crazy story which you can’t do in a  romantic style – I don’t know how it will go down here, maybe it will be ‘too much,’ it was a huge success in Munich but there is a difference in mentality of course…’ As we all know, a little bit of sensation does a production no harm at all in London! Markus Werba’s role in the piece is a fairly small one compared to the leading parts he has been taking on elsewhere in Europe, but it should introduce London audiences to one of the most charismatic and cultivated baritones around – in the near future he will be expanding his repertoire to Pelléas, Posa and, in my opinion most interestingly, Billy Budd, a rôle for which both his voice and person seem exceptionally well suited.

Melanie Eskenazi

‘La Calisto’ opens at Covent Garden on Tuesday September 23rd, with further performances on 25th, 27th (12 noon matinee) October 1st, 3rd and 10th.

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