January 13, 2012 9:01 pm

Active voice

Leading mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly is used to defying expectations, writes Andrew Clark

The words tumble out with barely contained feeling, as if fuelled by a mixture of frustration and desire. “I would do Carmen if only somebody would ask me.” The speaker is Sarah Connolly, widely recognised as one of the world’s leading mezzo-sopranos and a fixture in the concert halls and opera houses of her native England.

Carmen? Really? Anyone who knows how dignified Connolly looks on stage might wonder if she is deluding herself. The Yorkshire-born mezzo is, after all, renowned for virtuous beauty as Purcell’s Dido, regal posture as Donizetti’s Mary Stuart, tragic grandeur as Britten’s Lucretia – and, yes, her noble impetuosity in the “trouser” role of Octavian, which she will reprise this month in a revival of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at English National Opera.

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On stage, Connolly does chastity and masculinity supremely well. Does this mean that playing flirty-flighty isn’t her thing? It’s true, she has never felt drawn to what she dubs the “girly girls” of opera, such as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia.

“I’m not keen on Rossini generally,” she confesses on a day off from rehearsing Der Rosenkavalier, her stream of thought uninterrupted by the self-absorbed chirpings of her eight-year-old daughter, Lily, seated nearby.

“In fact, if I find myself in the audience at a Rossini performance, I usually have an allergic reaction – like, ‘where’s the exit?’”

But Connolly does know how to do flirty. She showed us how when she sang the title role of Handel’s Agrippina for ENO in 2007, one of a string of successful collaborations with David McVicar, who directs Der Rosenkavalier. Speak to any of Connolly’s colleagues and you get a picture of the thinking person’s singer, someone who never assumes a passive role in what is going on around her. She says: “I can do sexy, as long as I am in a production where there is someone in charge who appeals to my mind, rather than expects me to wander round the stage being the stereotypical flirt. My reservation [about playing Carmen] has always been that physically I look nothing like a gypsy, and it would take a clever director to make it work with me.”

But surely, I suggest, the right to play Bizet’s anti-heroine depends on more than just a burning desire to conquer one of the iconic mezzo roles. Connolly agrees – and finds a link with some of the other female characters she has played.

“I like playing strong women – people who are unafraid of what life throws at them,” she says. “Carmen is afraid of death because she loves life so much, and to live life to the full you have to live dangerously. It’s relevant today. All sorts of prominent women fought their way up because they were unafraid of men. Carmen is leader of the pack because she is comfortable with who she is. She is fearless and she is dangerous: she will do anything to get her way. That, as a character, interests me.”

At 48, it is not too late for Connolly to sing Carmen: the great Teresa Berganza went on singing the role into her sixties and Connolly is in her prime, a late starter who has reached the peak of her powers.

It wouldn’t be the first time she has overturned people’s expectations. At the height of her triumph in the title role of Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne in 2005, when everyone pigeonholed her as a Handel singer, she switched to Brangäne in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – a mixing of styles that other singers might find frightening. Connolly pulled it off with aplomb and on the back of that success she has been engaged to sing Fricka in the Royal Opera production of Wagner’s Ring next September.

But doesn’t the vocal purity demanded by baroque music conflict with the more emotional vocalism of late Romantics such as Wagner and Strauss? The question frequently crops up in the masterclasses Connolly gives at London music colleges but she dismisses it as a red herring. Citing Maria Callas’s Tosca as the supreme marriage of emotion and music, she says “of course you have to work on your technique [to sing Handel], but without emotion and intensity the singing voice is boring – all you end up producing is a beautiful melisma. We’re not singing machines. I tell students they should never worry about emotion spoiling the voice, no matter what they sing, as long as they don’t fake it. It’s the words and character that should inform the voice, not the voice ‘performing’ emotion.”

As for Der Rosenkavalier, Connolly says Strauss’s music provides all the clues to the character, “and you are safe if you do what he asks. He is quite prescriptive. There’s no room for thinking, ‘I want to take some time [over a phrase] here’. The simplest delivery is often the best, because Strauss requires that you sing everything as if you were saying it.”

After this forthcoming run, will it be time to give up the coltish Octavian, a part Connolly has sung regularly over the past five years? Far from it. She clearly fancies singing it in the original German and, given her recent success in another of Strauss’s trouser roles, the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the opportunity can’t be long in coming.

Anything else on the Connolly wish list? Just as she regularly consults conductors she trusts on the suitability of this role or that, she is not shy of suggesting things to opera managers. She proposed Charpentier’s little-performed Médée to ENO artistic director John Berry and the result is that discussions are under way for a new production there in 2013. With that in mind, let’s hope Connolly’s Carmen sees the light of day too.

‘Der Rosenkavalier’ opens at the Coliseum, London, on January 28, www.eno.org

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