Jet-Setting Soprano Rachele Gilmore Takes on Her Most Difficult Role Yet in Knoxville Opera's 'I Puritani'

When I first sat down to chat with soprano Rachele Gilmore in January of 2010, she had just arrived in Knoxville for rehearsals of last season’s Knoxville Opera production of Lucia di Lammermoor, in which she was singing her debut of the title role of Lucia. Ordinary questions I might have asked any other young soprano at the beginning of a career, however, had been rendered a bit meaningless by a delightful, but surprising, turn of events a month earlier.

Covering the role of the mechanical doll, Olympia, in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, she replaced an ailing Kathleen Kim on a few hours notice in a Christmas week performance, charmed a notoriously hard-to-charm Met audience with the Doll Song, and stunned them with vocal ornaments that included high Gs and an A-flat above high C.

With her credentials as a notable coloratura soprano possessing an amazing high range firmly established, I went on to ask about future roles she coveted. Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier was mentioned—and then, with what I remember to be a twinkle in her eye, she offered “I’d love to do some other bel canto roles— like Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani.”

Whether by coincidence, plan, or determination, it is precisely for that role that she has returned to Knoxville Opera this month. However, in the ensuing year since last season’s Lucia, Gilmore has taken on several roles that are considerable departures from the bel canto world of Donizetti and Bellini. Last June, she appeared as Alice in Unsuk Chin’s 2007 opera Alice in Wonderland at the Grand Théâtre de Genève in Geneva, Switzerland. And in jet-lag inducing fashion, Gilmore flew directly to Knoxville from her most recent engagement in Munich, where she sang the Fire and the Nightingale in a new production of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges led by Kent Nagano at the Bavarian State Opera.

Although not as essential as it perhaps once was, taking adventuresome roles in Europe has traditionally been a major tactic of young American singers seeking to build and solidify a reputation.

“I really enjoy singing in Europe,” Gilmore offers. “Even though they are having their own economic problems, there is more support for the arts than in the U.S. They are able to do more extensive productions with longer rehearsal periods. I think there is the tendency in new productions in Europe to try more experimental things, whereas in America we tend to hang on to our more traditional productions because of the economy and because people are afraid to take risks.… And the audiences in Europe are great. They really have a deep cultural appreciation there for the arts and for artists.”

As expected, though, Gilmore’s reputation is attracting some plum roles on this side of the pond. “Right after last year’s Lucia,” Gilmore says, “I did Zerbinetta in [Richard Strauss’] Ariadne auf Naxos in Boston for the Boston Lyric Opera—that was probably the high point of the year. I’m still making myself known in Europe, so I don’t necessarily get to do some my favorite roles over there yet. Zerbinetta is a role I really love to sing.”

While a debut in the role of Gilda in Rigoletto with Detroit’s Michigan State Opera stateside awaits her after her Knoxville stint, Gilmore’s head is firmly around the current formidable role at hand.

Formidable does seems to be a key word here, but apparently one that hasn’t discouraged the soprano a bit. Admittedly, Knoxville is not the stage of the Metropolitan Opera; chances can be taken and risks faced head on with a supportive local opera company and audience. However, less career pressure doesn’t alter the seriousness of the preparation for Gilmore.

“I have to say,” she admits, “Elvira is the most difficult role, musically, I’ve done so far. Sopranos that have done it in the past have been somewhat older. I think when Joan Sutherland did it for the first time, she was 35. Ruth Ann Swenson was even older when she did it. It’s such a challenge, because much of it is just the vocal chops that you gain from experience.”

While greatly admired and respected as an opera, I Puritani’s musical demands have historically limited the number of productions. And that contributes to another issue.

“The challenge with a role that isn’t done that often,” Gilmore says, “is that you may have to make more decisions on your own about the role, or put a little more preparation into it. When I go and sing something like Gilda, I have all these voices in my head and from the traditions of the opera. With I Puritani, I’m starting from scratch.”

From the standpoint of melodrama, I Puritani presents both singers and audiences with a number of challenges.

“Elvira is a complicated character,” Gilmore confesses. “And it is probably hard for a modern audience to grasp the story since those types of circumstances don’t exist any longer. She is a victim of society and beholden to the men around her in her life. With this character, she goes crazy, but she is able to come back and hang on. She doesn’t kill anybody, or die in the end, so I think there is the challenge—you do go crazy, but you can’t go all the way.”

A serious opera in which the leads don’t die? Gilmore smiles. “Yes, it is a bit hard to relate to this character, so you just have to stay true to the libretto and make it believable for the audience.”

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