Bravo Cura

Celebrating José Cura--Singer, Conductor, Director



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Samson et Dalila - and a rare and welcomed visit to the US.

In 1998, José Cura appeared once more as Samson when he performed the role at the Washington (DC) Opera.  This gave the East Coast opera fans their first real opportunity to assess the young singing sensation and the informal feedback consisted of nothing but raves (we included a few snippets below).  The professional critics were no less impressed and Cura's string of successes in the US (following great reviews in Carmen, Norma, and Fedora) continued.







The Young Lion

Opera News


The first time I saw José Cura was last November, in Washington. A new production of Samson et Dalila at Washington Opera had begun with the chorus lying flat on the raked stage, then turning over in unison (like bacon self-turning in the frying pan), standing up and sitting down again. When they sat, there he was -- a towering vision in white, stunningly handsome, with a build like a Colossus, and exuding that quality so rare on the opera stage today -- charisma.

"Arrêtez, ô mes frères! Et bénissez le nom du Dieu saint de nos pères" (Cease, o my brethren! and bless the name of the Holy God of our fathers), he sang in a clarion voice that was powerful and exciting. His green [sic] eyes burned intensely, and when he compassionately put his hand on the shoulder of a Hebrew slave, I actually believed he could ease her suffering.

When the performance was over, the image that lingered during my train ride back to New York was of Cura as the blind Samson, grasping the young boy who was leading him through the crowd. I'm used to Samson holding the boy by the hand, but Cura clutched the child fiercely, clinging for dear life. The gesture was believable and brilliantly effective.

Before my Washington trip, I had been skeptical about the fast-rising tenor who was generating such juicy quotes as, "He comes as a 'whole package' -- exceptional voice, smoldering good looks and a captivating acting ability -- which a new generation of operagoers is clamoring for" (Antonia Couling in Opera Now). I, after all, had seen the great Samsons of Jon Vickers and Plácido Domingo; I was not about to be taken in by a Calvin Klein model, no matter how fine the packaging.

But José Cura is a genuine find: a serious musician with a burnished, baritonal sound. He is also an immensely charming yet shrewd man, with an obvious dedication to his art and an instinctive flair for drama -- especially as Samson, Don José, Andrea Chénier, Radamès, Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut and Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana. (Otello, which he first sang under Claudio Abbado in Turin in 1997, remains something of a work in progress.)

Turiddu is the vehicle for Cura's Metropolitan Opera debut, on September 27 -- the first half of a gala doubleheader opening night ending with Plácido Domingo in Pagliacci. The occasion combines the eagerly awaited introduction of New York audiences to the dramatic tenor whose voice and stage presence are a throwback to the days of Franco Corelli and Mario Del Monaco, with Domingo's eighteenth opening night at the Met, breaking the first-night record set by Enrico Caruso. The evening's two tenors have a special bond: in 1994, Cura was a winner of Domingo's International Operalia Competition, and Domingo has endorsed his younger colleague by conducting Cura's first solo recording -- the 1997 Puccini Arias -- and signing him on for both last season's Samson and this season's Otello at Washington Opera.

José Cura, the third Great Tenor Hope to make his Met debut in as many years, is the only one of the three likely to go into the record books as a successful debutant. (Roberto Alagna's nerves got the better of him in his 1996 debut in La Bohème; and Marcelo Álvarez's affably bland Alfredo got lost in the company's monster Zeffirelli production of La Traviata last year.) The fact that magazines and newspapers around the world, desperate for a successor to the triumvirate of Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras, have anointed Cura "The Fourth Tenor" irks the singer. "If I am the fourth tenor, who is the third, the second or the first?" he demands. "It's a title that doesn't mean anything."

In this age of hype, titles do of course mean something to the general public, but hype is a double-edged sword: while the accolades encourage a sort of frenzied anticipation, they also foster the honing of critical knives. Cura, who could do no wrong a couple of years ago, is now in the crosshairs of certain writers (notably Rodney Milnes, whose scathing review of the tenor's Otello appeared in the London Times last May 19). It helps that he has the good fortune not to be afflicted with stage fright -- even when a dress rehearsal has been a major disaster, or an opening night is fraught with glitches. Case in point: the first night of Samson at Washington Opera, when the temple came crashing down three bars too soon. Cura kept singing as if everything were going according to plan.

"My instinctive reaction was not to run away from the stage but to try to save the production," says the tenor, pausing mid-bite over a bowl of risotto at Café des Artistes in New York during our interview. "I'm never scared onstage -- there's nothing that can surprise me. I don't know if it sounds arrogant, but I'm so well prepared. I've been onstage more than half my life."

The singer has no doubt read a story or two in which he's been described as "arrogant," but at our first interview he comes across as cordial, polite, thoughtful, intelligent and humorous. He's obviously used to being interrupted by fans and people in the business -- at one point a well-known artist manager stops by to chat, shouting "Cura!" as he approaches our table -- yet somehow the tenor manages to stay focused on whatever question he's been asked, easily picking up where he left off.

True, Cura has strong opinions about the direction he wants his career to take, but he doesn't exhibit a pompous or overbearing attitude. He simply knows who he is and how hard he worked to get to where he is today.





Tenor of The Times

The Washington Post 

Pierre Ruhe

November 11, 1998


The opera world -- which has long been searching for an heir to the overhyped Three Tenors -- may have found him in an Argentine composer and conductor who once worked as a body-building instructor.

"I'm a musician by vocation, a tenor by accident," insists Jose Cura, who begins a run this week as the hero of the Washington Opera's production of Camille Saint-Saens's "Samson et Dalila" opposite mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.

Those who hear Cura during his run as Samson are unlikely to think there's been any accident. His voice is large, masculine and commanding, with an unforced, natural delivery. His top notes ring clear and true, like a trumpet. He is a throwback to the big tenors from the '50s and '60s, such as Franco Corelli or Mario del Monaco. (By coincidence, in the very small world of opera, del Monaco's son Giancarlo is directing this production of "Samson.") But unlike the sound of those bright-voiced Italians, Cura's wells up from a deeper registry, almost like a baritone.

Word that Cura is the great tenor hope has been circulating among music lovers for several years. Next year he'll make his auspicious debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York: on opening night, in "Cavalleria Rusticana."

The usually understated British magazine Opera went nuts over his debut recording of Puccini arias, released on Erato a year ago, proclaiming the disc the "lavish confirmation that Cura is the answer to our prayers, a true spinto tenor leaning towards robusto that we have needed for so long." In other words, he's both lyrical and dramatic, and he's got power and stamina behind the voice. John Steane, perhaps the most respected vocal expert writing in English today, hears in Cura "a thrilling voice, an individual timbre." In the ever-popular romantic tenor repertoire, Cura, 35, is at the top of his generation.

On Friday morning last week, Cura greeted a visitor to his Watergate hotel suite dressed in a black track suit and thick white socks, sipping tea on the sofa. He was getting over a lingering cold, but in good spirits though still heavily congested. Yet by the next day's dress rehearsal he was too sick to sing. Graves also had complained of minor troubles (dry vocal cords) and opted not to overtax herself for this rehearsal. So both title characters "walked" through their parts, in costume, while their understudies (Ian DeNolfo and Catherine Keen) stood at stage right and did all the singing.

Cura's vocation as a musician is unusually broad. Born in Rosario, Sante Fe, Argentina, he was conducting a choir, playing classical guitar and composing music by the time he was 15. But a life of easy privilege -- his father owned a metals conglomerate -- was soon blocked.

"I've known every stage of social possibilities in my life, because I was born in a rich family," he says. "But when the military regime went into power we were one of the first to go into bankruptcy. Imagine for me, as a teenager, one day I was proud of being rich and the next day I was nothing, we had nothing. But my mother was born in poverty and she knew misery, she pulled us up. After that, education became very important, and we started again."

At 22, the year he married, he made his opera-conducting debut with "Carmen," and soon after had written several ambitious, large works: a children's opera, a Requiem, a Magnificat. Despite his success as a singer, he still considers himself a composer. He calls his music "post-romantic" in style and is working, when he finds the time, on an oratorio about Christ's last days. He started singing to make himself a better composer of vocal music and earn some extra money. Being a chorister in the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, South America's largest and most prestigious opera house, proved invaluable, if less than lucrative. "I had several jobs every day: I'd work in a gym as a body-building instructor in the morning, in the afternoon at a grocer's, in the evening in the chorus at the opera. It was a hell of a life."

That life lasted five years. All the while he was making amazing progress with his singing, taming what was then a large but raw and unfocused voice. When the decision was made to try opera, he moved to Italy so he could learn Italian opera from the natives. One breakcame in 1994, when he won Plácido Domingo's International Operalia vocal contest.

Domingo has clout in every place that Cura's career, indeed any young singer's, might develop. He's the leading dramatic tenor in the world today, plus he's the Washington Opera's artistic director (and he is assuming the same title with the Los Angeles Opera). He also conducted the London Philharmonia for Cura's debut recital disc and will conduct this production of "Samson."

Given Domingo's unique power and the cynicism of the opera world, gossip and speculation seemed inevitable. "One month after I won the contest in '94 I sang in Chicago and the general talk was that I was imposed by Plácido to sing Fedora -- when in fact I had signed the contract with an agent to sing there before I entered the contest. I can understand what people used to think. But it's stupid now to think I'm still a protege of Placido's. I have earned my place, my career, where it now stands.

"My relationship with Plácido is much less complicated than people think," Cura says. "Ten singers won the year I won. People used to say, Cura is where he is because he won the Operalia contest,' but I say, Where are all the other winners? I don't see them.' Some are doing wonderful careers, but no one is in my situation. My relationship with Plácido is just based on that -- I've won his contest, so he uses me and helps me wherever he can. Our relationship and friendship is based in that, and that is the point of the contest. But he has never given me vocal advice, he's never said a word to me about technique, and I respect him for that. Every singer has his own way of singing or finding a phrase, and too much advice from too many singers isn't a good thing."

Domingo, for his part, responds: "My protege? No. He deserves to be where he is by his own merits. He already has an incredibly varied repertoire. Another thing that sets him apart is that he is an excellent musician and a fine actor. And the voice itself is a true lirico-spinto.

"There is no doubt that his is the voice to be considered for the future."

If Domingo has named Cura his heir, perhaps it is because both are interested in more than singing. Cura's second solo recording, something of a crossover disc of Argentine songs, includes two of his own pieces. And he'll increasingly perform recitals with orchestra in which he conducts overtures and intermezzi in addition to singing arias. "I'm still just a composer and conductor who happens to sing," he maintains. He continues to keep his career options open with symphonic conducting and work with a chamber ensemble, playing piano and percussion.

But before he can focus on those other activities he has a run of "Samson" performances in Washington, and Cura is a thoughtful actor onstage. "Samson is about sex, and about man's relationship with something eternal. Is there someone up there, whatever you choose to call it? Are we all alone? In the scene in the third act, for example, where Samson pushes the treadmill -- he's not supposed to sing like a bird, he's been castrated and beaten, he's weak. It's an unreal moment, so I try to give the effect of a broken situation, by making a sob here or a cracked note there, in a theatrical way.

"It's one of the most dramatic moments in opera: It's Samson's soul talking with God. It shouldn't be loud but intense. My job is to get that across to the audience and I always find it most challenging to portray small parts of the human condition."  




The José Cura Interview

Interview conducted in 1998 by Jane Austin for the ConneXion



At last the long awaited interview with José Cura took place in Torino in October during Samson et Dalila. I have to admit that I was a little nervous when I arrived at his hotel but of course I needn't have been. As soon as José arrived in the lobby to greet me I began to relax and by the time we got to the first question I was fine.

JA.  When you are first offered a role in an opera that you don't know (assuming the tessitura is right for you) what is the first thing you consider, the music or the dramatic possibilities?

José Cura:  It's difficult to say because for me as an actor it is very important to have a plot that I can develop but then if the plot is good and the music not that good it is also not fun for the singer in me. As you know there are not many operas where the plot and the music are good so you have maybe Otello or Don Carlo and you have almost every Puccini. Puccini was very careful about this. That's why I love Puccini.

JA.  Yes, I had read somewhere that you love Puccini and have wondered why him in particular.

José Cura: You can create believable characters with wonderful music. That's why I'm not very happy with every Verdi. I love Otello, I love Don Carlo.  Of course I like Falstaff but I can't sing it and even if I like the music of Forza del Destino the plot is pathetic and Trovatore is the same. So it is very difficult to say but if I can choose or if I have to choose I prefer to have a good plot with more or less good music and not wonderful music but with a ridiculous plot.

JA. So you really have to take each one separately.

José Cura:  Yes, because with some singing and really believing in what you are doing you can turn not wonderful music into something nice. But a ridiculous plot there is nothing you can do.

JA.  Staying on the same sort of line, how do you go about forming a characterization? Let’s take Canio for instance.  Do you think yourself middle-aged?

José Cura: Yes and no. I mean of course because of my physical characteristics there is no way for me to portray a Canio who is old and physically frustrated and who feels neglected because he is not a nice chap; it would not be believable. So I have to portray Canio in a different way I have to make him a handsome middle-aged man who is so violent, so cruel with everybody that no one will love him, maybe preferring someone not so good looking but sweet. So my Canio is different. It's not the usual physically frustrated old man, maybe not quite impotent or whatever. No, it is a Canio who is perhaps sexually good enough but also cruel enough and violent enough.

JA. I must admit that I can testify to that having seen you do it in Zurich. You were certainly very physically present.

José Cura:  Like saying my Canio is a sadist. But of course it is not what Nedda likes. She prefers the sweet and childish love of Silvio.

The thing is trying to portray the character in your own skin because it is better as far as you can do it not to try to adapt your body to the character alone because it is not cinema. In cinema they might use a lot of make-up tricks and because of the way of using the camera you can create a more believable illusion.

JA.  It gives you the option if you want to continue singing the part.

José Cura:  That's the whole problem of opera when you are a singer of fifty years old having to perform as a child of eighteen. When you are fifty or sixty, you can be Butterfly who was fourteen so that is the usual impossible to solve problem of opera.  Another thing, no cinema director would choose an old woman to do the character of a fragile teenager.

JA.  But people have got so used to it in opera, haven't they? They've tended to get used to the fact that anyone can do anything. Although I have found more and more that after such performances I hear the audience commenting about it.

José Cura:  Yes they do, but when you put the right thing with the right people everything changes. It's not fair to say because I will be old, too. In twenty years I will be willing to do the young lover and I will be fifty so it will arrive my turn too. In twenty years I tell you....

JA.  How do you learn a new role? Do you teach yourself? I know you've got a studio at home.

José Cura:  Yes. I prepare my characters alone always, and then when I'm ready if I happen to find someone in front of me who I trust maybe show him my version and then we discuss it. Or if I work with interesting people in rehearsals I adapt and expand my version. But in the beginning I prefer to learn my characters alone. Because I like to be the owner of not only my successes but also of my failures.

JA.  It's mine and I'll stand up if it wasn't good.

José Cura:  Yes.

JA.  Do you have a singing coach and if so how did you go about finding them?

José Cura:  Yes and no. Again as with all my life I'm sort of 80% self-taught. So I don't have a fixed vocal coach. Yes, I have people who I trust and whose advice I respect and analyze. Vittorio Terranova was for a year, when I lived in Italy, my vocal coach. Every chance he can he comes to my performances, listens to me and gives me his advice if he has something to say. So yes and no. What I mean with this is that I don't have a day each week when I meet with a coach.

JA.  It's just as and when you feel the need.

José Cura:  Because if you don't get rid of this necessity you cannot fly for an international opera career. Because it's almost impossible to bring your teacher in your pocket with you or inside your luggage. So if you cannot manage alone you feel all the time nervous and you feel all the time alone, 'Oh, is time to sing the difficult part and I have nobody to help me', so you're nervous.

JA.  Makes sense.

José Cura:  You have to teach yourself the way you teach yourself to leave home and be without papa and mama and manage to pay your own bills.

JA:  Do established singers offer you advice and encouragement?  Is this something special that happens in the opera world?

José Cura:  It depends on the relationship you have with them, because it is something very interesting, when an established singer, a real big one, arrives to that point where they also become wise and it’s like in life if you look around the people that love to give advice are the people that have nothing to advise.  When you are wise enough to be ready to advise people you don’t give your advice unless somebody comes and asks you for that advice.

JA:  I suppose you feel that if they need it they will come and if you go in and offer it, they’ll think I’m butting in.

José Cura:  The advice of a big singer is not spoken just shown with example of how to.  I remember in 1994 when I did Fedora with Mirella Freni and I met her for the first time she never for a second gave me advice on how to do things.  But watching her singing and watching her breathing…How she managed at almost sixty to sing with that wonderful technique was unspoken advice. 

JA:  Who’s your favorite operatic character?

José Cura:  That’s an easy and complicated one.  Of course Samson is one of my favorites.  Even if I haven’t performed a lot of Otello I can say Otello is very good.

JA:  Yes, it’s certainly quite a complex character.

José Cura:  I love all these characters that I can really develop.  For somebody who loves to act on stage there is nothing more interesting that a multi-dimensional character.  And with Samson you are a revolutionary in the first act and in the last act you are a blind man.  To perform a blind man or someone with a handicap, a deformed leg, mute, Down syndrome or whatever, it is one of the most interesting challenges for an actor.  It is the difficult stuff but it is wonderful.

JA:  I can imagine having seen a lot of your performances you do like to get right into the character.

José Cura: In Samson, I perform the whole of the third act with my eyes closed.  I never open my eyes, not even to watch the conductor.  I close my eyes and they paint my eye lids black to give from a distance a feeliing that my eyes are burnt.  So first I am not allowed to open my eyes or the make-up will be spoilt and second I don’t open my eyes because I want to feel the sensation of being blind.

JA:  It must be very difficult.  You think you can imagine it but you can’t.

José Cura:  I close my eyes so when I fell on stage I really fell and when they push me they really push me.  I don’t know where I’m going so I said everybody, listen. I’m in your hands. Careful because if you push me into the pit I go into the pit…so everybody knows that I won’t open my eyes.

When the boy guided me on stage at the first rehearsal he was waiting for me to push him so I said listen, please.  I’m blind so you just guide me because I don’t know where to go.

JA:  That’s interesting.  I didn’t realize you did it with your eyes closed.

José Cura:  Even when I have my back to the audience I don’t open my eyes.  So I never know where I am.  Of course now after rehearsal and after having fallen off the stage I know, as blind people know, where I am.

JA:  If they are on familiar ground they know where they are.  It’s three paced to the door, or there’s a chair in the way.

José Cura:  I have an anecdote about this.  In 1996 when I performed Samson for the first time in London with Jacques Delacote he was kind of crazy in the rehearsals because I didn’t watch the conductor a lot because it distracted me from the acting.  I see the conductor but I never watch him.  He said to me, listen, I need your eyes.  I need to feel that you are watching me all the time.  And I said be sure that every movement you do I know and I will understand it but I will never fix you in my eyes and even if I do so in the 1st and 2nd acts how am I going to do it in the last act when Samson is blind?  I won’t see you.  I won’t open my eyes so we have to follow each other with the soul because I’ll never see you for the whole act.

JA:  I suppose it helps when you have a conductor you work with regularly and build an empathy with them.

José Cura:  No, it’s nothing to do with that.  When you have a handicap, unfortunately nothing is the way it used to be when you didn’t have a handicap.  So even when you are performing a handicap on stage, you are supposed not to be exactly the way you were without your handicap.  Because if not you lose the credibility of the thing. 

JA:  A question on concerts and operas.  Is the physical effort for a concert greater than that of an opera?  I mean in the effort to do so much singing of the big arias one after the other.

José Cura:  The physical effort of a concert is not on your body.  It’s in the tension that you have in your interpretation of trying to create a character without being the character.

JA:  Because you have to do it instantly without any build up?

José Cura:  Yes.  You don’t have the makeup; you don’t have costume, or other performers working with you so you have to make people believe that you are a character when you are dressed in a black suit.  That’s why my concerts are what they are.

But of course there is nothing in an ordinary concert like the real physical effort [of an opera] in terms of the body, just the tension of being exposed without the cover of makeup and the scenery and whatever.  Yesterday I had tracheitis but I managed to sing.  I was carried along by the stage, the singers, and the movement and if I felt that I was going to crack a note I could improvise some movement to cover that kind of thing.  But when you are singing a concert there is nothing you can do.  You sing or you go home.

JA:  You’re naked, aren’t you?

José Cura:  In that sense, it is much more stressful.

JA:  So it’s tiring from the tension and stress rather than physically running around the stage.

José Cura:  It’s like when you’re playing football.  If you lose the ball, you can run and maybe get it again.  But if you’re playing chess and you make a wrong movement they will take your piece. 

JA:  If a critic offers constructive criticism as opposed to criticism for the sake of it, do you take it on board and learn from it?

José Cura:   When I was in London for the first time in Stiffelio, Rodney Milnes from The Times wrote a lot of wonderful things about me but in the middle of that he wrote that there is a problem with two notes in the lower register and he was right because I was having trouble with the notes.  At the time I was working hard on the problem.  So it made me happy in a way to know that a critic was fair enough to understand that the character was wonderful but of course there was a problem and it made me frustrated to understand that my problem was evident that people could see it and understand it.  When I returned to do Samson a year after, he said I am happy to acknowledge that where a year ago I said there was a problem there is no longer a problem.  So that’s an intelligent critic.

JA:  Really that’s what they’re there for, isn’t it?  Not for their own personal taste.

José Cura: The problem with the critics, people have the wrong idea that the critic can damage the artist.  An established artist will be very difficult to damage by a critic.  He damages the audience.  Because the critic is a nexus between the artist and the public, and if the critic doesn’t make a good nexus he will only damage the public. 

I was very happy to know when they called me to tell me that Otello was going to be televised.  They called me with a very funny voice trying to convince me of the big danger of doing my first Otello.  I was the first tenor in the history of opera that had his debut in Otello not only at my age, not only with only four rehearsals but also broadcast live on television. Like saying here I am, take it or leave it. But I was very happy because I knew that a lot of people were going to attack me and I said, look, I’m happy with the live broadcast because nobody will be able--if I do a good job--to say the contrary.  Because I have the evidence.

JA:  You stand by it or fall by it.

José Cura:  Exactly.  So that’s it.

JA:  Do you have a set routine on performance days?

José Cura:  No.  I just try to conserve as much energy as I can for the night.  I try to sleep as much as I can during the day. I just have the same routine as when I was a sportsman.  Just rest as much as I can and have healthy eating and maybe an hour or two before the performance eat a plate of carbohydrates such as pasta but clean without heavy sauces or something like that, because I need my digestion to work quickly and easily without any problems.

JA:  Just be sensible.

José Cura:  Yes.  Of course, a couple of times it’s happened that the plane has only arrived half an hour before the performance because it was that or not sing.  Of course I prefer not, because it’s very stressful.  But a normal day for me starts the night before when I have dinner, go to bed, and have a nice night and sleep, have breakfast, go for a walk or whatever and then go to the theater.

JA:  Do you have a traveling companion?

José Cura:  I like to have people with me because I don’t like to be alone.  I am, as you know, an expansive character so I find it very hard to be alone.  But of course because also I am very easy to befriend everywhere I go I make friends almost instantly.  Normally I try to go with my people and friends.  And now more because the kids are growing my wife is also coming with me more than in the past.  So that is fine with me. 

JA:  Do you have a secret ambition?

José Cura:  Yes, I have an ambition but it is not a secret and it a very difficult one.  Being able to put together this big parcel of being a high profile public persona and also wanting to be a family man.

JA:  A private person.

José Cura:  Yes.  If I can put all this together and if people can help with this, friends and whoever is around, it would be very welcome.

JA:  Are you superstitious?

José Cura:  No.  I have not a single superstition.  It’s something you try to learn if you want a relaxed career.  People always ask how I manage to be so relaxed on stage and to enjoy myself.  It is because I teach myself every day, every second of my career, to be like that.  So when you go to my dressing room there is nothing in there, maybe if someone is so kind there is a bottle of water, nothing more, just my costume.

JA:  I suppose you could become reliant upon something like a bent nail or whatever it is and then you lose it and start to panic.

José Cura:  I oblige myself not to have any attachments to anything.  If I have a small cold and arrive at my dressing room and suddenly realize that I have forgotten my aspirins, instead of sending someone to my hotel to get them my reaction is I have to learnt to manage without them.  Of course you try to avoid these things but if they happen they happen and the way is not to be paranoid it’s to try to teach yourself not to be paranoid.

The only superstition I have, if you want to call it a superstition, is that it is not me who sings, it is not me who is on stage, I am just an instrument of somebody called God.  Before entering the stage I say “here I am.  Sing through me.” Not sing with me but through me. You’re just the instrument and if something happens it is because He wants it to happen. 

JA:  That’s a lovely disposition to have.  It must free you.

José Cura:  Yes, it’s made me feel so at ease.

JA:  Recording in a studio is very different from a live performance.  You come across as a spontaneous singer.  Did you find it difficult adjusting?

José Cura:  No, because I can create the atmosphere.  When I was performing this recording with the Philharmonia and Plácido and the technicians didn’t quite know what was going to happen before the first session and when I stood there in front of everybody looking and the musicians and walking between them and singing during the rehearsal they said what the hell is going on.  And they were motivated.  I could feel that after the first half an hour they started to play in a different way.  They were playing wonderful notes and all of a sudden they started to do theater.

JA:  There was life in it.

José Cura:  It was because we were playing together.  We were enjoying together.  I remember some of the songs I stopped in the middle of the recording.  I said we are making wonderful music but we are not giving meaning to this.  We have to play with our souls.  Play for me and I’ll sing for you and let us make love altogether.  It was good.

JA:  You’re recording songs from your native Argentina.  Is this something close to your heart that you’re particularly looking forward to?

José Cura:  I’m looking forward to it because it’s music I really like.  And I’m looking forward because I will conduct and do the arrangement.  And I am looking forward most al all because it will be the first time the music of my country, the songs of my country, will be recorded in an absolutely high profile record company house, Warner Classics.

JA:  Rather than some small record company.

José Cura:  Because of the structure of Warner Classics, it will be able to reach every corner of the world showing what our music is, which is very important.

JA:  Will it be traditional or a mix of traditional and contemporary?

José Cura:  No, no.  Everything is really songs like if you do a German album you do Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, this kind of quite neat romantic melodies.




Interview with José Cura

Weekly Edition

Neal Conan and Robert Siegel

27 November 1998

Introduction by Neal Conan, Host:  Here in Washington this weekend, the great tenor Placido Domingo is stepping in to pinch-hit for José Cura.  Domingo has been conducting the 35 year old Argentinian in a Washington Opera production of Samson et Dalila, but Cura had a previous commitment that conflicted with the last performance. The young singer is emerging as a star in his own right.  José Cura visited NPR’s studios and spoke with Robert Siegel.

Robert Siegel, Host, All Things Considered:  The role of Samson seems ideal for Cura, who stands 6’2”and used to work as a body-building instructor. It’s also a role that he says demands a different kind of voice for each act, as Samson rouses the enslaved Hebrews to revolt, and is seduced by Dalila and then blinded, chained and forced to turn a millstone.

José Cura, Musician:  You need a heroic dark sound in the first act; you need a kind of sensual beginning to-be-suffered sound in the second act; and you need a broken voice in the third act.  You’re supposed to be tortured, castrated, and then all the things—you know, I’m blind—and blind, not just because you’re blind, but blinded with a point of a sword, which is much more uncomfortable.  You are supposed to sing and to act with your voice, sufferance of the character.

Cura says he is vocally at about 60 percent, fighting a cold.  But he did manage to survive an opening case of premature temple collapse.  More on that later.

José Cura likes to point out that he was not discovered in a pizza parlor idly singing.  He was a teenage guitarist who studied composition before he became a singer. He still arranges and composes.  He has a new recording of Argentinian songs, including his own setting of two Pablo Neruda poems. And he says that his own music has changed as he’s become more and more a man of the theater.

Cura:  I think that my compositions now turn to be more theatrical, more directly dramatic, more giving a sense—a theatrical sense of not only to some of the music itself. Of course, those two songs in the record are sort of the exception, because when you have to put music on Neruda you have to be very, very, very careful.  Because it’s like walking between crystals.  I mean, those words, those poems are so rich, so perfect, that every note you put risks to distract the attention of the listener.

You know, there’s an anecdote behind those songs. I was singing in 1995 in Palermo Francesca da Rimini, which is an extremely romantic opera.  It’s a sort of Romeo and Juliet opera. And after the third or fourth performance I went into my dressing room to start my makeup and I found a book on the table. And when I opened the book, it was dedicated and words were more or less like “to you who sings to love, words of love.” It was anonymous. I never, never knew who gave me that book. But I just opened the book there, and the first poem I saw was that poem. And I was so impressed with it that I just wrote the music right there.

Siegel:  When you talk of your being a man of the theater, are there actors—not from opera, but from stage or screen actors—who are important models to you and who are ideals to you?

Cura:  I don’t want to name one actor. But let’s say that this way of acting more than an actor.  Opera singers are famous for the fact of being, all the time doing on stage a lot of things that have no reason. Moving hands, open arms and kinds of things. And, of course, it’s very difficult when you have to deal with long melodies. Because one thing is to say “I love you” and you say it in one word and you just touch the person you love or maybe not. And one other thing is to take 10 minutes to say “I love you.”


Siegel:  You have to do something with your hands during that time.

Cura:  Exactly. After the second minute you don’t know what to do.  (laughter)  So that’s a big challenge, of course, and to find a compromise between those things. But, in essence, the essence is just don’t do on stage whatever is superfluous, you know; the gesture that comes from nothing. I prefer to be still. I prefer to keep this kind of internal energy.

Siegel:  Take me back now to opening night of Samson et Dalila in the Washington Opera here in the Kennedy Center.  It’s the end of the third act. You, Samson, are being shown off to ridicule to the mob--that is the chorus in the temple in Gaza. And you’re summoning the help of God to give you strength as they lead you to the pillars. And as I saw it—just a little bit too soon—the temple came down on its own will.

Cura:  Yes.


Siegel:  What was going on?

Cura:  It was the hand of God.


Siegel:  Who missed His cue, evidently.

Cura:  No, you know, the true story is that, of course, as in every life of performers, things happen. And I was very lucky that the soloist dancer, Mr. Hill, was in front of me.  And I would never, never forget him in my life, when he said to me—because I have my eyes closed—and I had my back to this…

Siegel:  You’re blind.  You’re playing the blind man.

Cura:  Of course, I’m playing the blind, and to do that I have my eyes closed all the time.  Because I have the black makeup on my eyes. So, of course, I don’t know what is happening. And he is in front of me dancing and ripping my clothes. And he said to me in a sudden, “listen, man, you move or you’re a dead man.” [Laughter]  So I turn around and the whole temple was coming down on my head. And I said, “OK, here we go. The insurance—I go to the Bahamas and I never work in my life again.” [Laughter ] And so I said, “OK, we have to save the show, of course.” And I said let us make a first pull like if God has to make a –pull the whole temple down.  Maybe He did it in two times, you know.  I mean, why should He make it in one?  So, course, I make a first pull and then half of it came down. And then I gathered the chains again, and I gave a real one and the opera ended it. So I think in the 2,000 people that were there, at least one thought it was planned like that.  [Laughter]  And it was fun. But in any case, in any case, I will never forget that phrase:  “Man, you move or you’re a dead man”





A Samson with a Black Belt

Sarah Bryan Miller

New York Times

22 November 1998

 José Cura, an Argentine tenor who used to be a martial-arts trainer and rugby player, has a darkly handsome macho look and a dark, baritonal macho sound to match.

The travel and the long hours were starting to catch up with him; José Cura sounded low, gravelly and untenorial on a recent morning.  “Excuse me,” he growled, “as I use my double-bass voice.”

But a tenor he is, and good news for opera fans. An Argentine who once held a black belt in kung fu, he boasts a baritonal timbre, secure technique and outstanding musicianship, combined with the vocal strength to do the big riles of the French and Italian repertories, and a darkly handsome macho look to go with his dark, macho sound.

Now appearing at the Washington Opera as Samson in Saint-Saens’ s kitchy classic  Samson et Dalila, Mr. Cura has an impressive Metropolitan Opera debut lined up, as Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana (alongside Placido Domingo’s Canio in Pagliacci) on opening night next year.  With his CD of Puccini arias (conducted by Mr. Domingo) selling steadily, Erato has released two new recordings in which he is prominently featured: Samson et Dalila, with Olga Borodina as the Philistine seductress and Colin Davis conducting,  and Anhelo, a collection of Argentine songs, which includes two tunes composed by Mr. Cura.  He also conducts the songs and is credited with orchestration and cover design.

Booked through 2004, Mr. Cura might seem to American audiences to have sprung full blown from Mr. Domingo’s international Operalia competition, which he won in 1994.  Mr. Cura disagrees.

“I’ve been working, studying, doing this kind of thing since I was 12, and I’m 35 today,” he says.  “I’m pretty solid in this career.  I’m not the kind of singer who comes from nowhere and cracks under the pressure.”

Mr. Cura began his musical studies as a classical guitarist, then moved to conducting and composition.  While studying choral conducting in his mid-20s, he sang in choruses and, he says, learned vocal discipline.  The head of the conservatory in his hometown, Rosario, Argentina, encouraged him to study voice, and he soon left for Europe to pursue a career.

A series of small breaks, gradually leading to international attention, brought Mr. Cura his current success.  In 1995 he opened a Verdi festival at Covent Garden, in place of José Carreras, and caught the notice of recording executives.

Intelligent and articulate, Mr. Cura seems aware of his limitations and wary of hype.  “It is lucky that it was not one big explosion,” he said. “If you do a big noise once, you are expected to do that all the time, and if you don’t do it the next time, they say you are going down.”

He bristled when asked about the inevitable comparisons with Mr. Domingo, another baritonal tenor who sings the big roles and conducts on the side.  “He has taken an interest in my career, and that is flattering and nice,” Mr. Cura said.  “When one of the winners of his contest is making a big international career, it is natural for him to be proud and helpful. When he said that he believed in Cura, that Cura was a great artist, that was helpful to my reputation.  The danger is that some people said that Cura was singing only because Domingo was pushing him.”

Mr. Cura’s talents should be judged on their own merits, Mr Domingo insists.  “Without any doubt, José is one of the most exciting tenors of the new generations for his vocal and artistic qualities and his musicality,” Mr. Domingo said.  “He is a ‘must’ tenor for any major opera company.”

But is Mr. Cura ready for heavy roles?  He believes he is.

“Every tenor, when young, dreams about tackling the big roles, the big heroes,” he said.  “Of course that ruins careers when you sing only for wanting to do it and not because you are ready. So every time one tries it, they say, ‘Oh, another one who’s going to burn his wings.’  Almost 30 years ago, when Placido did Otello, they said he was going to ruin his career.  They are so demanding, these roles, that even if you have the voice for the roles, if you don’t have the technique, you will burn the voice.  It is a combination of both things, the voice and the intelligence.”

He is dubious, however, about moving into German repertory. ”I  put a great amount of effort in acting on stage, to be as believable as I can, and for that you need to master the language, the nuances of the language,” he said. “If you can’t do that, you will never be believable on stage.  If I could become as fluent in German as I am in English, then maybe I would tackle a German role.”

Meanwhile, he should have plenty of work in the French and Italian repertory. His new recording as Samson is ruggedly sung.  Inspiring as he leads the Israelites into battle, convincingly abject in defeat, Mr. Cura gives a strong performance.  Anhelo (Intense Desire) shows a different side of his vocal personality, softer, introspective and less prone to sustained high notes.

Mr. Cura, who lives outside Paris with his wife and three children, is a sports fan and was once a semiprofessional athlete.  As a former martial-arts trainer and rugby player, he appreciates the sacrifices athletes have to make. “I know how much you have to suffer to get those results,” he said.

Although he has given up the guitar for lack of time, he continues to conduct.   “That was really my origin as a musician, something I don’t like to lose,” he said.  “In the past it was not easy to get an orchestra.  Now it is much easier.”

Like other tenors of his generation, Mr. Cura must deal with the “fourth tenor” pressure.  He dismisses the label, but it doesn’t bother him. “If you analyze it, you realize it’s a way for the press to tell people what kind of level you are at,” he said.  “It’s just media shorthand.”

Does he have particular goals in mind?  “There are no real goals in a career,” he replied. “You have to analyze and study and take what is right for you.  When you have two proposals every day and each can take you in a different direction, you make a choice, and that leads to other decisions.  You can make a career, or burn out in a couple of years.  It all depends on whether you’re intelligent or not.”



Note:  This is a machine-based translation.  We offer it only a a general guide but it should not be considered definitive.




Washington DC - The biblical opera Samson and Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns  took the stage at the Kennedy Center, with the Argentine tenor José Cura in the leading role and Denyce Graves as Dalila. The appearance of Cura (35) was preceded by a favorable flood of press and a fever of praise for this young man’s talent, whom almost everyone crowns as “the fourth tenor” and others call “the new Caruso.”  In addition to his voice, his performance (acting) received accolades. 

We talked with Cura in his suite at the famous Watergate hotel and his first words were to thank Ambito Financiero for having been the first medium, after his December 1994 concert in Buenos Aires, to publicize his qualities and his (then incipient) trajectory to the Argentine reader. Born in Rosario, José Cura started a heterodox musical education at the age of twelve, in which the autodidactic prevails over the "academic". Cura says that he was always impatient with the conventional educational processes, including a brief formative stage at the National School of Music of the University of Rosario ("every time I had learned the 'necessary’...I flew to another nest'”). Thus he began in classical guitar, learned violin, studied composition ("by my account," he emphasizes), and orchestral conducting (“...without ever rehearsing with an orchestra," he adds). In parallel, he develops his vocal talent.  In Buenos Aires he sang in the Choir of the Higher Institute of Art of the Teatro Colón in the mid-80s while also being a coach in a gym.

In 1991 the European epic began: auditions, agent search, contests. In 1993, at the Teatro de Trieste, the efforts of those who were staging Fräulein Julie, by the contemporary composer Antonio Bibalo (based on Strindberg's book), were about to falter. Cura relates: "The plebeian, virile tenor was missing, the one who seduces, subjugates, violates and humiliates the countess.  That tenor ended up being me." It was a great success: ten performances, with full theater. He had, without doubt, the "le physique du role."  

Fräulein Julie was followed by Janacek’s Caso Makropoulos, and--already delving into Verdi's nineteenth-century repertoire- Forza of Destiny, Nabucco, and other operas in Italy.

In Covent Garden, London, he "covered" Carreras in Fedora, by Giordano (1994), and when in 1995 Carreras canceled his appearance in Verdi's Stiffelio, Cura went on to star as the character that he himself defines it as "masculine, almost as dramatic as Otello." Covent Garden was the trigger for what is now an international career. He already has sevenal recordings to his credit, including Samson and Dalila, directed by Sir Colin Davis (with Olga Borodina in Dalila), and his own second CD (Anhelo) that includes songs by Guastavino, Ginastera, and his own compositions, the latter based on Neruda's texts.

Cura, his wife, and three children reside on the outskirts of Paris. Despite his busy agenda, Argentina is not left behind. Said Cura: "No one is a prophet in his land.  It is not for me to understand the bitterness that required me to consecrated myself abroad before presenting myself on the stage of Colón." As it is now known, Cura, together with Chilean soprano Verónica Villarroel, will open the Colón opera season with Verdi’s Otello on 18 April 1999. Then, in Rosario, he will promote the revival of a symphony orchestra ... "at the level of what the city deserves. In 1999, he will again direct at the Royal Festival Hall in London a program of overtures, intermezzi and opera arias”; on September 27, he will open the 1999-2000 season of the Metropolitan Opera in New York singing (Turiddu in) Cavalleria Rusticana.

He would like to direct symphonic repertoire (he is interested, in particular, in the works of Rachmaninoff) and in this regard there are already perspectives for 2003 "onwards." In the field of composition, he has the oratorio "Ecce homo in gestation, and he is "eager" to compose a work for guitar and orchestra.









Enter the Fifth Tenor


Washington City Paper

Joe Banno

Nov 20, 1998

Take a stroll through the opera section of Tower Records some time, and you'll find the Three Tenors hard to avoid. It's not just the countless recitals and opera sets starring Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras or the live relays of their mega-concerts from Stadium X or Y filling the bins. More recently, indie labels have been cobbling together collections of tenor recordings from earlier in the century with titles like Three Legendary Tenors or Three Edison Tenors or simply Three Tenors, minus the definite article—anything so long as that essential three-ness is there. The marketing sense is unassailable: It exploits all the current media hype to promote repackaged historical material.

Only thing is, our own Three Tenors are starting to qualify as historical material themselves. With a combined age approaching 200, José, Luciano, and, yes, even that Energizer Bunny, Plácido, can't have that many high C's left. So the question is raised, ad nauseam: "Who's going to be the Fourth Tenor?" Names like Hadley, Leech, Mora, La Scola, Merritt, Blake, Gimenez, Vargas, Bartolini, Canoncini, and Heppner have been touted for the Zeppo slot. But that delicate blend of talent and charisma, of looks and musicianship, of Barnum and Bailey, has eluded them all, however impressive their singing may be (and in Heppner's case, impressive only begins to cover it). Roberto Alagna alone seems to have conjured listener and media affection in that sold-out-house kind of way, and many have suggested the world has found its Fourth Tenor.

Well, guess what: Number Five just showed up. Argentine tenor José Cura—he of the beautiful voice, matinee-idol looks, solid acting instincts, and rumored ego—has stopped off at Washington Opera for his East Coast debut, on his way to opening night at the Met next year. He's here to sing Samson in Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. The role has been appropriated of late by Domingo, but responds best to the kind of hefty voice Jon Vickers used to bring to it. Cura bears some similarities to Vickers in terms of basic vocal equipment: the baritonal timbre and trumpeting high notes, the reserves of power fueling the sound, even the Vickers-like tendency to croon the softest music.

But whereas Vickers sounded very much his own man, outside any specific national tradition, Cura recalls a kind of passionate Italian voice that's pretty much disappeared from the scene. The steamrolling power of del Monaco, the open, forward tone of Di Stefano, and the sheer beauty (even at great volume) of Corelli all find parallels in Cura's singing. His only worrisome traits are a tendency to crank up the volume at the least provocation and the odd pop-style scoop he employs on certain notes. But these things are fixable. Top to bottom, this guy's the genuine article.

His costar is Denyce Graves—D.C. native, Ellington grad, world-class mezzo-of-the-moment—who shouldn't disappoint local fans. The musky perfume of her voice is still very much in evidence, and if she trades more on her stage presence than on dramatic nuance, she's nevertheless a captivating Dalila. Costumed to take full advantage of her stunning looks, she's imperious or smoldering as needed, and she goes for the gusto in her extended love scene with Cura. Let's hope the moments of flatness and edginess were symptoms of opening-night haste and nerves and not a result of a too-much-too-soon international schedule.

With an exciting baritone sounding rough-hewn from some stately oak, veteran Justino Diaz makes an imposing High Priest of Dagon. Rosendo Flores does memorable work in the brief baritone role of Abimélech. Ditto bass Jonathan Deutsch as the Old Hebrew. But the starriest singer keeps silent all evening. Making his WashOp podium debut, Plácido Domingo conducts a solid, if unexceptional, reading of the score. Domingo is younger at the conducting biz than he is at singing, so Saint-Saëns' busy instrumental writing at the opening of Act 1 and quasi-fugal choruses later on only just hang together, lacking the trim finish that could really sell them. Nothing Domingo does in the pit is less than professional, but his waves of lyricism have a tendency to develop an unwelcome chop from time to time. (Again, these impressions stem from opening night, and fine-tuning is bound to happen in subsequent performances.)

The musical demands of S et D can be met by any large opera house with access to the international casting pool. But the opera becomes a challenge in its staging demands. Saint-Saëns knew his Wagner, and when he was writing S et D, Tristan und Isolde would have been fresh in his mind. (Saint-Saëns wowed Wagner on one occasion by sitting down at the piano and playing the entire four-and-a-half-hour score of Tristan from memory.) In terms of story structure, Saint-Saëns turned a thrice-familiar Bible story into Tristan's Gallic cousin. Act 1 organizes a meet cute between the leaders of two warring nations. In Act 2, they get to know each other in the biblical sense, and loverboy is beset by enemies. Act 3, after much lamentation and gnashing of teeth, brings annihilation on everyone. Of course, the love is one-sided in S et D, and the whole Yahweh factor mucks things up further. But the shift from large-scale scenes of Israelite suffering to the intimacy of Dalila's bedroom to the bacchanalian revels of the Philistines makes for some dramatic schizophrenia.

What really complicates matters, though, are the shifts in style and form from act to act. The static Bach-cum-Mendelssohn writing of the first act gives way to Act 2 love music that's expected to move us on an intimate, human level. Most of the final act is a wild and wacky ballet. This is the portion of WashOp's production that's bound to divide opinion. Choreographer Youri Vàmos has done a Rite of Spring riff on Saint-Saëns' glitzy "Bacchanale," loading it with animal movement, simulated sex, and a you-are-there throat slitting for the sacrificial virgin. I've seen Vàmos do some terrific work—his Deutsche Oper Ballet, Dusseldorf, double-bill of Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin and The Wooden Prince was one of the sexiest, most arresting deconstructions I've come across in years—but here his approach only partly works. Sinewy and silly by turns, the choreography offers there's too much birdlike flapping that resembles pigeons caught under eaves. Regular Vàmos lead dancer Jhane Hill does much with his buff, towering physique and mesmerizing stare to sell the concept. But matters aren't helped by Saint-Saëns' hothouse Middle Easternisms, which provide a virtual ur-text for Hollywood sword-and-sandal soundtracks.

Director Giancarlo del Monaco (son of Mario del Monaco, the Cura-like tenor mentioned earlier) does what he can with this strange hybrid of an opera. His striking opening tableau of Israelites lying prostrate on a steeply raked stage platform would have seemed that much more impressive if it hadn't looked like a color Xerox of John Dexter's similar opening to Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Met. But opting for striking geometry over senseless movement is a wise decision in the lengthy choral scenes. Elsewhere del Monaco draws impassioned responses from his singers and shows a real talent for contorting their bodies into elaborate poses of supplication. He's helped tremendously by set designer Michael Scott's sand-colored, rune-engraved walls, ramps, and stairways. But some stage crew member is undoubtedly suffering now for toppling the Philistine temple well before the finale of the opera on opening night. The two-story styrofoam statues and columns nearly took out a passel of choristers. (One poor guy spent the last few minutes of the opera staggering around in shock, adjusting his wig.) Cura survived the ordeal, and it's a good thing, too. Otherwise, we'd all be back at Square Four. CP




Washington Opera's 'Samson et Dalila' lifted by Jose Cura and Denyce Graves but conductor Domingo let them down.

Baltimore Sun

Stephen Wigler

November 12, 1998

Perhaps I should be forbidden from attending performances of Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila." At every production I go to, disaster strikes ahead of schedule. Moments before the blinded and buzz-cut Hebrew strongman is about to wreak Yahweh's vengeance upon the erring Philistines, the temple walls and the statue of their god, Dagon, inevitably begin to collapse.

It was scarcely a surprise, therefore, when this scenario repeated itself Saturday night in the Opera House of the Kennedy Center at the first performance of the Washington Opera's new staging of the opera. It is a pleasure to report, however, that in many respects this much-anticipated production was a success.

The chief reason for the anticipation was the presence of the much-talked-about Argentine tenor Jose Cura in the title role. It is a coup for the Washington Opera to have engaged Cura before he arrives at the Met next season. He is 35 and is already being touted as the man who will inherit the mantle of Plácido Domingo in the heroically scaled roles of the lyric tenor repertory.

Cura's Samson in London's Covent Garden was much applauded a few seasons back, and his first performances of Verdi's Otello in Turin recently were enthusiastically received. And, as if to place his seal of approval upon predictions that the next Domingo is in our midst, the great tenor himself, who is the Washington company's artistic director and who still counts Samson among his signature roles, is making his Washington Opera debut as a conductor in this production.

So how good is Cura -- or, more to the point, how does he compare with the Domingo of 20 years ago?

He certainly resembles the Spaniard superficially -- except that he is better-looking and is physically more imposing than the young Domingo was.

And his tenor instrument is superb. Cura's voice may not convey the sweetness that Domingo's did, but it is beautiful enough and perhaps even more powerful. Even in the highest reaches of the role, Cura's notes never betrayed a hint of strain.

I also prefer Cura's interpretation of Samson (he has also recorded the opera on just-released Erato 3984-24756) to that of Domingo at the same age. Cura is at least as forceful and expressive, but he gets inside the role in a way that I don't think the younger Domingo did, achieving a bottomless depth of despair in "Vois ma misere" at the beginning of Act III.

Cura's performance was well-matched by the Dalila of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Because she has so stunning a figure, so beautiful a face and a voice so powerful, there was no need to attempt much in the way of vocal subtlety. But Graves is an intelligent and resourceful actress, and she portrayed Dalila with impressive breadth of feeling and tone.

This well-cast production also featured Justino Diaz, striking sparks in his interchanges with Dalila, as a fiercely fanatical High Priest, and Rosendo Flores as Abimelech and Jonathan Deutsch as the Old Hebrew.

But this production, finely sung as it is, does not rescue "Samson et Dalila" from the charges customarily directed against it -- that of being a staged oratorio on one hand and of vulgarity on the other.

Neither charge is true. "Samson" is a masterpiece. But it requires a mastery of French elegance, color and understatement that Domingo's conducting does not possess.

Domingo rarely lent the score a natural sense of flow, and he underlined its most obvious elements. He made the exquisite and exhilarating Act III bacchanal sound as cheap as the soundtrack to a 1950s Hollywood "B" movie -- an impression unfortunately reinforced by Youri Vamos' garish, embarrassingly obvious choreography



Samson et Dalila at the Washington Opera

Parterre Box

18 November 1998

Advance publicity and fan page gush do not exaggerate Jose Cura's compelling physicality, admired on November 18, midway through the run of Washington Opera's Samson et Dalila. But most impressive is the way he puts the eye-candy at the service of a deep identification with his character. Clad in dazzling white, he bestrides Act I, a monument of physical strength and moral authority. His capitulation to Dalila comes as the all-too-topical downfall of a charismatic leader conquered by his own compulsions. Like an addict entering withdrawal, this Samson collapses into a passive heap upon Dalila's cushions -- muscles limp, eyes glazing. The effect is devastating. Dressed in tatters, smeared in blood, and nearly doubled over as he pushes the millstone, Cura in Act III embodies the character's abject shame with Strassbergian realism, setting up the final act of restored faith and divine retribution for a thrilling conclusion.

Oh, and he sings, too. Offering more punch than ping, Cura can't shake that "baritonal" label. Act I, where Samson is a kind souped-up Bach Evangelist, found him wanting in declamatory zeal and clarion edge. In Act II, he crooned a series of hooty "je t'aime"s, adding dubiously supported tone to his portrait of erotic submission. But in Act III, Samson's physical misery and moral torment paradoxically liberated Cura to a freer, Italianate attack that is clearly his natural métier. Suddenly the timbre had more juice, the phrasing more color, and the diction more bite.

As Dalila, Denyce Graves nearly matches Cura for presence and pulchritude. Together they offer a rare convergence of physique duo role that recalls that phrase from Mawrdew Czgowchwz "... the way you think about opera in the bathtub."  Washington's own was in variable voice, occasionally letting the plush go fuzzy or the sheen go brassy, and lacking authority below the break. For half of the evening, her words seemed to be going for very little ("l'amour," "la mort," whatever...) but once her interview with the High Priest heated up, she began to sink her teeth in. If there's nothing epochal about her renditions of the key arias, her ability to maintain musical concentration on "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" while caressing Cura's pecs has to be accounted as some sort of historic feat. Justino Diaz, grand prêtre, completed the triangle with the trenchant enunciation wanting in his junior colleagues. The portrayal was shallow, but he played the cardboard heavy with delectable élan.

Giancarlo del Monaco’s production (a time-share from Bonn) deftly combines ritualistic blocking in the public scenes with character-driven detail in the intimate scenes. The only major miscalculation was staging the Bacchanale as a human sacrifice: after the evisceration of a poor temple dancer, the taunting of Samson comes as a ho-hum anticlimax. Michael Scott's color-coded costumes split the difference between "ethnic" touches (big patterns and body paint) and the Cecil B. deMille look (glitz, chiffon, and headdresses). His massive set featured a trapezoidal, textured floor that first appeared in very steep rake, Hebrews stretched prostrate upon it, for a striking opening image. Domingo, now wielding the baton, emphasized Romantic fervor over the Baroque tricks that Saint-Saëns pulled out of his academic hat.



(Separate review):  Another 'risky' tenor is José Cura; when his voice and personality are clicking, he can be, I think, the most exciting singer of opera today.  Certainly his Samson with Washington Opera was a 'demented night (to use a useful term of supreme praise):  Cura's feral voice and film-star physical attractiveness limned the tragedy of a political superman brought low by his own sexual urges.  He whimpered the line "Dalila, Dalila, je t'aime' in a wavering falsetto, drunk with lust and trembling with self-loathing....


Argentinian tenor Jose Cura was the evening's newcomer and focus. Would he live up to rumor and recordings? I heard a young man of noble bearing, with a pure lyric-spinto voice that had a ping of emotion and a reserve of dramatic power: exciting stuff both now and potentially. As for acting, in Samson's scene blinded at the millstone he was interior, moving and tragic.  Peabody News,  November 1998


“There can be no denying that this is a young singer with extraordinary gifts--combining a full, ringing and powerful tenor voice (complete with marked baritonal shadings and just a hint of the trumpet) with a commanding and athletic stage presence.... the aria 'Vois ma misere' was sufficient to prove that Cura's singing is more than merely loud and hard and that he is capable of some ravishing legato phrasing.”  The Washington Post, 1998


“Ever since Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and [José] Carreras turned into a novelty act playing football stadiums the hunt has been on for the next big tenor. One of the strongest claimants is José Cura, a 35-year-old Argentine bringing down the house (and the set) in Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila this month at the Washington Opera. A kung-fu black belt and bodybuilder, he looks the part of Samson. Better yet, he sings it. Thrilling at full throttle, as any Italianate tenor must be, Cura is even more impressive as a lyrical voice in his love duet with Denyce Graves, the Delilah of the Washington production. The surest measure of his artistry, however, is his nuance vocalism and tragic characterization of the blinded Samson.”  Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1998


“His is a voice of tremendous depth and range, knife-clean and well-supported.  As an added bonus, Mr. Cura is physically handsome and robust; he makes a highly believable and sexy Samson.  Mr. Cura is not afraid to take risks.  His gasping voice in the last act is not the voice of a superstar tenor divo neurotically hungering for applause.  At times, he chokes off his notes with a purposeful inaccuracy, intent on an honest, authentic portrayal of a beaten hero begging for God's help in one final act of vengeance.  It takes guts for a young singer to do this, and Mr. Cura has courage in reserve.” The Washington Times, Nov 1998



José Cura was a compelling Samson …. Opera, January 1999




Audience Comments

"José Cura was the Samson.  In my opinion, he is the real thing--the next great tenor in the Italian and French repertoire.  The voice is truly beautiful.  His piano singing was haunting.  His fortes filled the hall.  He hit all the notes required.  He has obvious stage presence and not just because he is apparently handsome (from my seat I couldn't get a close look but he knows how to move and to act credibly.)  He was truly extraordinary in the opening scene of Act III (Samson at the millstone), pouring forth beatufiul sounds and firm tones with many colors.  I look forward to hearing him in other roles." Mark

"I went prepared to be a little let down at finally hearing Cura live but it didn't happen.  He appears in the first act and blasts you with his heroic, spinto sound.  The Hebrews are dressed like dirt and he has on a white robe.  They hit him with a white spotl and he looks for all the world like Jesus Christ.  He is SO dark a tenor that you don't think there's going to be anything much there when he gets up top but...surprise!  There's a trumpet in there.  He has squillo.  It only appears in at the very top, but it is thrilling.  His basic instrument has a very virile, masculine quality that I believe is going to be his claim to fame over the next decade. It seems to be a sound unique to him, not a lot of those juicy overtones, just straight, full bore, even tone.  Power?  It's there.  It is his acting that impresses the most.  Cura has some seriously effective eyes.  They have the gift of pathos.  His burning glances to heaven travel around the world and come back to their beginning.  He plays the most vulnerable Samson...with, hands down, the most moving Misere scene I have evern seen on stage or video.  He plays it as a compleltely broken man, with a broken voice, and you believe it.  This is a magnificent scene.... Lin

"Cura's performance was truly riveting.  The voice is big and easily carried through the hall.  It always amazes me when singers are able to perform despite the weird contortions forced on them by the director.  In the third act Cura is hunched over the millstone and the voice didn't lose any power.  His final declamation as the temple came tumbling down rang through the hall.  His acting was top notch as well.  If you get a chance to see him on the stage, do so!" Alan

"I do not recall hearing any spinto tenor with a ringing top such as Cura since Mario del Monaco; he showed a very vulnerable side when it come to matters of the heart over his duties to his God.  This strikingly handsome Argentinean tenor's riveting stage presence stems from his weight lifter's physique plus a certain arrogance in stride which is probably best put to use from his entry when Samson first address the Jews." Dan 

"Samson et Dalila is not much of an opera, and the first act, especially, I'd be happy if I never had to sit through again.  The only reason I'd ever go see this opera again is for the mezzo and the tenor.  In this case, Denyce Graves and José Cura more than filled the bill.  I am now a fan of Cura.  His voice is the real thing and I liked the way he used it.  I was especially impressed with his singing in the third act and look forward to hearing him in some more rewarding roles."  Peggy





















Find Cura on Wikipedia!


Want to know more about José Cura?  Check out his Wikipedia page (click on the photo and find out such neat things as.....

  • Full name:  José Luis Victor Cura Gómez
  • First starring role:  Bibalo's Signorina Julia, Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi, Trieste, Italy, 1993
  • First performance in US:  Giordano's Fedora, Chicago Lyric, USA, 1994



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Last Updated:  Sunday, November 11, 2018  © Copyright: Kira