Ferrucio Furlanetto hits his prime | Martin Kettle

The great Ferruccio Furlanetto is now 60 – and at the top of his game, writes Martin Kettle

Ferruccio Furlanetto is still buzzing. "What a sensational night," he says, of the opening performance of The Barber of Seville at the Royal Opera House on Saturday. "The atmosphere is still electric here."

With its cast headed by the young Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, the show was always going to be a sell-out. But what Covent Garden could not have bargained for was just how outstanding the rest of its stars would prove – nor how much publicity they would get after the US mezzo Joyce DiDonato broke her leg and kept going.

Furlanetto, who plays the repulsive music teacher Don Basilio, is the most level-headed and experienced of these singers. Yet, when I meet the great bass at the ROH two days after that premiere, his excitement is still evident. Furlanetto knows he will never match the thrill Flórez can generate – no bass ever could – but the Italian, who turned 60 this spring, is still a singer in his prime. After a long period of singing mainly Mozartian roles (Leporello, Figaro and Don Giovanni) at all the great houses, he has gravitated to the classic 19th-century Italian bass roles. And, over the next 12 months at the ROH, Britain has the chance to hear him in no fewer than three.

Don Basilio is the first. "I didn't really like the role until this week," he says. "Too much of a grotesque." You can judge his performance for yourself next week, when the opera is shown live on BP's countrywide summer screens. Then, in September, comes the return of his masterly Philip II in Verdi's Don Carlo, in Nicholas Hytner's 2008 production. And next summer, he plays Fiesco in what is sure to rank among the season's hottest tickets – when Plácido Domingo takes on the first major baritone role of his career, in the title role of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra.

Furlanetto yields to no one in his admiration for Domingo, but he is surprisingly frank about the fact that this will be unknown territory: "I am sure Plácido is attracted by the special charisma of Boccanegra as a character. It is a very theatrical part and Plácido loves these roles. But in all these years of his incredible career, I sincerely never had the feeling that he could be a baritone. Still, if you want to try something, then why not?"

Furlanetto, too, will occasionally try something new. In January, he will take on Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific; then in 2011, he makes his debut as Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, a rare venture into a major German role, and one that worries him. "Italians can sing most easily in Italian and Russian because of the vowels," he says. "In German, the consonants get stuck in your throat."

Most of his career, though, has been built on the principle that a singer must stick to what suits his voice. "The key to having a long career like mine is the right technique and the right repertoire. You should use your voice as nature intended it to be used. When you are young, it is easy to be caught by the glamour of doing something out of the ordinary. But it can kill your instrument. We are working with human flesh: even if you have a good technique, you can hurt yourself."

How long can he go on? "For as long I have fun. One day I will start to get tired. Then it will be time to play golf." He still plays off a handicap of five – so watch out.

The Barber of Seville is broadcast live on the BP Summer Big Screens on 15 July. Details: www.roh.org.uk


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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