Introduced to the UK opera scene by Lesley Garrett, conductor Carlo Rizzi had two stints as musical director at Welsh National Opera before becoming conductor laureate. He tells George Hall about his latest touring production
In a rehearsal room at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Carlo Rizzi is leading a read-through of the final act of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. The 58-year-old conductor is overseeing the Welsh National Opera’s orchestra in its production of this intense drama about love, betrayal and murder inspired by the 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden at a masked ball.
Rizzi is well known to the orchestra, and indeed the entire company. Twice he served as WNO’s music director: first between 1992 and 2001, and then from 2004 to 2008. He now returns regularly as conductor laureate – most often for the Italian works that are his speciality.
Un Ballo in Maschera is the second instalment of a Verdi trilogy that Rizzi is collaborating on with the company’s departing artistic director, David Pountney. It began last year with the successful staging of the epic La Forza del Destino, and continues in 2020 with The Sicilian Vespers – another grand-scale piece Verdi composed in French for the Paris Opera.
Rizzi at work offers a masterclass in Verdi. While the notes are already pretty well under the players’ fingers, he points out the importance of the composer’s accents, which underline the dramatic action and give distinctive character to each and every musical section.
Around the world, Italian conductors interpret this repertoire, but Rizzi is unquestionably one of its finest exponents. When not in Cardiff or with the company on tour, he is likely to be found in such leading houses as Paris, Madrid, La Scala, Milan, or at the Metropolitan Opera, New York – where he has so far conducted more than 200 performances.
How did music become part of his life? “I come from quite a poor background in Milan,” he says. “My father and mother were not musicians. I was quite withdrawn as a small child until somebody gave me a toy piano as a birthday present and I actually broke it to see what was happening inside. My parents were so surprised by this sign of life that they sent me to a piano teacher, and it became clear that I had some qualities.”
Concerned that a conservatoire education at an early age might have left him without other options, his parents insisted that he went to a normal school while studying music as an add-on. But his burgeoning talent as an accompanist would lead to his working at La Scala as a repetiteur – a combination of rehearsal pianist and coach – and to study conducting formally.
His first paid work on the podium came with a production of Donizetti’s farcical comedy L’Ajo nell’Imbarazzo in 1982. He began to be booked for concerts and operas in cities around Italy, including Trieste and Palermo. While he was working on Donizetti’s tragic opera Torquato Tasso in the Sicilian capital he was noticed by a British singer passing through: her name was Lesley Garrett.
She recommended Rizzi to her agent, who was on the lookout for someone to conduct the same rarely performed piece at the Buxton Festival. He was offered the job and the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the production in 1988 was heard by the managing director of Welsh National Opera, Brian McMaster, who invited him to work with his company.
In Cardiff, Rossini’s Barber of Seville was followed by the same composer’s Le Comte Ory and then Verdi’s Rigoletto; and it was after the first night of Le Comte Ory in 1991 that Rizzi was offered the musical directorship. “For me, being the music director is not just coming here and conducting more than the others and then – goodbye; it is taking responsibility for the orchestra, chorus and everything else,” he says.
The way Rizzi intended to do the job meant he had to move to Cardiff. “When the plane landed I was sitting at the front and they opened the doors and the rain came in vertically and it was August, and I thought: ‘What have I done?’”
In fact, he would stay for almost a decade in his first stint as music director and four years in his second – both very successful periods. When he was subsequently offered the choice between the title of conductor emeritus and conductor laureate, he selected the latter, “because it speaks less of white hair”. The Czech Tomas Hanus is now making a success of Rizzi’s former post, but the Italian continues to be an important presence in Cardiff, working with the company every season.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Teaching piano and maths.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Donizetti’s L’Ajo nell’Imbarazzo, 1982.
What’s your next job?
Un Ballo in Maschera and Roberto Devereux at Welsh National Opera, and Tosca at the New York Metropolitan Opera.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That conducting well is incredibly difficult.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My teachers Vladimir Delman and Franco Ferrara.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Forget that it is an audition, think of it as a performance. Play to your strengths and not your weaknesses.
If you hadn’t been a conductor, what would you have been?
Probably I would have been in a teaching career: music or science.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No. If you have prepared for your job properly it should be enough…
If he could pick a few particularly memorable achievements with WNO, what would they be?
“There was a performance of Puccini’s Turandot at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, that was absolutely phenomenal – we had just done a run of the opera, but that was incredibly special and a joyful thing,” he says.
“I remember the emotion of the company’s 50th-anniversary gala in 1996, important also for me in that my parents came over and saw for the first time their son with the opera company. I’ve done Verdi’s Otello and his Falstaff – from a conductor’s point of view incredible works. Then there was a production of Bellini’s I Puritani, which is not a conductor’s opera, but the way the orchestra got on board was just fantastic.”
Verdi and the other Italian composers of the Romantic era – Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Puccini – still form the bedrock of the operatic repertoire. Why do audiences respond so readily to these pieces?
“With singing you enhance the emotion, and I think that in this kind of repertoire in various completely different ways – Rossini is different from Verdi and so on – it brings out the emotions of human nature. When you hear someone sing: ‘Love me, Alfredo’, and then you hear this incredibly simple melody – just four notes – it unlocks the emotions. When you hear: ‘Casta diva’ in Norma, and you hear the first note floating from nowhere, and this little embellishment around the note, it’s like a light turning on.”
‘Being the music director is taking responsibility for the orchestra, chorus and everything else’
He continues: “As a conductor this is what I try to express. I’m passionate about this repertoire and I am so angry and disappointed where in some places this repertoire is considered easy. It’s not easy, it’s incredibly difficult. In Un Ballo in Maschera, you can’t get away with anything: every note has to be right and consequential to the others.”
While he is best known for the Italian repertoire, Rizzi has conducted a good deal more, including works by Britten, Janacek, Mussorgsky, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Wagner, more than 100 operas in all. What remains on his wish-list? “Something I’d like to do, of course, is Wagner’s Ring, though it would take up a lot of time in terms of study; it’s like building a cathedral brick by brick all by yourself.”
What does a conductor need to be a success? “The way I conduct is not just telling people what to do, you need to convince them. I’m happy when I see that they believe what I’m saying. The conductor is a unifying point for the orchestra, the singers and, by proxy, for the public, and that is where the job is really difficult and never-ending.”
He adds: “It’s strange to think I’ve had a career of more than 35 years and it seems to me I have so much still to learn. I always have this idea of wanting to improve, to really understand how these little dots on the page can create something wonderful.”
Born: Milan, 1960
Training: Milan Conservatoire
• Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Royal Opera House (1990)
• Puccini’s La Boheme, Metropolitan Opera (1993)
• Verdi’s Don Carlos, Welsh National Opera (2005)
• Verdi’s La Traviata, Salzburg Festival (2005)
• Second prize in the Besancon Competition, 1983
• First prize in the Toscanini Competition, 1985
• Third price in the Min-On Competition, 1989
Agents: Thomas Walton and Nick Mathias, IMG Artists
Un Ballo in Maschera is touring the UK until April 24. For more information go to: wno.org.uk