Welcome to Seattle Opera, Maestro! Could you tell us where you are from, and how you began with music?
Yes, I was born in Abruzzo, inland in the center of Italy. But My parents come from a town near Ancona and Pesaro, the city where Rossini was born. And today I live in Montegiorgio, a little town on the Adriatic Sea about an hour away from Pesaro. I started with piano, I studied piano and composition, and studied conducting later, in Pesaro and Pescara. My teachers for the Italian opera conducting tradition were Donato Renzetti, Nicola Luisotti, Renato Palumbo, Bruno Bartoletti, Piero Bellugi, Antonello Allemandi and others. For the symphonic repertoire I studied with Gianandrea Noseda, Vladimir Ponkin and Colin Metters.
Wow! And you were telling me about the time you spent in Moscow studying at the Moscow Conservatory. Have you conducted any Russian operas?
Not yet; I’ve conducted Russian symphonic music. Maybe one day, the operas! I conducted Hänsel und Gretel, which is an almost-Wagnerian opera, in Lübeck; that was a great experience. I love Wagner and the big German tradition...almost as much as Seattle loves it!
What is the biggest challenge in conducting La Cenerentola?
In this type of opera the biggest challenge is usually the ensemble that brings the first act to a close. In La Cenerentola, when we hear the theme from the overture [sings manic tune of finale]. It’s always this way in opera buffa, whether it’s Italiana or Barbiere or Mozart's Nozze di Figaro finale. It has to be precise.
Let me ask you about the recitatives in La Cenerentola.
Oh, yes, and there are a couple of important things to say here. First of all, these secco recitatives in Rossini’s operas are NOT by Rossini.
Oh, that’s right, I was reading that somewhere, the composer’s name was Agolini?
Yes, a colleague of Rossini. Rossini never had enough time, so he had other people write his recitatives. Agolini also wrote a chorus that goes in at the beginning of the second act—although, as is normal with productions of La Cenerentola, we don’t do it here because it is not by Rossini. And also the Clorinda aria and the first version of the Alidoro aria [“Vasto teatro è il mondo”]. Secondly, in Rossini’s period, it was typical to do recitatives with fortepiano, because the harpsichord was out of fashion.
So...Paisiello, for instance, who wrote The Barber of Seville a generation before Rossini, in the 1780s...
...would have been with harpsichord, yes. But at the time of Rossini the fortepiano was the prince of keyboard instruments.
Elise Bakketun, photo
The iPod 5 of its day, as it were.
Exactly! And it’s typical of this period also to use the cello in all the recitatives. The cello is there to amplify the character of the recitativos. It gives the recitative more expression and connection with the characters, more of the dynamic on the stage.
I love the moment in the recitative here, when Don Magnifico, having heard about the prince’s ball, sings, “Io cado in svenimento!” [I shall swoon!] and the cello...
[sings cello line at this point, a glissando sliding down a string]
Yes, the way the cello slides down. Was that your idea?
Yes. The basic idea is, musically, to remind and explain what is happening onstage, the sense of the recitatives. The cello not only has to match the left hand of the pianist, the bass line, but also to improvise, like in this case. Speaking of the bass, in Rossini’s period you would actually have the double bass hitting those low notes, with the cello providing harmony. But today this is not possible, because it becomes too heavy and slow for us. The way we listen to music has changed; everything is faster today,and we need to follow the actual reaction times of the audience and of the music.
This is the first time at Seattle Opera we’ve used cello in a recitative.
Yes, I asked to do it this way, and I was very lucky because Roberta Downey, our principal cellist, is a wonderful performer and was open to this idea. We’ve had a great time working together, and with the singers—had to get it all organized in only two rehearsals!
I’ve noticed you don’t use a baton when you conduct La Cenerentola. Is that because your hands are going back and forth from the keyboard to their conducting position?
I use baton for the overture. Yes, it’s easier, since I have to play, not to use one; but it was always like this, in the period. The baton was born from the bow of the first violin, originally. It’s all relative. I can get away with not using a baton, in this repertoire, because the orchestra is small—we have no timpani or percussion, trombone is the only "big" instrument. The sound you can get, particularly from a wonderful modern orchestra like this one, is morbido, soft. There are no big vertical moments. The principal function of a baton is to give a clear tempo; but with this kind of music, it is possible just to use your hands. You can communicate more about the fraseggio, the sense of phrasing, this way. I’ve conducted La Cenerentola several times before, and so I know it very well and find this is better. Also with the prelude to La traviata, I like to conduct that without a baton, because you can transmit a lot of ideas more clearly with the hand—it’s more legato, there’s nothing between you and the orchestra. Of course it isn’t possible for Puccini, with the big orchestra and all the tempo changes. It also depends a bit on what’s onstage; here we have a small chorus, but if you were conducting Nabucco, the baton helps all those people see what you’re doing.
Elise Bakketun, photo
This question may be unfair—at this point you’ve only had one performance! But can you comment on the differences between how an American audience reacts, at an opera buffa, to how an Italian audience would react?
The reaction here is sometimes very big, lots of laughs. This is logical, of course, and the stage director and the production are aiming at this response from the public. This might happen in Germany, too; but in Italy there’s a different tradition, with our idea of listening to bel canto. Rossini is one of the major bel canto composers, and for an Italian audience, listening to bel canto, what’s happening onstage in some passages is not as important.
Yes. This is not better or worse, it’s just different, because of the history. But the most important thing is that the public enjoy it! Always!