Is Rossini one of the greatest composers of all time? A critical survey of his work would lead to a mixed answer here. Most would recognize his great achievements as a composer, though many in history also note that his efforts were evolved and superseded by composers that came later. His impact on history is fixed, but his impact today is, for many, still being evaluated.
But for conductor José Miguel Pérez-Sierra, there is no question.
“Rossini is one of the most important composers in human history,” he told OperaWire in a recent interview.
The maestro has become not only a major fan of the composer’s work, but has also developed an artistic affinity toward him like few other conductors ever have. Pérez-Sierra is currently conducting “La Cenerentola” at the Opéra de Montréal for his North American debut and is set to release recordings of a number of rare Rossini operas for Naxos in coming months.
His love for Rossini is so great that he has gone so far as to rate the composer’s “Semiramide” as one of the top 10 greatest operas in the entire history of the art form.
“And if we talk about ‘Guillaume Tell,’ then I would say that we are talking about top five. It is one of the greatest works of all art in human history.”
The Rossini Way
So where did this passion for the giant from Pesaro come from?
“It came about in a very Rossini kind of way – at a party,” the maestro revealed.
It was 2003 and the Spanish-born conductor was looking to get in touch with an important party guest. The person in question was Italian conductor Alberto Zedda, a known Rossini expert who passed away in early 2017. Ironically, Pérez-Sierra had no interest in discussing Rossini at all with the maestro but wanted to elaborate on a critical edition of Verdi’s famed “Otello.”
The two got on rather well and before long Zedda invited the younger conductor to join him in Madrid the following year to continue their conversations on opera. It would lead to a 14-year partnership that ended only with the elder maestro’s demise.
For the following 14 years, Pérez-Sierra would serve as an assistant to Zedda and even get opportunities that were not previously available to him, including his 2006 debut at Pesaro with Rossini’s “Un Viaggio a Reims.”
And of course, there was a ton of talk about Rossini.
“Zedda, in my opinion, is the greatest Rossini conductor in history and the one who has gotten closest to showing us his true genius as a composer,” Pérez-Sierra affirmed. “I will never be able to drink a coffee with Rossini to know if he approves of my interpretation of his work. But working with Zedda is probably as close as it gets.”
Working with a Rossini experts undoubtedly reaps quite the rewards, none more so for the Spanish conductor than understanding what is truly important to the Rossini style.
“Zedda taught me that to direct Rossini, the most important thing is expressivity, not polish or technique,” he explained. “Other composers throw you a sculpted marble. And all you have to do is just give it a few more touches. But Rossini is unformed clay so that you can create your sculpture from the base up. Rossini’s music, the same piece, can be so many different things. He himself borrowed from his other operas, sometimes from an opera buffa to an opera seria and vice versa. And you can express anything with his music based on the dramatic situation. Same for the singers. Rossini is often thought to be difficult because of the coloratura and high notes, but it’s not about a singer doing 800 notes per minute. Singing a lot of notes have no musical value. They get musical value when they are in function of some expression.”
In his work with Rossini’s operas, Pérez-Sierra has come to another essential revelation about the conductor and truly knowing his work.
“I think the difference between really knowing Rossini and only knowing him superficially is how well you know his opera seria,” he emphasized. “Those lesser-known works really reveal to us his genius and many different nuances and abilities.”
The conductor is rather adamant that people’s knowledge of the composer is rather limited. For over a century “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and “La Cenerentola” reigned supreme in the operatic canon. There were a few forays into lesser-known operas, but “no one was really taking them to be operatic masterpieces but merely curiosities.”
But that has changed over the years with many of his more serious works, including “Semiramide” and “Guillaume Tell” getting very serious revivals all around the world.
“It’s as if we had known Verdi for 100 years for ‘Un Giorno di Regno’ and ‘Falstaff’ and then suddenly learned about his other 20-plus melodramas,” he noted. “Rossini wrote 39 operas and of those, 25 were opera seria. That’s the majority of his output! You can’t really know his work without studying those 25 operas.”
And in studying them, Pérez-Sierra feels that a major shift in the history of opera can become apparent.
“Rossini is a composer that is the bridge between Mozart and Verdi. He is the one who takes a classical composer and converts it into romantic melodrama. Rossini does it only 20 years,” he added. “And what is truly great about them all is that Rossini is a creator that never drops his level of quality. What other composer can say that? Those 20 years and 39 operas, there is no waste anywhere. All of them are equally beautiful in their own ways.”
“La Cenerentola” has accompanied the maestro around the world. He first performed the opera in France, then took it to Santiago, Chile and is now using it as a vehicle for his first series of North American performances. And it is an opera that he has learned from a number of different conductors.
“I’ve drunk from many fountains on this one and after 12 years doing this, I have developed a different and more mature perspective. Maybe less focused on pyrotechnics. It’s always evolving though with the passing of the years, the different casts,” he noted, highlighting the fact that his way of working with opera singers comes from his deep background as a pianist.
For years, the maestro set out on a path to be a concert pianist but learned that such a career would go against something essential to a part of himself.
“I am a social person and it was a lonely path. I realized that the loneliness would lead me to lose my passion for music,” he revealed.
So he started to work on chamber music and realized that it “made me happier. It was a richer experience. And the bigger the group, the happier I was.”
While working on the famed Brahms Quintet, he came to another realization.
“It is very symphonic and the pianist controls the quartet. He or she is essentially a conductor in that piece,” he noted. “And that’s when I challenged myself, asked ‘what if’ and then decided to make the jump to being a conductor. If I am going to make music, then I want to share the experience with other musicians.”
And share he does. In fact, the maestro was rather clear that he values collaboration over anything else.
“If I was a soccer coach, I would never impose a system on the players. I would get to know them, understand their strengths and weaknesses and then see how I can get the best out of all of them. And that sometimes requires adaptation. And that usually helps everyone improve their game,” he analogized. “Same goes for opera. I always look at my singers, the production, the orchestra, the chorus, and I learn to value them all and then try to get the most out of them.”
And they get the most out of him.