Q & A: Conductor Francesco Cilluffo On Wexford Festival Opera & Cilea’s ‘Gloria’ In Cagliari

By Alan Neilson
Photo: RibaltaLuce Studio

The Turin-born conductor Francesco Cilluffo sees himself at home in both the Italian and English-speaking worlds. Having graduated from the city’s Giuseppe Verdi Conservatoire and then the University of Turin, where he completed a thesis on Benjamin Britten, he moved to London, where he studied at the Guildhall School of Music before going on to King’s College, where he received a PhD in composition.

Initially, he moved between composing and conducting, which, he states, “helped me understand the repertoire that needs rediscovering,” before eventually settling on a career in conducting. His natural musical curiosity quickly manifested itself in an enthusiasm for unearthing forgotten and neglected operas. Unsurprisingly, this route took him to the Wexford Festival Opera, where he made his house debut in 2015 with a well-received “heartfelt reading” of Mascagni’s “Guglielmo Ratcliff.” In 2020, he was appointed the festival’s Principal Guest Conductor.

OperaWire met up with the conductor in Cagliari, where he had just finished a run of performances of Francesco Cilea’s rarely performed opera, “Gloria,” from the early 20th century, to discuss, among other things, his fascination with operas that have been unjustly overlooked. His answers may surprise you!

What attracted you to Wexford?

My connection with Wexford started back in 2015, thanks to Rosetta Cucchi, the then casting director, who has since gone on to become its artistic director. She encouraged me to come to Wexford, suggesting that its combination of Italian 19th century opera and its Irish way of thinking would suit me and provide me with an environment in which I would thrive, and she was correct!

The festival’s repertoire is an act of love. It tries to revitalize operas that were at one time successful and have the potential to interest today’s audiences, and this suits me. The first opera I conducted there was Mascagni’s “Guglielmo Ratcliff” and this year I shall be conducting Tutino’s “La Ciociara,” a contemporary work premiered in San Francisco in 2015.

So, were you also attracted by the possibility of performing contemporary opera?

Yes, I started out specializing in contemporary work as I was also composing at the time. It actually didn’t turn out to be my preferred path. However, I still do a few contemporary operas, but they have to be specific projects in which I believe, such as “La Ciociara.”

I think contemporary opera is about language. For many years, it was all avant-garde, but this time has passed. Today, contemporary operas have to be strong; they have to have a message and appeal to the audience in the proper sense: we have to remember that opera is a form of entertainment, and I was not surprised that “The Hours” at the The Met was so successful. However, contemporary opera in general is not my specific area; it depends on the project. For example, I like Tutino’s work and have conducted the premieres of his last three operas, so I am really looking forward to bringing “Two Women” to Wexford later this year.

Are you concerned about being seen as a specialist in neglected, unknown and new works?

Of course, this is something I am aware of, but I actually conduct many operas from the recognized, standard repertoire. Over the past few seasons, for example, I have conducted “Falstaff,” “Macbeth” and “Manon Lescaut” at the Grange festival, and I will be doing “Tosca” there next year. My next opera will actually be “Le Nozze di Figaro” in Vienna. The only repertoire I don’t conduct, despite my admiration for it, is the baroque, because it has to be approached by specialists well-versed in its practices.

Jessy Norman once said, “Pigeonholes are for pigeons.” We live in a world in which people rush to attach labels to people and things and talk about specialization, but it is not helpful. We must remember that, although many works by Mascagni and Cilea, for example, were forgotten, they were once part of the core repertoire. My point being that there is not a separation between performing “Turandot” or “Tosca” and performing operas by Giordano and Cilea. They are part of the same world, and by separating them, we are creating a false division. Places like Wexford allow you to reconnect and learn about these pieces. Narrowing the repertoire to so few titles, as important as they are, is not productive.

You have just finished a run of performances of Cilea’s “Gloria” at Teatro Lirica in Cagliari. Did the opera house approach you because of your association with neglected operas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries? If so, by accepting this position, aren’t you simply reinforcing the impression of being a specialist in this area? 

Yes, this was one of the reasons I was approached to conduct “Gloria.” 

I would say that it is a bit like a golden cage, and it can be very tempting. However, this was neither the only nor the main reason for accepting the contract.

Cagliari’s opera house has a very strong Italian and European pedigree and a rich history. They did the first Italian production of Wagner’s “Die Feen,” and everyone has performed here, including Callas in the 1950s. Lorin Maazel was the first director when the new opera house opened. Carlos Kleiber gave his last live performance here. I remember when I was going to conduct Beethoven’s 7th symphony, they said to me, “The last person to conduct that here was Kleiber,” so there was no pressure! It is a theater with an excellent orchestra and excellent chorus, with a tradition of performing forgotten operas. They always open the season with a rarity, mostly connected with the Italian repertoire, so I knew when they contacted me that I could make a good case for “Gloria.”

What attracted you to “Gloria” in particular?

I have felt a special connection with Cilea ever since I did “L’Arlesiana” ten years ago, and I love his opera “Adrianna Lecouvreur.” In my opinion, he has been unjustly neglected as a composer. He is better than many people believe him to be. He was also a very unlucky man; like Sibelius, he spent the last 30 years of his life, musically speaking, in silence. Both lost touch with the creative side that had made them famous, retreating into a disconnected inner world.

When you listen to “Gloria,” you will hear a lot of orchestral ideas that bring to mind the music of Respighi or Puccini. When you look at the dates of the compositions, however, you will see that his work predates them. Gloria was 10 years before Respighi’s symphonic poems, for example. So, it is an exciting work, one that contains so much behind the notes, and I have enjoyed getting to know the score.

What were the difficulties you initially identified in bringing Cilea’s to the stage?

Trying to identify the opera’s musical strong points and then maintaining the arch and filling in the less inspired parts. So, for example, in the second act, it is necessary to maintain the tension of the musical arch between Gloria’s excellent aria and her less interesting duet with the baritone, which is a derivative of Verdi. It is like driving a car on a bumpy road: the more you get to know the road, the smoother the journey becomes.

How pleased were you with the performances?

Extremely pleased! The commitment and energy of the orchestra have been excellent. At the beginning, the orchestra was wondering exactly what this piece was and why we were doing it. Because the level of the orchestra is so high, I can ask a lot of it, and you can see the players responding. We spent a month preparing for the performance. Then you reach the point when we perform in the theater in front of an audience, and I can see that each member is looking forward to the place that is their favorite or where they can display their ability. It is the same with the chorus and the soloists. When I do this kind of repertoire, there is always a moment in the performance when you feel that you have made the piece your own. At this point, I feel as if I am sending a message that this music deserves to be played. And when you achieve this, you feel very proud that you are making music together.

I think we have made a strong case for the opera.

Also, I believe there is a curiosity on the part of today’s audiences to hear neglected and unknown works than they were, say, 10 years ago. Of course, there are still many theaters that are unwilling to stage rarely performed operas, but I am optimistic: things are changing. For example, in Verona, later in the year, they are doing Faccio’s “Amleto.”

The major challenge for opera today is to understand what makes it unique and what makes opera stand apart from other art forms. Often the most interesting work is being done in the smaller theaters, such as in the case of Opera Lombardia, which tours the provincial theaters of the province. In 2016, I did a daring production of Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to packed audiences. You might expect that in provincial cities you have to stick to the standard works, like “La Traviata,” but this is not the case. I think that following the pandemic, the quest for identity and to understand why people should come to see operas has become stronger.

What are your next engagements?

I am doing Brahm’s “Deutsches Requiem in Vienna as well as “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the Volksoper. I want to stress again that I am not easily placed into a pigeonhole, and I endeavor to maintain a wide spread of music so that if someone asks me what I am conducting at the moment, I can answer Puccini, Brahms, Mozart, Cilea and Sibelius.

How do you see your career developing over the medium term?

From the age of five, I wanted to be a conductor. This is now my 10th year in the job. I like to think that I have developed my career in a slow, systematic manner, but one that is always moving forward. I don’t consider myself to be a Wunderkind; I have achieved everything through hard work.

At this point, I would like the music directorship of an opera house, and it does not necessarily have to be in Italy. Even though Italy will always remain part of my career, some of my best work has been abroad, particularly in Israel and Ireland. Again, I don’t want to be pigeonholed: I am open to a position in all regions and countries, provided it is in a theater in which I feel I can make a difference. I was lucky to have grown up in Turin at the time when Carlo Majer was introducing a lot of French and American repertoire at the Teatro Regio. I remember what it felt like: I went to theater, was entertained and I learned. The theater was giving to the community in a broad ethical sense. This is what I believe the role of a theater should be.

Just before I enter the pit, I think of the fact that I am going to manage an orchestra of maybe 80 musicians along with a large, onstage chorus and soloists that will move an audience of up to 2000 people. There is no reason why all this should have any sense, and I always remember Carlo Giulini saying that in every performance, at some point, what you are doing connects everyone to a higher level. Some may call it sacred. This is what fascinates me about what I am doing. On a practical level, I want to do solid work that gives to the community, to which the community responds in turn.


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