Q & A: Francesco Lanzillotta on Rossini, Musical Styles & His Future

By Mauricio Villa

Italian conductor Francesco Lanzillotta is considered one of today’s most “interesting conductors” having performed a vast repertoire that ranges from Mozart to contemporary music. He has been the Music Director in Varna, and is currently the Music Director of the Macerata Opera Festival in Italy.

As he continues to expand his repertoire, he is also becoming one of the most in demand conductors in the world. This season he made his Spanish debut at the “Palau de les arts” in Valencia in Rossini’s “Il Viaggio a Reims.

OperaWire spoke with Lanzillotta about his debut in Valencia, bel canto, and his future engagements.

Opera Wire: As a conductor, can you select the repertoire you want to work with, or does it depends on demands?

Francesco Lanzillotta: When I started to conduct I asked my first manager, “Please, don’t tell me what operas I should do because I don’t want to be labeled as a bel canto or a Verismo conductor, I want to work in all kinds of repertoire.” So, I basically chose my repertoire but made sure it ranged four centuries.

OW: Why did you choose an opera like “Il Viaggio a Reims?”

FL: I actually did it for the first time for Dresden’s season opening this year. I did not specifically choose this piece, but I love Rossini’s music, so when I got the offer I agreed. I would like to conduct all of Rossini’s operas, and “Il Viaggio a Reims” is one of the best Rossini scores.

OW: Do you consider “Il Viaggio a Reims” a better score than “William Tell,” which is considered Rossini’s masterpiece?

FL: No! I just said one of the best. It would be a dream to conduct “William Tell” and “Maometto II” for example, but I still consider “Il viaggio” one of his best works.

OW: You have already conducted “L’Italiana in Algieri” which is early Rossini while “Viaggio” is one of his late operas. Can you tell me the differences in the composer’s style?

FL: Both operas are completely different if we look at the structure of the opera and not the vocal line. There are some differences in harmonies because by then Rossini was studying the “Grand Opera” style of Meyerbeer and Halevy, as he was appointed musical director of the “Italian Theatre” in Paris. Rossini wanted to get into the French opera style which was more noticeable in his late works. But there is no big difference in his vocal writing.

It’s a challenging opera for the soloists because he wrote for one of the finest singers of his time. But the main difference as I said, lies in the structure, because the length of the duettos and arias are uncommonly long which are influenced by the “Grand Opera.” Another difference is that there is no overture in this work, or a “Gran Finale Concertato.” And of course, it is different because it is actually not an opera but a cantata.

OW: Tell me about your rehearsal process. Do you have a settle specific method, or does it change depending on the opera you are working on?

FL: Talking about this piece and Rossini, one of the first things I do is work with the singers on rhythm. Singing Rossini is not only about the use of their voices and the beautiful sounds and high notes. You have to use the rhythm which lies in the text. It’s not only about the musical score and sometimes you must subtly change the musical writing to make the music alive. The notes themselves are fixed , so the singer must create a phrase or a vocal line that makes dramatic sense. So you might use some rubato or accelerando. That is for me the first step with Rossini. Talking about the orchestra, I have to make them understand that playing leggero does not mean playing piano. You have to find the right balance in the dynamics to make the music line alive and cheerful. This is not an easy task, but it is, for me, the right way to interpret Rossini.

OW: In Bel Canto music, variations and high notes in da capos of arias and cabalettas are interpolated.  Do you let singers use their own variations or do you write some of your own?

FL: It always depends on what the singer brings. For example, Mariangela Sicilia, who has already performed Corinna, brought some beautiful variations which she had already done while performing this role in Rome. So I accepted them. But when I don’t like the variations, mostly because they don’t fit Rossini’ style, or because the singers don’t bring variations of their own, I write some for them.

OW: What is your opinion about the famous “crescendo Rossiniano”?

FL: The structure of the “crescendo Rossiniano” is very simple. It is just three repetitions of the same musical sentence, adding more instruments every time. In my own opinion, I think that every time you repeat the phrase there should be a slight variation of tempo which should not be really noticeable for the audience. That is what makes the effect work. The idea should be that at the end of the crescendo, the audience is jumping from their seats.

OW: Do you believe that the cadenzas or cabalettas should be resolved down as written, rather than interpolated with a high note?

FL: I do agree, but it always depends on which singers you have. It is a long discussion. In this production we aren’t interpolating high notes  but for example in Don Profondo’s aria we do resolve it up the interval. The difference is that this note is actually written. In Contessa di Folleville’s aria, because Albina Shagimuratova has excellent high notes, there is no problem with finishing the aria with a high E flat. But when I conduct in Pesaro, I always respect the traditions.

OW: What has been your experience in Valencia’s opera house?

FL: I really believe that the “Orquesta de la Comunitat Valenciana” is one of the best orchestras in Europe. It is really amazing. And the chorus as well. At the beginning of rehearsals it was not easy to understand the Rossinian aesthetics but with very good musicians it was so difficult. The problem is that this is a very big theater with a vast sonorous pit. We have worked really hard on the balance between the voices and the orchestra. It is not easy for us because we are inside the pit and we have the singers in front, so it is not easy to understand that sometimes voices do not pass the orchestra. It also depends on the sets and in this case, they help project the voices.

OW: Talking about your career, your future engagements include “L’Elisir d’amore,” “Rigoletto” and “Tosca,” three very different composers. Do you approach these pieces differently?

FL: Yes of course! Since I started as a composer, I studied ten years of composition. From those years, I got to know most of the composers from different centuries and learned how to approach their style. I am always curious about every single era in music history. You need to understand the way the composers feel the music, rather than the way they write it. If you only do Verismo, you only have ten or twelve titles to study. But if you conduct a variety like Mozart or Battistelli, as I do, you have a lot to study. You have to consciously study every composer. If we look at Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, talking about bel canto, even if they wrote in the same period, each one of them has a completely different style. When we talk about twentieth century music, we also talk about it as a group. But you have around twenty-five different composers from different nationalities which share nothing in common talking about style or musical language. Essentially, every single composer is different.

OW: Looking at your vast repertoire from Mozart to Contemporary music, have you done any Wagner or Strauss?

FL: It is a tricky matter. There is an opinion that Italian conductors should only do Italian operas, so we don’t get offers to conduct German repertoire. I would love to conduct German especially Strauss. Fortunately, I will conduct Massenet’s “Werther” next year, so it will be a change for me. But I would like to go deeper and expand my repertoire. I have done some Britten and I have conducted “West Side Story” but I would love to work on “Candide” or Bernstein’s symphonic music. There is a lot for me to do.

OW: You have been Music Director in Varna and currently Music Director at the Macerata Opera Festival. What are the challenges of this position?

FL: It is a very long discussion. When I was in Varna, I was very young and it was a miracle that I ended up with this position. It was very hard for me to find conducting jobs, so I was a Music Theory teacher at the conservatory and I was composing music which is even harder to make a living from. And then I met a Bulgarian pianist and he asked me to conduct a Mozart piano concert in Varna. I obviously agreed. After the concert they offered me “Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci” for the next week, and after these operas, they asked me to be principal guest conductor in Varna. And that is how everything started. I spent four years in Varna conducting lots of operas, because it is a repertory theater. So we did two different operas per week with barely any rehearsal. It was a productive moment for me. It is totally different in Macerata, because it is a summer festival, and we have a lot of rehearsals and we can choose good singers who can sing in that big open space. I am totally grateful to Varna, because I believe that thanks to that position my conducing career took off.

OW: As the Music director of Macerata, do you think you will ever program Wagner or Strauss?

FL: It is very difficult. It would be impossible to fill such a big theater with four performances of “Der Rosenkavalier.” It is difficult to sell German opera in Italy. We have to program the blockbusters, “Traviata,” “Trovatore,” “Butterfly,” “Boheme.” But thankfully with new and modern concepts, good stage directors and conductors. At least we do a contemporary opera per year, but in a smaller theater.

OW: What are your future plans?

FL: I want to keep on conducting and composing. Composition is something that I love and can’t live without. I compose in different styles like  blues, Jazz, contemporary, and musicals because when I was studying at the conservatory it was very natural for me to play piano bar in a hotel and jazz and blues in a big band. I even arranged scores for musical theater.

At the same time I would like to be musical director from a theater where I could program interesting repertoire.


Behind the ScenesInterviews