Q & A: Vincenzo Milletarì on Conducting Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’ & ‘Tosca’

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: ©MarcoBorrelli)

For conductor Vincenzo Milletarì, it’s all about Puccini at the moment.

In April, he conducted “La Bohème” at the Göteborg Opera and this summer he will take on  “Tosca” at the Den Jyske Opera in Aarhus.

Known for his work on Italian repertoire and as one of the rising stars of his generation, Milletarì spoke to OperaWire about his love for Puccini and these two masterworks. He also spoke about other projects that he plans to add to his repertoire.  

OperaWire: Puccini has been the composer in your repertoire this season. Tell me what inspires you about the Italian master.

Vincenzo Milletarì: I have been conducting sufficient Puccini operas during these past few years to understand the immense theatrical genius of this composer. Puccini is one of the few, or probably the only one who can immediately create an atmosphere, who can make us believe in the most remote stories, or simply move our souls in a way that few other composers can, making people cry in the theatre. His knowledge and mastery of dramatic storytelling are at the highest levels and of course, his music follows the same pace. I am astonished every time I look up to the stage and see how incredibly well this musical machinery is working.

OW: How do you make his music fresh and new, especially since it has been performed so many times?

VM: My personal opinion about Puccini’s music is that it is already effective enough without adding any extra layer of effects on top. Languid, sad, desperate, euphoric passages are so well written that we as interpreters don’t need to add anything on top. The way Puccini writes his scores is very similar to Gustav Mahler’s in many ways. Everything is calibrated, every tempo is carefully conceived, and every articulation is clear enough to not be misunderstood. There is this tendency to play his music over-pathetically, especially in the lyrical passages. I think this is not productive and that sometimes it also moves the attention to the wrong focus, which should always be the stage.

OW: What are some of your favorite parts of “La Bohème?”

VM: I am particularly fond of the third act. It is one of those moments every time I wish it wouldn’t end so early. My dream would be a three-hour-long Mimì and Rodolfo duet and a three-hour-long quartet, but probably the greatest quality of this part is that in just a few pages there is so much good music.

OW: What are the biggest challenges of conducting ‘La Bohème?’

VM: There are several layers of challenges in “La Bohème.” When you are a young conductor you hear from colleagues, the second act is a nightmare, and truth be told, it isn’t easy indeed, especially in terms of keeping very tight control over the stage and the pit. However, provided everyone is focused and there’s been enough time to rehearse, it’s not such a huge deal.

My challenge was the flow: “Bohème” consists of four little perfect pieces of beautiful clockwork where everything works perfectly as well as one of the most popular operas around. Keeping a flow while not sacrificing the lyrical passages can be quite a challenge.

OW: Now you will do “Tosca” for the first time. How does it compare to “La Bohème” and what are the similarities in the scores?

VM: “Tosca” is very different from “La Bohème.” The way the architecture of “La Bohème” is conceived is different, which makes it an absolute rarity.

“Tosca” is closer to a more classical dramatic opera in terms of internal architecture. But there is one similarity, which is probably the reason why Puccini is so loved in every corner of the world. Everyone sitting in the audience, even the most experienced opera lover, is hoping for the doctor to arrive with Mimi’s medicines as much for Mario to stand up after he has been shot.

OW: “Tosca” is a very action-driven work. How do you keep the work moving without ever sacrificing the singers or the musicality of the work?

VM: This is just slow, meticulous, and sometimes very long work done during the preparatory weeks of production. It’s important to follow the opera growing with the singers and the staging, working closely with the director, trying to refine all the small actions, the movements, carefully calibrating every step to make it work with the music and also the opposite, to make the music work with the actions on stage.

OW: What excites you about working with Jose Cura?

VM: Jose is one of the few people alive to know “Tosca” so deeply. If there is someone I would like to work with in “Tosca,” it is him and I am so much looking forward to it.

OW: What is one Puccini work you can’t wait to conduct that you haven’t done so yet?

VM: The time is slowly arriving for “Manon Lescaut.” It’s an opera I have been dreaming about for many years, together with “La Fanciulla del West,” and I have been slowly getting ready to properly conduct them by going through “Madama Butterfly,” “La Bohème” and “Tosca” before. I am a strong believer that musicians have the right time when they can explore certain repertoires. I can start seeing the buds of the flowers of these two operas slowly blossoming in my life.


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