A Conversation with Carlo Rizzi

by Christopher Howell

1. Carlo Rizzi remembers Vladimir Delman
Rather unusually, the first approach to this conversation came from Maestro Carlo Rizzi himself. He had found my MusicWeb article on Vladimir Delman, with whom he had studied conducting back in the 1980s. He contacted MusicWeb, wishing to share his own memories of Delman with me. Since I live in Milan, we agreed that a good occasion to meet would be during the rehearsals for Giordano’s “La Cena delle Beffe”, of which he is conducting a major revival at La Scala. We also agreed to extend the conversation, time permitting, to his own career and his thoughts on Giordano’s little-known opera. We met after the dress rehearsal on 31st March, for which he kindly gave me a ticket. The opera, which must have been new to everyone involved, had gone perfectly, and I found him relaxed and clearly very pleased. I shall divide this conversation into two parts.

Firstly, I asked, did Delman ever reveal anything about his earlier life or career?

I asked this question without a great deal of hope, and indeed, Delman’s career pre-1974 remains largely as mysterious as before. However, Delman had once thawed so far as to mention his association with Shostakovich. This was during preparations for the first performance of “The Nose”, which Shostakovich had revised for the Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre, of which Delman was co-founder. Greatly as Delman revered Shostakovich, they quarrelled … Shostakovich was inclined to interfere with the performing and staging aspects. Blunt as ever, Delman told him, “You’ve done the composing, the next part’s mine!”

Next we turned to Maestro Rizzi’s first lessons with Delman, when, just out of Conservatoire and looking for fresh inspiration, he enrolled in Delman’s “Teatro Studio” course in Bologna. He found himself the youngest of a group of 15 or 16 hopefuls. Delman, he remembers, was very formal in his manner and always addressed students with “lei”, never “tu” [the Italian equivalent of the French “vous”/“tu”]. Rather strangely to Italian ears, though, he used first names except with a few students he plainly didn’t like – according to Italian usage, if you’re not intimate enough with the person to use “tu”, you wouldn’t use their first name either. Students were also expected to stand when Delman entered the room. Some of Rizzi’s older colleagues muttered at this, though none went so far as to stay seated.

For the first lesson, the students had been instructed to prepare the first scene of “Aida”, ignoring the Prelude. Each day, Delman would call one student forward to conduct the prescribed music with an “orchestra” of two pianos. And on that first day, “Lei! Carlo!”

The reader will remember that the first scene of Aida is an exchange between Ramfis and Radames. It begins with a four-note phrase for cellos, joined by further cellos as the voice of Ramfis enters in the next bar, all in a moderate four-time. Theoretically, a total novice could hardly go wrong with it. So the young Carlo Rizzi began. After those first four notes Delman stopped him and after a dramatic pause pronounced “No! …. Again!” No other explanation was offered.

I tried to think what I could do differently, and started again.
“No! … Again!”

This went on for some time. Eventually I was compelled to ask, “Maestro, what is it that you want me to do?”
“Which instruments are playing?”
“Divided cellos”.
“Go on, then”.

So I thought ah! The cellos are on my right. So I swivelled 45 degrees to my right and started again.


After a few more vain attempts, Delman asked me:
“Who are going to sing?”
“Ramfis and Radames”
“And what are they singing about?”

So gradually we got to the point he wanted to make. This first scene is all about doubt and uncertainty. Rumours are flying. And Delman wanted all this to be present in those first four notes, in the preparation for those four notes.
I left this first lesson wondering if there was any point in going on. But I thought through all that first scene on the train back to Milan and continued to do so until the next lesson. Even so, I put myself at the back of the queue, hoping he would call someone else.
“Lei! Carlo!”

This time he let me conduct the scene through to the end. For a while he just stood there in his typically hunched pose, his hands deep in the pockets of the baggy trousers, several sizes too large, that he always wore.
“Strange … very strange”, he muttered. “Last time you conducted very badly … very badly indeed … this time … very strange … you conducted much better. If you continue like this, perhaps by the end we can do something good”.

After this year-long baptism of fire, Maestro Rizzi took part in the first “Arturo Toscanini Conducting Competition” in Parma, in 1985. Delman was in charge of this competition, which still continues, from 1985 to 1987. Here, he studied all six Tchaikovsky symphonies, which Delman himself conducted as a cycle at the end of the course, and “Falstaff”. Quite recently, Maestro Rizzi has conducted the Tchaikovsky cycle at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Paris. So how much Delman still remained in his own vision of these works?

Oh, a lot. It was thanks to Delman that I learnt to love the second and third symphonies. And he had this vision of the cycle as something complete. For him, every symphony was a struggle, a struggle of the soul against the dark forces in life. Up to number five, the soul succeeded, at least up to a point, in coming out on top. But with the sixth, there was no way out. He had us all stunned with the third movement of the “Pathétique”. He told us that, in Stalin’s Russia, this march tune was often played on its own as something bright and optimistic. But no, for Delman it was something terrible, like screeching mice that overwhelm you till there’s no escape. And that is how he conducted it. Very fast and with absolutely no broadening towards the end.
In Verdi, Delman could be controversial. One point in particular, which earned him boos and cat-whistles in the theatre, came in “Ritorna vincitor!”. After the phrase “Struggete le squadre dei nostri oppressor” [Destroy our oppressor’s troops], and before the following “Ah!”, Delman inserted an unwritten pause. The point of the situation is that Aida, carried away by the thought of Radames’ mighty prowess in battle, suddenly realizes that, this way, she’s invoking her own father’s death.

For Delman, it was impossible that Aida’s thought could change like that in just the half-bar Verdi allowed. She needed time to grasp the implications of what she was saying. He was convinced Verdi had it wrong. I can see Delman’s point, though for me, what Verdi wrote works perfectly well. For the rest I must say, he was pretty faithful to the score. What we didn’t quite get was the sense of following the words with the music, which was something I did hear him do in Dargomyzhgy’s “The Stone Guest”.
Following the words with the music is something very important for Maestro Rizzi, and crucial to an opera like “La Cena delle Beffe”, as we discussed later on.

Delman’s everyday Italian was extremely good, as can be heard on several surviving videos. Boito’s Shakespearian Italian in Falstaff sometimes posed problems. On one occasion he was found hunched over the score at the point where Nanetta sends Quickly off with the words “Tu corri all’ufficio tuo”. In modern Italian, an “ufficio” is a room where you keep files and computers, with maybe a latter-day Mistress Quickly to bring in the coffee. Delman was understandably perplexed as to why on earth Mistress Quickly should have had an office. Boito’s phrase is actually a rough translation of Shakespeare’s “Attend your office”, though he shifted the context. It had to be explained to Delman that the phrase, in old Italian, meant something like “get about your business”. He gave in, but not easily.

Yes, Carlo, you may be right, I suppose you’re right, but I’m not so sure!” he said, but smiling broadly, as if he knew he had been caught out.

Another phrase that gave him problems came in Falstaff’s soliloquy in praise of wine, where Falstaff sings appreciatively of the “grillo che vibra entra l’uom brillo” [the cricket that vibrates inside a man when he’s drunk]. Perhaps the print was small and the singer’s diction not of the clearest. Delman couldn’t understand why anyone should want to put a cricket inside an umbrella.

Maestro Rizzi was emphatic, nonetheless, that Delman’s often baffling, quizzical and frequently theatrical posturing all had one definite aim – to get the student to realize to the fullest extent whatever he had in him. A brief trawl through the internet reveals a remarkable number of conductors with an active career who list Delman’s conducting classes in their curriculum, so it would seem that he succeeded in a good many cases. But a student did need to be basically prepared. Delman dealt in colour, structure, the inner meaning of the music.

To benefit from Delman’s lessons, you had to know, technically, how to conduct already.

Maestro Rizzi was also able to confirm that, while Delman’s ability to inspire an orchestra on the night was not in doubt, technique as such was not his strong point.

While I was still in Milan, I knew well [a violinist in the RAI orchestra]. They worked a lot with Delman and he told me that on many occasions accidents, sometimes bad accidents, happened because Delman had simply not given them a clear guide.
On the other hand, his gestures could get extraordinary sounds from the orchestra, particularly the brass. Not just in terms of loudness, but of timbre, a way of attacking the notes.
Those who have watched the video of the Tchaikovsky cycle might find this surprising, since his gestures there often appear exemplary. Theatrical to the last, was Delman on best behaviour when he knew the TV cameras were on? Perhaps, and we close the Delman section of this interview with another Delman paradox:

Delman once told me that the best thing he had ever done was a Rossini opera – I think “L’Italiana in Algeri” – in a theatre in Turin where the conductor was not visible to the public. He loved that, because he felt finally free to conduct as he wished.

Part 2. Franco Ferrara, the Welsh National Opera and “La Cena delle Beffe”