A Conversation with Carlo Rizzi

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

Several times, during the “Delman” part of our conversation, the name of Franco Ferrara had emerged. Ferrara’s conducting classes in Siena were the other fundamental part of Maestro Rizzi’s early training. Outside Italy, the name of Franco Ferrara (1911-1985) means, if anything at all, a teacher on many conductor’s curriculums. Before the Second World War, Ferrara had made his name, in Germany as well as in Italy, as one of the most promising conductors of the younger generation. In 1940 he fell from the podium in what appeared to be a fainting fit, though he remained lucid. No precise medical explanation, and hence no remedy, was found, but these fainting fits were repeated, causing him to retire definitively from public conducting in 1948. Thereafter he made occasional recordings and conducted some film scores, but above all became one of the most sought-after teachers in post-war Italy. I can testify that, when I arrived in Italy in 1975, the name of Franco Ferrara was one to be uttered only in the most bated of breaths. Given the hearsay nature of this reputation, I wondered if there wasn’t an element of pious exaggeration involved. So did Maestro Rizzi, at first.

When I enrolled in the course, everyone said Ferrara this, Ferrara that, and I asked myself, can this really all be true? By the end of the course I knew that it was.
One of the difficulties in assessing Ferrara’s conducting is that you would have to be very old to have seen him conduct live, and recordings are few and hard to find.

But I actually saw him conduct. It came about by chance. A student was conducting Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides”, and it was going very badly. Ferrara was sitting near me and grew increasingly frustrated. Eventually he rose from his seat and staggered up to the podium – by this time, as a result of a stroke, he was partially crippled and his right side was paralyzed. With just a black brush in his left hand, he began to conduct behind the student. The student hadn’t noticed his arrival, but he realized the orchestra had suddenly been transformed. He turned round and, seeing the Maestro there, stepped to one side. So Ferrara continued the piece to the end. When he had finished, I could only think, “That’s conducting!” Even now, I don’t know how he did it, his gestures were of necessity very limited. But he had certain details emerge in a way that was a revelation. His placing of the final pizzicato was incredible, and that’s not easy to achieve.
In their different ways, Delman and Ferrara had common ground in total dedication to their art and to the score. Everything in the score, every note, was important. With this came a frustration at what could not be realized, or could be but wasn’t.

Ferrara once told me how painful it was for him to see people with good qualities who didn’t make use of them. He didn’t exactly say, “while I, who have so many good qualities, can’t use them”, but his frustration at his own condition was implicit.

We spoke a little of Maestro Rizzi’s early years in Milan. I recalled that, in my own earlier years here, I had often seen his name billed alongside that of his violinist brother Marco as a violin and piano duo. And by pure coincidence, while I’m here to conduct La Cena delle Beffe, Marco will be in Milan to play the Brahms concerto. But the 1980s were difficult years for music in Italy, with so many doors closing that had helped young musicians from the 1950s through to the 1970s. La Scala apart, Maestro Rizzi’s career has been more outside Italy than in it. For British audiences, of course, his name is indelibly associated with the Welsh National Opera.

Although I’ve kept my Italian nationality, in Wales they look on me as an adopted Welshman. My children go to school there and speak Welsh, and I’ve learnt some Welsh, too.
Jokingly, I asked when the WNO would put on an opera sung in Welsh. Maestro Rizzi replied with a few words in Welsh, then translated.

I don’t think that will happen. But Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Doctor of Myddfai [premiered in Cardiff in 1996] has a Welsh subject and has some parts sung in Welsh.
However, just to be quite sure, Maestro Rizzi later checked with a WNO historian and sent me an email with this additional information: Arwel Hughes' Serch Yw'r Doctor was commissioned by the Welsh Arts Council for the National Eisteddfod and was performed at the Sophia Gardens on 1st August 1960.

Well, at the time I was only 13 DAYS OLD!!!

For many years, now, I have followed UK musical life only from the outside. While I was studying in Edinburgh (1971-75) I attended everything Scottish Opera had to offer. Back then, WNO seemed rather the younger sister of Scottish Opera. Yet Scottish Opera has weathered many crises and nearly folded up entirely at one point, while WNO has consistently enhanced its national and international reputation. What is the secret of this success?

We’ve concentrated a lot on innovation, on new ways of presenting opera. Fundamental for this approach was [Sir] Brian McMaster, who wanted to have me there, though in fact he moved to the Edinburgh Festival soon afterwards. Another reason is that we cover a large area, parts of England as well as Wales.
He was too modest to say that another reason was his own presence as Music Director during many of those years (he is now their Conductor Laureate). But he did hint at the seriousness of his approach.

I’m not interested in just going here and there, conducting a performance and pocketing the fee. I have to feel I’m achieving something. And with WNO I’ve been able to do this.
So now to Le Cena delle Beffe, an opera first produced at La Scala under Toscanini in 1924 but not heard there again since 1926. Is it an advantage or a disadvantage if, when you start rehearsing a new production, nobody present has performed the work before?

An advantage. When the work is well-known, you often have to fight with people’s preconceptions. “Callas did it this way!”
In preparation for the event, I found recordings of the 1999 Bologna production, with Dessì, Cupido and Pons conducted by Bartoletti, and a 1956 RAI performance under De Fabritiis with Frazzoni, Annaloro and a particularly fine Neri from Anselmo Colzani. I must say that a number of doubts raised in my mind were all put to rest by what I saw and heard at La Scala. First of all, any performance of a verismo opera is a non-starter if the tenor isn’t up to the strenuous demands of the style. La Cena delle Beffe only has about 90 minutes’ music, but the tenor is there for most of them, and Giordano doesn’t spare him. Almost the first words Maestro Rizzi said after I reached him in his dressing room and complimented him on a performance that sounded as if everyone had known the work all their lives, were that this is an opera well worth doing – but you need the tenor. Nobody who heard Marco Berti’s performance, which maintained an even, round and ringing tone in the heaviest passages, without a hint of forcing or stridency, could doubt that here is a tenor suitably equipped to deal with this sort of role.

I had worked with Berti many times before, so I knew he could do it.
Another concern was the conducting. Listening to Bartoletti, frankly, had sent me straight back in time to De Fabritiis. Under Bartoletti, the singers were often compelled to insert their phrases into a rigid, metrical beat, and could not give of their best. De Fabritiis knew how this sort of music had to go and fitted the beat around the natural rhythm and pacing of the words. Has this sort of flexibility been lost for ever, I wondered? Well, under Maestro Rizzi’s baton, at least, it lives on. Words and music mingled in a fluid discourse.

The first thing I told the singers when we started working was that the music must follow the line of the words. And the other thing was, if you find a phrase difficult because you don’t have the proper space to sing it, tell me and I’ll find a way to give you the space. There has to be flexibility. You can’t just do it as it’s written. And really, this flexibility is written in the score anyway.
Another problem could be the music, not in itself, but its suitability to what is happening on stage. Giordano’s opera is based on a play of the same name by Sem Benelli (1877-1949) which was highly popular in Italy up until at least the 1950s, and also had some success in the USA. It was a favourite with the actor Carmelo Bene, but has fallen by the wayside since then. A web search suggests that no Italian theatre is currently offering it. A 1942 film by Blasetti has cult value, not least because it was the first time bare breasts (those of Clara Calamai) were shown on the screen. The play is set in Renaissance Florence. The film follows suit and the quite detailed scenic instructions in the libretto make it clear that Giordano expected the opera to do likewise. For want of another point of reference, I listened to the recorded versions with the film sets vaguely in my mind’s eye and I think it’s fair to say that Giordano’s music, as accompaniment to Renaissance settings, just doesn’t work. You hear one thing but you see another. Producer Mario Martone’s solution had the simplicity of genius – transpose the whole thing to the Mafia gangland of 1920s New York. Hey presto, music and scenes matched perfectly. There was also a slight variant – I’ll put it that way – to Benelli’s ending. I won’t risk a spoiler by saying what happens, but I think it works.

There remains the problem that a team of thoroughly unsavoury characters – no exceptions – are singing a lot of beautiful music with apparent sincerity. Maestro Rizzi didn’t entirely share this reservation, though. He pointed out that Giordano had considerably updated his idiom since “Andrea Chénier”, both harmonically and in his use of the orchestra. And I must say, the opera I heard at La Scala had a bite and modernity that wasn’t evident in the old 1956 recording, where the orchestra was very distantly balanced. He also stressed the amount of collegiate work that had gone into it all. Here, again, I can only agree that the opera I heard at La Scala was an “ensemble opera” – in itself a more modern concept – rather than an opera with three principals, as it seemed in the earlier performances. Maestro Rizzi also made it clear that in many cases, when an opera has fallen out of the repertoire, there are reasons for this. He very strongly believes, on the other hand, that La Cena delle Beffe deserves reinstatement in the repertoire. I hope I am not alone in thinking that he, and all those involved, have proved their point.

It’s also a very tightly constructed opera. You couldn’t cut anything from it. There are, in fact, a few passages pasted over in the orchestral parts, and I suppose this was done by Giordano himself for the first production. Those passages, which are very short, are missing from the vocal score, so you couldn’t really reinstate them anyway. But as it stands, it’s perfect, with nothing superfluous at all.

La Scala has announced this as the first in a long-term programme to rediscover “the masterpieces of Italian verismo”. Was there any particular reason for starting with this opera rather than, just to remain with Giordano, “Siberia”, “Madame Sans-Gêne” or “Il Re”?

Well, when Pereira [the Superintendent of La Scala] called me about the project, he said he wanted to start with this one because it had been done in Zurich in 1995 while he was Superintendent there, so he knew it worked, it was a safe choice.
So where do we go from here? Without trying to guess La Scala’s next move, is there any opera by Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Cilea or Zandonai that Maestro Rizzi would particularly like to do?

I’d very much like to do Leoncavallo’s La Bohème. Of course, Puccini’s opera is a great favourite of mine, but the Leoncavallo version is very interesting just because it’s so different.
That said, Maestro Rizzi seems cautious about any large-scale, or uncritical, revival of these semi-forgotten works. One name did arouse his enthusiasm, though – Wolf-Ferrari.

I don’t know many of them – I’ve looked at I Quattro Rusteghi and Il Campiello – but these seem to be very interesting works.
Returning to La Cena delle Beffe, this was Maestro Rizzi’s 98th opera. So what will be the 99th and the 100th?

The 99th, which I start work on next month, will be a new commission for the Welsh National Opera [Iain Bell’s “In parenthesis”, which opens in Cardiff on May 13th]. And the 100th will be Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna, which I’ll be doing later this year in Paris, in a double bill with Cavalleria Rusticana.

© Christopher Howell 2016

Part 1: Vladimir Delman