He has only just turned 34, but has extensive experience. He conducted Rigoletto at the Met. “You know,” he smiles, “the Rat Pack Rigoletto”.
Mariotti grew up in Pesaro, so Rossini’s music is in his genes. “Every summer, I was so excited when the Festival started at the Teatro Rossini. I went to everything I could get to. It was wonderful to be with people like Riccardo Chailly and Claudio Abbado, Leo Nucci and so many great names. I went to rehearsals to see close-up how they worked. I was very young of course, but I could ‘live’ Rossini’s music. That’s why I feel so close to the patois, and care about it so much. If you play Rossini, you understand that you have to find a way into the music through what it means. If you see a dot on the note you know it means playing short, but interpretation is much more. Everything has to be elegant, sweet, swift, evoking the atmosphere. La donna del lago is very Romantic, the closest for me to Guillaume Tell, which for me is Rossini’s greatest masterpiece.”
“The instrumentation is so delicate, so transparent that it’s much harder to conduct than if it were just loud. The orchestra is not just accompaniment. It has to sing with the voices. Rossini wrote more serious opera than comic, and he expresses feelings in a more abstract, intellectual way. The structure is almost completely vertical, not contrapuntal. It can look quite ‘frozen’ in theory, but it’s a very different way of expressing feelings. For example, in the Act Two trio, "Qual pena in me gia desta", Elena and her two suitors are singing short, sharp high C’s. But these notes bear swords!”
“In the ‘King’s aria’, “O fiamma soave”, you can hear that Uberto cannot be a shepherd because the coloratura is so elegant, so royal that only a king could sing like that. He was wearing a disguise as a shepherd, but the people in the audience can hear who he really is.”
Mariotti’s sensitivity to Rossini’s idiom comes from instinct, but is also grounded firmly in formal and structural discipline. “I studied composition at the Conservatorio Rossini in Pesaro, but I didn’t want to be a composer. I wanted to understand the “science”, the technique of composition, so it would help me understand how to conduct. Composers don’t write ‘from God’, they use processes to express themselves. Rossini wrote more serious opera than comic, and he retired from opera soon after Guillaume Tell, so we have to understand that too. He is abstract, more intellectual, though you can’t compare him to Verdi, any more than you can compare Chopin to Bach”.
“I think you have to respect tradition, but you have to respect that not all tradition is good. Sometimes it can kill the character of the music. You have to keep asking yourself questions, because the world is always changing, and we can’t forever do the same things. When a composer finishes writing the score, the opera as a work of art is not finished. Every time it is performed, it lives again in new interpretation. A painting in a museum doesn’t change. But every time you go and look at it, you can see something new. You don’t go with a pencil and change the nose, the eyes or anything like that. But you are looking at it in a different way. In opera, every performance is a new way of listening, because the performers are different, and the situation and the audience are different too. So when I study a score, I need to know the tradition but also understand that there is never only one way to do it”.
“I met Juan Diego Flórez many years ago in Pesaro. With singers like him and Joyce DiDonato, you can always change things and find something new. They are true musicians, who immediately understand what can be done. John Fulljames I met last year in Bologna. He showed me the ideas he had for this production, and I was very happy . He has a good understanding of the meaning of the opera, so his direction comes from the music. You can breathe the spirit of Scotland, you can feel the wind and the waves and the colours. It doesn’t matter if the set is traditional or modern. The direction is modern if it the movements and characters are alive. The most important thing is that the direction is coherent and lets the singers act”.
Michele Mariotti has been the Principal Conductor of the Teatro Communale in Bologna, for six years. He enjoys a strong relationship with the players and is building connections with the community. He has also conducted at the Opera Bastille, the Liceu, in Washington, in Los Angeles and at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. He conducted Bizet Carmen at the Met (“a bit outside my usual repertoire”) in 2011 and conducted the acclaimed Verdi Rigoletto with Piotr Beczala
Yet he has only just turned 34, celebrating his birthday between rehearsals for the Royal Opera House La donna del lago. He’s definitely a rising star, yet comes over in person as sensitive and soft-spoken, most inspired when he talks about music. “For me it is always important to build things by the right steps. A conductor needs more than technical expertise. We need life experience to really understand the meaning of some operas. I don’t conduct Verdi Falstaff, for example. I want to do more symphonic music and more Verdi, Brahms, Strauss, Shostakovich. And Guillaume Tell !”
When he’s not making music, Mariotti plays tennis, basketball, and reads and cooks. “Musicians are always thinking about music, how to do this bar better, how to do that tempo
.I need to relax and clear my mind. So I think about tomatoes and onions instead”. But cooking is creative. Blending ingredients is a form of art. Like conducting an orchestra, perhaps
Rosssini La donna del lago runs from 17th May to 11th June. For more details, please see the Royal Opera House site.