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Interviews

Joseph Rescigno [Photo by Christian Steiner]
07 Nov 2013

Maestro Joseph Rescigno Discusses The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman is a transitional piece because Wagner was only beginning to establish his style. He took some aspects from Carl Maria von Weber and others from Italian composers like Vincenzo Bellini.

Maestro Joseph Rescigno Discusses The Flying Dutchman

An interview by Maria Nockin

Above: Joseph Rescigno [Photo by Christian Steiner]

 

On October 25, 2013, I spoke with Maestro Joseph Rescigno who will be conducting Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at Arizona Opera beginning November 15th. The cast includes Mark Delavan as The Dutchman, Lori Phillips as Senta, and Raymond Aceto as Daland. The director is Bernard Uzan. Mo. Rescigno told me that the production was designed to have the orchestra pit covered with stage flooring so that the singers would be much closer to the audience.

MN: Does it make the production easier to put together?

JR: No, in some ways it’s harder. Since the singers will be behind me, they will only see me on the TV monitors. I will be upstage with the orchestra and there will be a scrim behind me. The singers are downstage and the scenery consists of moving and still projections. I did Tristan and Isolde like this in 2004 and it turned out very well. I wouldn’t consider this kind of staging for something that’s really fast moving like Rossini or Mozart, but for Wagner it can work. I can remember a whole season of opera produced that way in Washington, DC, when the theater was being renovated.

MN: How do you see The Flying Dutchman? Of what should the listener be aware?

JR: This is my third production. The first two were in the late nineties. It’s a transitional piece because Wagner was only beginning to establish his style. He took some aspects from Carl Maria von Weber and others from Italian composers like Vincenzo Bellini. For me, there is a fine line between those styles. It’s important not to do The Dutchman in a ponderous manner. It has an early romantic feel to it, but at the same time it has moments of greater drama and intensity than Bellini ever gave us.

There are quite a few places where rubato is warranted. Such momentary “tempo bending” for expressive purposes would be entirely in keeping with Wagner’s own comments about his music and the influence the Italians had on him. That is pretty evident in this opera. For example, in the scene where Senta sees the Dutchman for the first time, the orchestra plays while the singers stand transfixed. Then Daland sings an aria and some snippets of the Senta-Dutchman music come into it. When they do, I like to bring back the earlier tempo. It gives variety to the scene and makes subliminal connections across sections. Also, in certain sections, we can be guided by the musical form.

When you look at Senta’s Ballad along with ballads by Chopin and Brahms, you know that kind of music has a certain tempo. When done too slow, it becomes ponderous. It is helpful, of course, that Wagner gave metronome settings for this opera. For example, the ballad is marked sixty-three. (Maestro sang the first line: “Trafft ihr das Schiff” with a pleasant lyric baritone sound). That tempo is important for the ballad.

I need different tempi to establish the dances: At the end of the first act there is a type of sailor’s Hornpipe. (Maestro sings a little bit of it). Wagner would develop his style further in his next few operas. All of this is a wonderful amalgam of the older styles of Bellini and von Weber mixed with Wagner’s own nascent style which he crystalizes in The Ring of the Nibelungen and Tristan. If you understand this, you won’t take the dances too fast.

MN: Who were some of your favorite artists of the past?

JR: One of them was Leonie Rysanek whom I saw in many roles. She had an enormous amount of energy and intensity. Her presence on the stage created excitement. Over the past twenty-five years I think there has been much too much emphasis on the elimination of mistakes and not enough on individual interpretation. I think it’s one of the reasons we don’t hear many recitals any more. It used to be that when you heard Claudio Arrau and Vladimir Horowitz play the same piece, their interpretations were entirely different. When you heard George Szell and Leonard Bernstein conduct the same work, each of them put his distinctive imprint on it. Now far more artists have similar interpretations and similar sounds.

One of my favorite tenors was Giuseppe di Stefano. I often went to hear him when I was young and I was lucky enough to have conducted his last operatic appearance in 1980. These artists had huge personalities. Who cares if there was a wrong note here or there? Their performances were thrilling. I would not complain about a few sharp or flat notes in any performance by Callas or Rysanek.

MN: What do you think of the current role of competitions?

JR: These days, everything has devolved into a contest. Music is not a contest. Neither is cooking. Now, the winner on a cooking show is the one who prepared the best dish using garlic, oranges, and licorice!

MN: Do you like to cook?

Yes. I love food and I enjoy preparing it, sometimes for a special occasion and sometimes to relax. My specialties are risotto alla Milanese, spaghetti carbonara, and seafood.

MN: Did you study music privately while you were in college?

JR: Yes, I did, and I think it is important for a conductor to study composition and become totally proficient on an instrument. I studied piano with Ada Kopetz-Korf and composition with Nicholas Flagello while I was an undergraduate at Fordham University. After that, I went on to graduate school at the Manhattan School of Music.

MN: Did you have a relationship with the New York City Opera (NYCO)?

JR: I made my debut there in 1985, and between 1999 and 2007 I conducted a production there almost every season. For a musician growing up in that city, the company was always just “there.” It was one of those companies that the city’s music lovers never imagined could actually disappear. While it was not among the companies from which I got my first big breaks, it served that important role for many, many musicians and, therefore, for my industry. Its loss is extremely painful.

During the 2008-2009 season, when the New York State Theater was closed for renovations, the company gave only two performances, but reportedly paid members of the chorus, orchestra, and administration their full annual salaries. By the time George Steele arrived it was already too late to save the company, so I would not pass any judgment on what he did.

The demise of NYCO is a real tragedy. One of my first jobs out of graduate school was as the assistant to Laszlo Halasz, its founder. The creation of the company happened with the support and prodding of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia at about the same time that he helped create the New York City Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein, and the long defunct New York City Symphony with Leonard Bernstein. The mission of all of these companies was to provide quality performances of both traditional and contemporary opera for the people of the city who could not afford expensive tickets.

MN: Did your uncle, Nicola Rescigno, help you get started?

JR: Yes, he recommended me for the Dallas Opera student performances, which I conducted from 1976 to 1981. I also owe my start at the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee to him. When the Dallas stage manager became the general director at Florentine, he called my uncle and asked him to conduct La Gioconda. My uncle could not do it and he recommended me since I had conducted it the previous year. Not too much later the artistic director resigned and they invited me to assume that position. I’ve been there ever since.

MN: What are some of your favorite operas?

JR: I love Don Giovanni, Die Walkure, Falstaff, and Otello. I’ve never done a Benjamin Britten opera, but I have done an early song cycle of his and his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. I’d love to conduct Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia. The story of the latter is somewhat problematic, but the music is fantastic.

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