A Bumper Crop of Italian Maestros: Part I

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It has been remarked upon with sad frequency that Italy, the nation that gave us opera, has produced very few great opera stars in recent years. In looking at the Met roster for the upcoming season, the wonderful Barbara Frittoli is the only Italian soprano of note. I found no Italian mezzo-soprano on the roster.

Of late, it seems there must be something in the water of Sicily when it comes to tenors. Marcello Giordani has been an exemplary stalwart in the tenor repertory and we would be much poorer without him. There are a couple of European tenors of Sicilian origin: France’s Roberto Alagna and Switzerland’s Salvatore Licitra. The latter was scheduled to sing Ernani at the Met in February but the role is now assigned to Sicilian tenor Roberto De Biasio, who made his company debut in January when he stepped in for an ailing colleague as Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra. I did not have the opportunity to hear him. Here is an audio clip from that performance.

The peerless bass Ferruccio Furlanetto will be back in three operas (Faust, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Ernani) and anyone who loves opera should get tickets for those performances. He is one of the greatest artists of our time. He will also appear at the San Francisco Opera next June in Verdi’s Attila. I welcome the return to the Met of the Bolognese bass Carlo Colombara who, in recent years, has chosen to live in Spain, where he finds the political and artistic environment more congenial. We will also see the excellent young bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni in two new productions (Don Giovanni, The Enchanted Island). Born in Venezuela to Italian parents, he had most of his training in Italy and seems to be following in that tradition.

There are a few other talented Italian singers, such as baritone Alessandro Corbelli, appearing at the Met who are not stars but are valuable artists all the same. There seem to be more Italian-Americans, including Matthew Polenzani, Michael Fabiano, Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Marianne Cornetti. Joyce DiDonato, despite her surname, is of Irish origin. 

On another occasion I will address why I believe there has been a drought of great Italian singers before the public today. It is an alarming phenomenon.

Medals for Good Conduct

I have often said that I think the major achievement of the Peter Gelb era at the Met has been a significant improvement in the quality of conducting. And, frankly, without a great conductor an opera performance is banal, so this is a serious matter. The company has had numerous star conductors, including Daniel Barenboim, William Christie, Lorin Maazel and Riccardo Muti, but at least as important has been the fact that, day in and day out, the music-making from the pit has been superb. There is only one conductor who appears with any regularity who I think is not up to the standard, but I will not mention him because it is just my opinion and it seems he is more esteemed by other opera lovers.

Italian conductors have been very important in this renaissance in the pit. They are as conspicuous at the Met as Italian singers are absent. In the coming season, of the 22 conductors on the roster, there are six Italians (Marco Armiliato, Maurizio Benini, Paolo Carignani, Fabio Luisi, Gianandrea Noseda, Donato Renzetti) and two more with Italian roots. By contrast, there are only three Americans: Christie (who lives in Europe), the legendary James Levine and the excellent David Robertson. In recent years, other Italian conductors at the Met have included Roberto Abbado, Riccardo Frizza, Nicola Luisotti, Evelino Pidò, Stefano Ranzani, Carlo Rizzi, and Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. With a bit of research, I am sure I can come up with a few more.

In the coming season, Luisi, Armiliato and Noseda are the cream of the crop. Fabio Luisi (above left), from Genoa, is principal guest conductor of the Met. He is often described as the presumptive heir to James Levine as music director. He has provided sober, assured and musically insightful performances in varied repertory, including many German works, often stepping in at the last moment. In April, he will lead La Traviata (with Natalie Dessay) and the new production of Massenet’s Manon (Anna Netrebko).

A much-loved figure on the podium is Marco Armiliato, also from Genoa, who will lead the Met premiere of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (again Netrebko) on opening night (Sept. 26). It is always an honor, and considerable recognition, for a conductor to be asked to lead the first performance of the Met season. Understandably, this job has fallen to James Levine for most of the past four decades. Levine will be back on October 13 to conduct the new production of Don Giovanni. Armiliato has been the go-to guy for 17 different Italian operas, including rarities such as Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly and Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. The only foreign-language opera he has led at the Met is La Fille du Régiment, by the Italian Gaetano Donizetti.

Armiliato will be back later in the season for Aïda and Ernani. Unlike Luisi, who conducts repertory from many countries, Armiliato is the mainstay of what used to be known as the “Italian wing” at the Met. These are conductors who specialize in the works of Italian composers and are guardians of the tradition. In them I see the potential for the renaissance of the Italian opera singer. For many years the Italian wing was occupied by Fausto Cleva and, in more recent times, by Nello Santi who is now 80 and made his debut 60 years ago conducting Rigoletto in Padua. Santi led more than 400 performances at the Met between 1962 and 2000. He still conducts often in Zurich and I would love to see him return to the Met for something special, perhaps in 2012 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his debut. He has so much to teach to younger conductors and, especially, young singers. He is in every sense a grand old maestro.

Milan-born Gianandrea Noseda was until recently the music director of BBC Philharmonic in Manchester and now is the principal guest conductor of Pittsburgh Symphony. He is also the music director of the excellent Teatro Regio in Turin, the only opera company in Italy that can be said to rival La Scala. Noseda recently led a stupendously successful cycle of Beethoven symphonies that set a record in the UK as the most downloaded music produced by the BBC.

He is notable in that he conducts a vast range of repertory but seems to bring his visceral energy and fine musicianship almost entirely to Verdi at the Met (La Forza del Destino, Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, with Macbeth next March), though he conducted Lucia di Lammermoor on tour in Japan in June. The exception at the Met was Noseda’s debut leading Prokofiev’s War and Peace. This is less surprising when one learns that Noseda was a protegé of Valery Gergiev and is an outstanding interpreter of Russian music.

Dante Anzolini, an Argentinian of Italian origin, made a superb Met debut in 2008 leading Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, returns with that opera in November. Robin Ticciati, is a British conductor with an Italian surname. Not yet 30, he conducts Hansel and Gretel at the Met this season. He becomes the seventh music director of the Glyndebourne Festival in 2014.

Stay tuned for Part II of this look at the renaissance in Italian conductors.

Photo credits: 1) Fabio Luisi: Sebastian Willnow/AFP/Getty Images 2) Gianandrea Noseda: Chris Christodoulou