Opera lovers in San Francisco are certainly lucky. Starting in September 2009, the Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti takes over as Music Director of the San Francisco Opera, one of America's premiere houses. Luisotti has rocketed to prominence in the last few years: since conducting Il trovatore in Stuttgart in 2002, he's made prestigious debuts in Vienna, New York, Madrid and Covent Garden, where he's conducted exciting revivals of Madama Butterfly and Il trovatore.
Luisotti is currently back at the Royal Opera House for a double-cast revival of Puccini's Turandot, well received on its opening night in late December. I caught up with him the day after the debut of the second cast to chat about his views on this most elusive of Puccini masterpieces, as well as his plans for his time in San Francisco.
For Luisotti, the combination of Turandot and Covent Garden is ideal. 'I enjoy conducting this piece very much, especially here. I conduct everywhere, but for some reason when I come here it's special. Special people, special orchestra, special chorus. This is the place to conduct – and San Francisco, of course!'
I mention having heard him perform Tosca and La bohème at the Met, creating visceral performances in the pit both times. 'The Met is a great, great place also, but it's a big machine. The system is close to the German system – the orchestra changes. Here, like in San Francisco, you have the same orchestra every day, the same people every day: you can really spend your time creating something then!'
We move on to the subject of Turandot, Luisotti's current project. 'I think Puccini was exploring new ideas with this piece,' he explains. 'For example, polytonality: this is very clear from the beginning.' He sings the opening bars of the opera by way of demonstration. 'Here we have two tonalities together: D minor and C sharp major. He does this kind of thing for the whole piece. It's the first time he uses this kind of process.'
What inspired the composer to follow this more harmonically extreme pattern? 'Well, obviously it's very different from the early operas – Bohème was 1896 and Turandot was written in the early 1920s. I think everyone grows, and when you grow you have to discover something new. It's not important that it's better, but it's important that it's new for you. Otherwise, you're stuck. There are composers who destroy their reputation because at one point they become stuck. It's not like that with Verdi: he created one period, then another, then another. Probably, if Verdi could have lived for 150 years he would have become the next Puccini. But when Verdi died, Puccini came. For some reason, Puccini was the arm of Verdi that carried on for longer.'
Luisotti believes the two composers are very much connected. 'Yes, I think Puccini is in the great tradition of the Italian composers – Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi. The person who destroyed this sequence is Schoenberg, who I love. He's not a bad composer – very intelligent, very smart. The problem is, he created this theory that everybody was very interested in, and they all read it and thought it was wonderful. It destroyed the meaning of the music. When you go to the theatre and see Don Giovanni, or Bohème, or Rosenkavalier, it makes you feel warm inside' – he clasps his hands on his heart to emphasise the point – 'but when you see Pierrot Lunaire, you say, "Oh, this is interesting".
He elaborates further. 'The problem is that in order to express itself, music needs beauty. Not every day of our lives is lived in beauty, in the best conditions: there is war, and other bad things. We go to a gallery and stand in front of a Van Gogh or a Cezanne or a Michelangelo to see that beauty exists. People go to the theatre to watch Shakespeare or Ibsen or Pirandello, or to the opera house to hear Mozart, Verdi, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Strauss, Weber, and they say "OK, beauty exists". This is our freedom. To escape from reality, from today. It's where you forget about life for a time; you forget about the past, present and future. But if you go to the theatre and see something interesting, it's too much like life: the everyday is interesting, but it's not beautiful.
'With music, I think it's an achievement to give beauty to a human being. We need to be improved: look at the wars in Iraq, and now in Gaza. Every day there is war. Then I go to the theatre and read this music and think yes, be happy. And say, "Please listen to this music and maybe you'll stop these wars; listen to this music and hear the beauty of the human soul." God exists in music: it's his mode of expression.'
The title role of Turandot is very difficult to cast, as Luisotti admits. 'I have to say, I don't know how this theatre found not one but two wonderful Turandots. Irene Theorin is wonderful; Jennifer Wilson is wonderful. So I think they did a great job. Unfortunately, Irene Theorin was sick for the first two performances, and I have to say that Elizabeth Connell did a great job in her place. Of course, there was no rehearsal, but it was fine – I know the opera very well, and I try to anticipate the wishes of the singer. But Irene was superb, and Jennifer was wonderful last night, very beautiful. Both of the casts are very good.'
The story of Turandot is incredible to the point of being risible, even by operatic standards. In particular, the love between the two lead characters, Calaf and Turandot, can be difficult to believe in, since the latter kills the former's servant. But Luisotti has his own theories about the meaning of the libretto. 'Let me explain the story to you – I told this to the BBC and they were shocked! The story is not between Turandot and Calaf and Liu. Of course, the story was born with Gozzi, and Adami, Simone and Puccini took the story from someone else. But when Puccini started to compose Turandot, the doctors told him he had cancer, and he started to think that he was going to die. And at that point he decided that it was better to have Liu die in the opera. He told Adami and Simone to kill her off, and resolve the problem between Calaf and Turandot that way. Puccini wrote the text of 'Tu, che di gel' himself, and the finale with Timur is from ideas by Puccini too. Then suddenly, he decided the opera was finished and that he couldn't go on any longer. He went to Brussels, wrote the first "Principessa di morte! Principessa di gelo!", and then he died.
'Going back to 1909, Doria Manfredi, Puccini's maid, killed herself. For some reason, Elvira, Puccini's wife, wanted Doria out of the house. She went round Torre del Lago, the village, saying that Doria was a whore and a bitch and was having an affair with her husband. But after Doria killed herself, it was proved that she was a virgin. In fact, Puccini had a love affair with Giulia Manfredi, the cousin of Doria, and it has been suggested that he might have had a son with her.
'In essence, this is the story with Turandot. Doria Manfredi killed herself; Liu killed herself. Timur is Puccini: Timur says, "I will come to die with you in the night that never ends". And the text was written by Puccini himself. What does it mean? "I'm going to Brussels, and will probably never come back." And "Principessa di morte! Principessa di gelo!", which means "Princess of death! Princess of ice!", refers to Elvira! So I think it became an autobiographical opera when Puccini realised he was going to die and decided to change the finale.
'For this reason, Puccini wasn't able to go on. How could he go on after Liu's death? She kills herself, Turandot and Calaf go on, and after ten minutes they kiss and are happy!' He claps his hands together in amusement. 'It was impossible.'
He continues. 'For this reason, I conduct first Puccini's opera, which for me is until the end of Liu. When I conduct Alfano, for me it's another story. It's beautiful – I like that duet! But it's not in Turandot. It's two different operas, and the finale is a scena by Alfano and Toscanini.'
Is Alfano's ending satisfactory? 'The problem is not that Alfano must be satisfactory. The problem is that the finale doesn't exist. In Puccini's story, it's impossible. Timur says, "I'm going to die with you", and he's the father of Calaf. The only reasonable ending of Turandot is for Calaf to say to the Princess, "You killed my father, you killed my servant: now I'm going to cut your head off and become the Emperor of China." It's the only thing that makes sense: Turandot has cut off so many heads that we should cut off her head too!'
Should we not perform the opera with a new completion, then? 'It would be better in one sense, yes, but it's part of tradition and history now. It's like the Mozart Requiem: what do you do? Stop with the Lacrimosa and only play the parts that Mozart wrote? No, you do the Benedictus and all the parts that were written by three hands after Mozart. History gave it to us and we do it. It's the same with Turandot: we were given the Alfano ending and we perform it.'
Luisotti favours the completion of the score by Alfano rather than the more recent attempt by Lucio Berio. 'Well, I have the score, which I've studied,' Luisotti confirms. 'But I think that Berio is not part of the history of Puccini. I appreciate his work as a composer, but I don't understand his finale because he hasn't participated in the history of the piece. Alfano and Toscanini may be totally wrong, but they knew Puccini personally. Berio? I don't think it was a good idea.
'It's like if you go to the Michelangelo sculptures in the Louvre. You don't go up to them and say, "Oh my God, this sculpture is unfinished: give me a hammer and I will finish it." No! They are unfinished and nobody can touch them. It's the same with Turandot: two endings.'
What's the key to conducting Puccini well? 'I think there are no secrets about conducting. The important thing is to respect what's written in the score and try and make it real in the performance. Conductors are not the heroes: we aren't composers. The composer is the history; the conductor is the present. We don't create things. For this reason, I want to say to composers, please create beauty: you are the future.'
But he concedes that there are clearly certain keys to success. 'First of all, I rehearse with the singers. What you listen to in performance we have discussed at length in advance. And I have to respect the natural attitudes of individuals. The tempi with Jose Cura [Calaf in Cast A] are completely different than those with Johan Botha [Calaf in Cast B]. Botha needs more space; Cura needs to go fast. Botha needs to take a breath and then sing; why should I not wait? It's stupid. Music is something that's in the middle. I will never have the truth of the music; it's somewhere in the middle between me, the orchestra, the chorus, the singers, and it's something fascinating that nobody can catch.'
Luisotti's visits to Covent Garden are by no means at an end because of his job in San Francisco. 'I'm coming back to do a new production of Aida in 2010 with Marcelo Alvarez making his debut as Radames,' he confirms. 'I think he's going to be marvellous: he's such a wonderful singer and a great human being. I'm coming back many times – this is one of my favourite theatres in the world.'
The conductor has enormous plans for his new theatre, about which he speaks enthusiastically. 'For example, I will do lots of Verdi repertoire because I would like to create a sound for Verdi there. In recent years, they've done lots of German repertoire, so I would like to create something special with Verdi, and I will be the only person to conduct his music there. I will also do Puccini, of course, but there is other repertoire that interests me. I will do Salome, Eugene Onegin, Lohengrin, the trilogy of Mozart, and I will start something that has never happened before in San Francisco: a small symphonic season. So every autumn and spring, we will do symphonic repertoire. We will start with Beethoven's Ninth – with the joy! – and we'll go on with Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Mahler, Brahms and so on.
'Every orchestra has to play symphonic repertoire. If they are always in the pit, they become depressed and too servile. They don't like it. They need to show their faces on stage, to show that they can play these symphonies. Fortunately, the theatre board agreed with me.'
Will he ever conduct the Ring? 'Yes,' says Luisotti, 'but I will not do it at San Francisco. Donald Runnicles is coming back to do it there. I will do it one day, though, and I intend to extend my repertoire. The more you explore, the more you understand and grow. Life is about growing until the end.'
How about Baroque repertoire? 'I have done baroque music before, because I was chorus master, so I've performed Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, and I've also done earlier music – Monteverdi and Palestrina and Gregorian pieces. We will do Baroque opera in San Francisco, but it will be conducted by Early music specialists, people like Patrick Summers.'
Contemporary opera also figures in the company's plans. 'Yes, I think we'll do contemporary opera every year, but not with me! I have done contemporary music in my past, and I will do again in the future, but I want to be careful what I choose. I want the people to leave the theatre feeling happy. For instance, two years ago I conducted a piece in Napa Valley by Marco Tutino. It was his ballet for Richard III and was totally beautiful. At the end of the piece, the public exploded. That's the reaction I want! Marco told me, "I've never heard my piece played this way – are you sure that's what I wrote?" He was very nice, and I loved the piece.
'But it's stupid to do contemporary music just because you feel you have to. Nobody has to do that. I don't go to bed with my wife because I have to, I do it because I love her! I don't come to Covent Garden because I have to, I come because the theatre is wonderful, the orchestra is wonderful, everybody's warm, you can get work done. What you do in your life has to be done because you love it. Tomorrow could be my last day: why should I waste my time today?'
While in London, Luisotti will conduct a concert with the Philharmonia on 22 January, combining Verdi's Force of Destiny Overture with Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. 'Three Russian pieces,' he says, leaving me to look momentarily blank as to why Verdi would be programmed alongside Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev before remembering that La forza del Destino was premiered in St Petersburg. 'Exactly! The Tchaikovsky was the choice of the pianist, and I got to choose the other two. So I said OK, Tchaikovsky: destiny; Verdi: destiny; Prokofiev Fifth: destiny. Prokofiev's symphony was composed in 1944, during the Second World War, a time of disaster, but he spoke about "the greatness of humanity". It's strange. What was the greatness of human beings in 1944? The destiny of after the war. I think Prokofiev is one of the greatest composers ever to have lived, and that he will be much more appreciated in fifty years' time. He deserves to be more famous. This Fifth Symphony is one of the best of all time.'
Music has always caused strong emotional impulses in Luisotti's life, from an early age. 'I remember hearing my mother singing when I was about five years old, and I started crying. She said, "Why are you crying? Don't you like it?" and I said "Yes I like it, but it makes me cry!" I never stopped crying. I cry quite often when I am conducting. Music is something special. I am not Catholic, but I believe in God. Scientists say that the world began with the big bang; the Gospel of St John says that 'In the beginning was the Word'. It's the same thing: you are talking about sound. Music is a part of God; it's a way of speaking to us. It's not a priest talking to you: it's God talking to you directly. Bad music is the Devil: we don't want Devil music! You go outside and want to kill somebody! But if you hear Mozart or Beethoven, you feel something special.'
Turandot continues at the Royal Opera House until 23 January 2009. Nicola Luisotti conducts the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall on 22 January.
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