Interview with Paolo Carignani: Tosca con slancio

Posted on February 1, 2012

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This interview will appear in print on Feb 4 in Tandem, the weekend edition of Corriere Canadese.

Paolo Carignani is a Milan-born, internationally renowned conductor currently in charge of Tosca at the Canadian Opera Company. Following a long music directorship at the Frankfurt Opera, Carignani’s freelance schedule is booked with engagements reaching well into 2015. This is his first time conducting in Toronto.

An opera novice whom I brought to your Tosca last week said that she found herself watching a Hollywood film.

Yes, there are all these vast orchestral colours, and there’s also the libretto that is practically a thriller. If you’re watching Tosca for the very first time, you don’t know what’s coming to you. For a lot of operas, you know how it’s going to end after the first 100 beats. But Puccini is surprising you at every turn, both through the music and the libretto.

There are many critics who’ve described Puccini as a composer for the pleasure of the borghesia Italiana, and Tosca as ostentatious and vulgar.

But our life is vulgar as well. If you try to put your life on the stage, of course there will be parts with vulgarity, there will be blood and there will be shit. That is life. Puccini isn’t entirely a verista composer, but he’s one of the first who’s starting to reproduce on the stage what is happening in our everyday lives. As for the music… OK, we can say that Puccini’s is soundtrack music, but opera is always soundtrack music. For example in bel canto, you have the singer who’s singing wonderfully and the orchestra is only playing a few notes to accompany the singer.

It is important for the “soundtrack music” to help us understand the goings-on on stage better. In Tosca, this means a no-holds-barred score. But there are moments of withholding even in Tosca. For example, the beginning of the Third Act, when the shepherd is singing off stage, and we hear the sounds of the old bells ofRome. What he did there with sound colours is similar to impressionism in painting.

Was Puccini entirely bourgeois… not if you realize that Tosca takes on the Catholic church. There are still countless churches in Rome and priests and the priestly views of morality are still very present. Italy is still under the government of the Pope. We think of Italy as of a Republic, but that’s not entirely true because people’s mentality is still marked by Catholicism. Neither can you be elected the President of Italy if the Vatican doesn’t want you. Still to this day. Then imagine how it must have been in Puccini’s time. Yet in Tosca, we have the villain who is also the churchiest character in the story.

Arguments have also been made that his music is manipulative and always tells the listeners what exactly they should feel. The return of the chords of “E lucevan le stelle” at the end, for example, which makes no dramatic sense (the tenor dead many bars ago, Tosca calling on Scarpia before dying) but are sure to stay with the audience after they leave the theatre.

Ah, but the first time that we hear “E lucevan le stelle”, the melody comes as romantic and light, with the solo clarinet playing softly. But when Tosca jumps from the Castel Sant’Angelo, it acquires a different character: the whole orchestra is playing in unison, and the melody returns like an unforeseen destiny. The music’s saying, Yes you can dream of something in a soft clarinet, but what the realization of that dream will be may surprise you. “Lucevan” comes at the end in fast orchestral unison as the life against the dream.

Puccini also apparently had dicey relations with his librettists. He’d compose the music and then go to the Giacosa et al. and say, This is the music, now supply the words with this many syllables. Is text an afterthought in Puccini?

All right, but what operatic libretto exactly bursts with beautiful writing? The only libretto that I really like on its own is the libretto of Alban Berg’s Lulu, written by Wedekind. If you read Wagner’s librettos, they’re as awful as the music is fantastic. History of opera teaches us that a good libretto is a functional libretto.

If we look at the main characters of Tosca, the two romantic leads have lyrical arias, duos and set pieces, whereas Scarpia gets more chromaticism, no hummable melodies, and his recitatives and arias are closely merged. Is this an accurate impression?

Absolutely. Scarpia has no melody and no beautiful orchestral moments. He’s been probably fighting his whole life to find his own melody, and is now trying to achieve some beauty with money and power. He’s one of those people who have climbed to the top, have all the worldly possessions and power, but alas, no melody.

Can you tell us more about your tenure at the Frankfurt opera, where you’ve been the Music Director until fairly recently?

Yes, I left in 2008 after ten years. It’s a very different job than it would be here, because the Frankfurt Opera house is the repertoire company. Here, as in Italy, you have the stagione system: you play one piece for a month, then another piece, and so on. Here, you have a lot of time. In Germany, for a new production it takes two months, but for a revival, you get one week. You play every night a different opera; I believe there are about 260 performances every season, plus the concerts. With such a huge repertoire you will have the Singers Ensemble at the opera house. It was great for somebody like me who comes from the stagione system to work in this kind of environment. I had a possibility to conduct not only the Italian opera, as Italian conductors tend to do, but also Wagner, Strauss, modern music… When after Alban Berg you conduct Puccini, you get better at both.

It’s also gratifying to know that some people from our Ensemble are now having wonderful careers. Diana Damrau, Elina Garanča, Željko Lučić started with me as Ensemble Singers. I remember conducting in 2001 a Zauberflöte with Diana Damrau as Queen of the Night and Elina Garanča as the Third Lady.

What would you recommend to a young person reading this who maybe wants to become a conductor? What will her or his path be like?

Germany is probably the best place for a young conductor to develop. In Italy that’s not possible any more… In the time of Toscanini the conductors started to conduct at 50, before you’ve been a pianist and an assistant for many years. Now if you’re not conducting at 18, you’re too late. You’ll get reviews from the critics saying, He is good but routine, too much set in his ways… We wouldn’t have had conductors like Tullio Serafin, Antonino Votto, Victor de Sabata if we didn’t let them start conducting later in life. But no – today, if you’re not conducting the Berlin Philharmonic at 18, forget it. It’s all marketing… Such is this business. People identify ‘young’ with ‘new ideas’, whereas often you’ll have very old ideas coming from the young.

But back to your question. An aspiring conductor should first of all develop their musical knowledge. You must play an instrument, or ideally several instruments, in order to understand the ins and outs of interpretation. How will you understand the orchestral Beethoven if you haven’t experienced Beethoven as an instrumentalist? How will you understand what is a technical challenge if you’ve never tried to solve a similar problem as an instrumentalist?

Then, study composition. With knowledge of composition, you’ll understand the score better, you’ll understand why the composer used the clarinets at his particular place, why this structure, why these harmonies, etc.

And after that – connections and networking. You can go to a competition and win, but that won’t be enough. And in any case, you are accepted to take part in competitions only if you already conducted before. But if I’m already conducting, I won’t need a competition. This was my problem when I was starting out. Many years ago in Italy, in the mid-80s, I tried to register for a competition and it was near impossible. People told me, but you haven’t conducted before and you don’t have enough concert experience, so we can’t accept you as a candidate. So I went to a friend who had a print shop and we printed a lot of copies of the program of an invented performance in an invented town that I had “conducted”. I sent that to the jury, was finally accepted as a participant and then won the competition.

But what happens after that. You get the award money, always good, fine. Two concerts with the orchestra, great, I do that too. Then I try to make myself known to people in other opera houses and apply for jobs. I even made a video recording of my conducting and sent it with my applications. Nothing. And not only do I not get engaged, but people who have not won competitions, who haven’t studied composition etc do get engaged, thanks to their connections.

So I say: public relations are very important. Build the connections, meet the influencers, and go step by step. It can be done.

Photo of a scene from Tosca at the COC: Mark Delavan as Scarpia. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Photo of Paolo Carignani is by Barbara Aumüller

Posted in: Opera