Conversation with Giampaolo Bisanti, the new Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège Music Director

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Italian conductor Giampaolo Bisanti rightfully defines himself as a “busy man”. His agenda will get even fuller with his new Music Director position at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège from next season, during which he will participate in two staged opera productions – Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Verdi’s Rare Alzira – and prestigious recitals with Plácido Domingo (accompanied for the occasion by Davinia Rodríguez) and Ermonela Jaho. From the overture concert in August, he will then have a chance to develop the wonderful connection he has experienced with the house orchestra in Rigoletto and Anna Bolena over the past few years. We met with the maestro after the 22-23 season was presented to the press. He shared his love for the Italian repertoire and his work philosophy with us.

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Opéra Online : What identity do you plan to share with the Opéra Royal Wallonie-Liège Orchestra?

Giampaolo Bisanti : I fell in love at first sight with this talented orchestra. Their level is very high, and the musicians are very immersed in the music. If you give them some advice and suggest what the energy should be, they respond immediately with greatness. When I was asked to become the Music Director of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, I accepted without hesitation.

With General Manager Stefano Pace and the staff, we aim to take this opera house to the stars. We’re now carrying out many contests for the many empty spots in the orchestra. With the people who will join this orchestra, we want to start from a very good basis for the level to be even better.

« I am very keen on Italian repertoire, and I know it very well since it’s 80% of the repertoire I have conducted in my career. »

I will organise sessions to work on many scores to add more repertoire to the orchestra and simultaneously create a new sound and energy. I think I can be enthusiastic about this new era because the orchestra gave me a very warm welcome and there is a very good feeling among us. I am very keen on Italian repertoire, and I know it very well since it’s 80% of the repertoire I have conducted in my career. I want to share all the style features and hidden codes of the music with the orchestra to let them fully understand our language and repertoire. I can also give a lot of myself, knowledge and sensibility alongside the singers. Opera is not only an orchestra. This is my goal to develop the different styles of the different composers. When you face an opera you’ve conducted many times, you can find, during your whole life some peculiar elements or sounds you didn’t have before. That is why being a conductor is a privilege.

The “Italian repertoire” covers about 120 years, from early 19th century works to Turandot. What do you think these 120 years of music say about the general history of opera?

Italy is internationally well known for opera musicians and composers. The range of the Italian opera is very wide, from Norma to Andrea Chénier, but it was born with Bel Canto. It is amazing how every single great composer has developed their own ideas and composing styles starting from the ideas put forth by Vincenzo Bellini. Bel Canto is so intimate. This “beautiful singing” refers to Italy, our society and our way of living. Opera at that time focused on the peculiar features of the voice, how the voice can be respectfully treated. In the orchestra, it’s just a pillow, a pavement, which makes Bellini much more difficult than Puccini or Mascagni for the psychological interpretation because if you do not sustain a Bel Canto opera, it can fall flat and become boring to the listeners. Bellini’s music is the embryo of the development of opera forces throughout the decades. After Bellini, it has been a sort of chain, one composer after the other. Bellini inspired Donizetti, who developed the style using a more incisive orchestra writing style   some more brass and  percussion effects  , developed in the end by Verdi. It can be interesting to offer a renaissance of interpretation of Italian opera. Sometimes the accompaniment can be considered easy or banal in Verdi, but we have to consider what and where it is included. All the voice features in Bellini and Donizetti describe a very close relationship between ability and feelings. The Aria describes a certain situation. The Cabaletta describes a further situation combined with the Aria. From the end of the 19th century, philosophy and literature changed widely with the Decadent movement in Germany. The verismo style is inspired by the changes of the musical world, including the second music school in Vienna. If we get into Puccini’s music, we realise how he keeps trying to keep a style alive but fails. In Suor Angelica or Manon Lescaut, we have tonal music but the form is inspired by the new era of composing.

You’ve conducted at the Staatsoper Hamburg, Semperoper Dresden, Bayerische Staatsoper and Deutsche Opera Berlin. How different is it to play Italian repertoire with a German orchestra?

« In Wagner’s music, you play a certain kind of forte. When you play Rossini, the forte is different. All the dynamics are colours, not only intensity or volume. (...) When you give (the orchestra) this piece of information they rely on your knowledge and they immediately “launch themselves” into the Italian style. »

In those repertoire opera houses, unless you are given a new production, you have no rehearsal for revivals. When you have the chance to rehearse with the orchestras, their style is very different from the Italian ones. They’re fantastically prepared, they know many repertoires, and they’re always keen on learning the works from the conductor. When I conducted a production of Lucia di Lammermoor in Dresden, the musicians were all new to this repertoire and very interested in listening to me on how it should be handled. I would always tell them, “Forget the forte you have in your mind. In Wagner’s music, you play a certain kind of forte. When you play Rossini, the forte is different. All the dynamics are colours, not only intensity or volume. We have to always keep a respect for the voice and the volumes, and try to create a very smooth sound in the orchestra, especially for all the pieces that can be very rough or heavy. We should also remember that 200 years ago, they couldn’t afford 14 first violins and 12 second violins. Verdi premiered Otello with 8 first violins and 6 second violins so everything was made to create a balance between the orchestra and the protagonists of the opera on stage.” When you give them this piece of information they rely on your knowledge and they immediately “launch themselves” into the Italian style. That is why I am so happy to work with these very sensible orchestras that can adapt quickly.

What is the musical style in Verdi’s Alzira, which you will conduct in Liège next season?

The iconography and the story don’t influence the music so much. We all know that Verdi developed his own style, heavily based on the late-Donizetti style until the open forms from Nabucco or later in Boccanegra, but Alzira is one of Verdi’s first operas and obviously, it still smells of the past because he hasn’t developed his personal style fully yet. The work represents the young fresh early style, with a very good orchestral structure, nice arias for the soprano and a fantastic first act finale. This kind of repertoire is interesting nowadays, otherwise we would keep listening to Rigoletto or Il Trovatore.

In your project for Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège you wish to attract more young people. How are you going to achieve that?

A music director is not just someone who conducts 3 productions out of 5 in a season and then goes home. This is somebody who, alongside the Directeur Général and staff, develops the image, prestige and level of an opera house. In addition to the footprint, identity and sensibility, I will bring a new audience to this opera house. Our existing audience is one of the most good-hearted I have experienced in my life. They get blown away by every performance, they are very close to us, but time passes.

« I will appear anywhere (...) in order to speak to people and attract them, by letting them understand that opera is very actual (...). There’s a danger opera will be forgotten, and so this is our duty (...) to work with the young audience (...) and take them to the opera now. »

In Liège, I want to put myself in the people’s shoes and try to get ideas and suggestions from young people because they are the ones that will make opera life continue. I will appear anywhere I am requested in order to speak to people and attract them, by letting them understand that opera is very actual. All the themes and features are exactly the ones of our contemporary society: war, jealousy, money or even wine! If you’re “trained” enough, you can no longer think that opera is boring or too long. Who knows, among 100 young people, I might raise an interest in 60 or 70. Many things, including social media, can draw young people’s attention toward something other than opera. There’s a danger opera will be forgotten, and so this is our duty not to only conduct or bring the opera house to a higher level, but also to work with the young audience. Children are growing up, so we have to hurry and take them to the opera now. It’s very important, and I’ll do it during the long time I’ll spend in this opera house. An opera house must be a family, a very united team. When you have synergy and strength, everything works fantastically.

by Thibault Vicq

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