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Out of Pesaro

It hasn’t taken long for Michele Mariotti to convince the world’s great opera orchestras that he knows the score. FRED COHN catches up with Teatro Comunale di Bologna’s music director.

Out of Pesaro hdl 815
Photo: Sasha Maslov
© Sasha Maslov 2015

It’s easy to understand why the musicians of Bologna’s Teatro Comunale looked askance when Michele Mariotti first stood in front of them in 2007 to rehearse a revival of L’Italiana in Algeri. Even today, at thirty-six, he could as easily pass for a conservatory student as for a jet-setting maestro. But then he was a boyish twenty-seven-year-old, a mere two years into his professional career. Many of the Bologna musicians had known him as a child, hanging around Rossini Opera Festival rehearsals in Pesaro, where his father, Gianfranco, is intendant. Now the former festival brat had the audacity to step up to the podium of one Italy’s oldest and most prestigious opera houses. “The musicians later told me, ‘When we saw you, you started not from zero,’” Mariotti remembers, “‘but from minus ten.’” 

By the break in that very first rehearsal, all had changed. The young conductor’s authority and musicality became instantly apparent. “They fell in love with me, and they told me,” Mariotti says. “At that moment, I understood I could be a conductor.” During the L’Italiana run, the theater offered him the next season’s opening-night production of Simon Boccanegra; in 2008, he became the Comunale’s principal conductor, and last year he was named music director. He has since made debuts at La Scala, Covent Garden, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Paris Opera, as well as Pesaro, his old stomping grounds. The Metropolitan Opera seems to have a particular interest in sustaining a relationship with Mariotti: starting with his 2012 Carmen debut, he has led forty-two performances of five different operas, including new productions of Rigoletto and La Donna del Lago, which returns for a revival in December.

To get an idea of what the fuss is about, consider the elaborate twenty-minute Act I sextet from Rossini’s Mathilde di Shabran, in a 2012 Pesaro performance captured on DVD with Mariotti leading his Comunale forces. He takes the central andante at a relaxed gait, but one that never loses its forward momentum. The concluding allegro takes the form of a “Rossini rocket” — one of the infectious crescendo sequences that are the composer’s hallmark. Mariotti brings out the vitality of Rossini’s rhythmic invention, but he does so within an essentially lyric framework: no matter how propulsive the music gets, you never hear him pushingit. “Sometimes everybody does too much,” Mariotti says about conducting Rossini. “But the music has to fly naturally.” 

He takes issue with a faster-is-better approach to Rossini. “In Barber, I always conducted Don Bartolo’s aria very fast,” he says. “But last year, in Chicago, we decided together with Alessandro Corbelli, the great Italian baritone, not to do this aria so fast — because Don Bartolo in that production was very old. There is no rule — it has to be fast, it has to be slow. No, it has to be how you feel. But listen, I’ve heard a lot of rap songs, and they’re kind of slow. Why? Because we have to understand the words.”

When we meet in February, it’s a few days after the Donna del Lago premiere in New York, and Mariotti sings the praises of the piece in unidiomatic but vividly expressive English. “For me, it’s a Schubert opera, very melancholy,” he says. “It’s a very liquid opera. The lake is not important because it’s in the title — it’s because you’re swimming in this opera, from the beginning to the end. You can’t grab the water in your hand. That’s why you can’t understand the relationships in this opera.”

He notes that the music in Donna del Lago sometimes tells a story that contradicts the libretto. “In the libretto, there is written, ‘Elena falls in love with Malcolm,’” he says, “but the music tells us she is feeling something for Uberto.” When I start to ask him if stage directors are sometimes deaf to such divergences between an opera’s text and music, he interrupts before I can finish the question. “Unfortunately, yes,” he says. “Don’t build your direction only reading — listen to the music! It’s stupid.”

Mariotti discovered the power of opera when he was a mere boy haunting the Rossini Festival. “When I was younger — ten or eleven — I used to fall in love with girls all the time, but they never reciprocated,” he says. “One day I went to the theater [for Rossini’s Otello], and I could hear the tenor singing this aria. It was the same situation. In that moment, that was me on the stage! I understood how this art could be so close to our life, to our emotions.”

As a boy, Mariotti would conduct along with records, using homemade batons constructed from discarded wine corks and his grandmother’s shrimp skewers. But he didn’t seriously pursue music until he was seventeen, when he announced to his father that he wanted to become a conductor. “My father thought, ‘You are crazy!’” Mariotti says. “‘If you want to become a piano player, I can buy a piano for you. But I can’t buy an orchestra for you! So it’s unbelievable, what you are asking.’ But he said, ‘Okay, let’s try.’ So I tried, and now I’m here.”

At Pesaro’s Conservatorio Rossini, Mariotti studied composition as well as conducting. He had no ambitions to write music himself, but his studies helped him examine the mechanisms through which great music works its seemingly ineffable magic. “Sometimes you think all the great composers were guided by God, but it’s not true,” he says. “There is an artisanal aspect, which is so important. For me, it was a great surprise when I understood that, because I improved my way to approach a score.” 

Early in his career, Mariotti found an ally in the veteran bel-canto soprano Mariella Devia. They first worked together on a 2009 Traviata in Macerata. He asked her in the gambling scene to eschew the traditional rallentando at the phrase “Ah perché venni, incauta!” “She didn’t answer me, but at the following stage-and-orchestra rehearsal, she did exactly what I asked her, and it meant she liked it,” Mariotti says. Devia later told a mutual friend, “I want to work again with that young conductor.” The highlight of their collaboration came at the Comunale in Bologna in 2013, when the sixty-five-year-old Devia, at Mariotti’s urging, undertook her first Norma. “You can like [her Norma] or not, because you can say, ‘I prefer a stronger voice,’” Mariotti says. “But the way she sings, the way she keeps the melody — unbelievable. This is the right way to sing — not with your muscle, but with your breath.” 

Another early booster was Claudio Abbado, a boyhood connection. (Abbado all but put the Rossini Festival on the map when he conducted the 1984 world premiere of the critical edition of Il Viaggio a Reims.) The great maestro attended one of Mariotti’s 2011 Cenerentola performances — a prospect that must have been fairly unnerving, considering the work was one of Abbado’s specialities. “Conductors are lucky,” Mariotti says, “because we can have a king behind us, but we are looking in the face the musicians we’ve been working with for the past two weeks.” Later, Abbado invited him over to his villa for lunch, insisting that he be called “Claudio” and asking advice on the optimal place to plant a lemon tree. “I wanted to become a lemon-tree specialist for him!” Mariotti says. 

American audiences have yet to hear Mariotti in Mozart, but in Bologna he has conducted Le Nozze di Figaro,Così Fan Tutte, Idomeneo and Die Zauberflöte, as well as the Requiem. “Listening to Mozart makes me cry every time,” he says. “Because his music can touch at the same time my brain and my heart and my body as well.” He likens Mozart’s encyclopedic treatment of human emotion to Verdi’s. “If you have to conduct Verdi and Mozart, above all,” he says, “it’s not enough to have musical experience. You need to have life experience as well. You are in front of the mirror — you are naked. Their theater is so violent. In Così Fan Tutte, you can understand the line between the happiness and the sadness. We don’t know whether it’s a happy ending or not. And what does it mean, happiness? There is not only one answer.” 

Mariotti conducts symphonic concerts with the Comunale orchestra and has made guest-conducting appearances with orchestras throughout Europe. “I am finding the right balance between symphonic and opera,” he says. “And I’m pretty sure conducting opera can help you in symphonic repertoire. You can find the right way to breathe together — not only with the singers but with the violins, with the clarinets. Because they are not machines, the musicians in the pit.” 

Mariotti is married to Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko. The two met at the 2010 Rossini Opera Festival, working together on Sigismondo, and she also took the title role in that Pesaro Matilde di Shabran. Mariotti led her 2014 Met debut in I Puritani, and they are slated to appear together again at the house in Lucia di Lammermoor in 2018. But for the most part, they do not work together, and at the time of our New York interview she is in Vienna, rehearsing for Puritani. “Couples are trouble for the general directors and artistic managers,” Mariotti says. “They think, ‘I want to call her — I need him as well.’ Instead, she has her career, I have my career. It’s delicate to be separated, and if a theater calls us for a show, we are happy, and we accept. But we prefer not to insist.”

Mariotti’s Bologna contract runs through 2018. Despite his harmonious relationship with the theater’s management and personnel, he is unsure whether he will stay past then. “You have to understand the best way to leave,” he says. “Every relationship changes with time. I don’t want to take this decision when it’s too late. For me, the best way to leave is when you’re still on top.” spacer

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