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Molto Armiliato

Marco Armiliato has two qualities essential to a good maestro - a desire to serve the composer and a great love of singers. This month, he takes on both Lucia di Lammermoor and Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met. By Scott Rose.

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<font size=2>Photographed by Johannes Ifkovits at Vienna's Palais Pallavicini</font><BR>Grooming by Evelyn Rillé<BR>© Johannes Ifkovits 2009
opera news
© Johannes Ifkovits 2009
All too often, relations between instrumentalists and their conductor are as acrimonious as shown in Fellini's Prova d'Orchestra. Happily, that is never the case when Marco Armiliato is on the podium at the Met. During last season's La Fille du Régiment, this maestro's personal warmth reflected consistently in the company's music making. "I chose to become a conductor because I love communicating with people," he says, "putting them together and making them happy in what they do. In the house, I sing with them, I breathe with them - I follow them with my eyes."

Over the past eleven seasons, Marco Armiliato has become one of the Met's true conducting fixtures. He helped open this season when he led the Manon segment of the gala concert starring Renée Fleming. At the dress rehearsal, all eyes were on Fleming - in Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, no less - when, shortly after the beginning of "Je marche sur tous les chemins," she halted the proceedings and came forward onstage to ask a musical favor of Armiliato. Then she motioned for the audience to applaud the conductor. We hardly needed encouragement: the downbeat G-major chord in the strings preceding Manon's entrance had emerged plush as a velvet cushion, and the woodwind choir's tag after her first phrase had been enchantingly léger et rythmé, as called for in the score. "When you are able to give a soft, refined sound supporting the singer...." Armiliato says, trailing off into a smile. It's clear what pleasure such musical moments bring him.

Armiliato's musical gifts manifested themselves when, at the age of four, he was taken by his parents when they went to rent a piano. The car radio sounded Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and then in the store, Marco played the piece, leading to the realization that he had perfect pitch. I ask whether he had had any prior lessons. "In a previous life, maybe!" he laughs. At age sixteen, Armiliato graduated from the Conservatorio Niccolò Paganini in his native Genoa. "Tulio Marcoggi was my first teacher there," he says - "a crazy guy! Pazzo! But he had an amazing piano technique. And he gave me a valuable piece of advice: never stop the orchestra if you don't have anything to say. But I'm telling you, the man was crazy. Do you know how he died? In disbelief over what somebody was saying to him, he slapped himself in the forehead so hard it provoked his death. Yet what Marcoggi told me is true - a conductor must be extremely confident in what he asks the musicians to do."

In Lima in 1989, Armiliato led L'Elisir d'Amore with Luigi Alva, Gladys Mayo and Roberto Servile. While in Peru, he met the sixteen-year-old Juan Diego Flórez, who asked, "Maestro, do you believe I could have a career in opera?" Today, Flórez says of the conductor, "For me, it's always a pleasure to work with Marco Armiliato - not only because of his musicality and his close attention to carrying through on what we decide to do in our interpretations, but also because of his love for the singers, his serene temperament, as well as his cordiality while working and his tremendous simpatía humana."

Human sympathy is only available in due measure for Lucia di Lammermoor after she has been driven stark singing insane. In October, Armiliato gave potent expressive character to Raimondo's music preceding Lucia's mad scene. Raimondo's inward apprehension at Lucia's entrance, for example, was made intensely palpable through simple, hushed strokes in the strings, preparing the listener's ear ideally for Ildar Abdrazakov's haunting "Eccola!" (There she is!).

"I grew up with Lucia central to my culture and have coached all the roles," says Armiliato. "But this production at the Met marks the first time I'm conducting with the glass harmonica as accompaniment in the scena di follia. The otherworldly sound fits perfectly with the heroine's mental state."

A protégé of James Levine, Armiliato made his company debut in 1998 in a Central Park Trovatore. It being a story of brothers, Marco's older sibling Fabio sang Manrico. In 2002, i fratelli Armiliato appeared together at the Met in Butterfly, with Fabio's wife, Daniela Dessì, singing Cio-Cio-San. In total, the conductor has led nearly twenty productions at the Met, including repertory staples such as Aida and Rigoletto and intriguing rarities such as Cyrano de Bergerac and Sly.

Would Armiliato know how to respond to a 3 A.M. phone call concerning a Met-related emergency? As it happens, he was in Holland when general manager Peter Gelb called in the middle of the night and asked, "If Plácido will sing Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur, will you conduct? You're going to be in New York for La Rondine anyway." Domingo had been scheduled to conduct Adriana this season but was tapped to sing the tenor lead when Marcelo Álvarez agreed to replace Salvatore Licitra in Trovatore, leaving Gelb short a conductor. "Cilèa!" exclaims Armiliato. "Adriana is an opera made for a real diva and a real tenor. Who is going to say no to conducting Plácido Domingo as Maurizio?"

Armiliato's study habits are impeccable. "As soon as possible, I memorize scores to operas that I'll be doing for the first time," he says, "putting them away for a while, always thinking about them, however, and then returning to them as rehearsal dates get closer. With my busy schedule, a lot of my score study takes place on planes or while I'm having an espresso." Armiliato is of the opinion that to be in the profession, an opera conductor must have twenty scores under his skin, ready to go. With his prodigious memory, the maestro conducts without a score before him. "The more deeply I know a score," he says, "the more new things it reveals to me in performance. I adore spontaneous magic."

He is also a stickler for observing a composer's intentions. "Performance tradition can perpetuate things not written in the score. I'll see a specific dynamic in a Ricordi score, compare it to what I hear happening on recordings, and then ask singers to instead do what the composer wanted."

In demand throughout Europe, Armiliato will conduct his first Otello in a few years in Paris. A fixture of the Vienna State Opera, he made his debut in the house conducting Pavarotti in Andrea Chénier. "Vienna is my New York in Europe," says the conductor, who is also very active in Munich and Zurich. "After the Otello, I might like to do some Wagner and Strauss." His affinity for German repertoire is on display in Romantic Arias, the Decca recital disc with tenor Jonas Kaufmann. The orchestral portion of Max's aria from Der Freischütz is persuasively idiomatic and exhilarating. At the beginning of Faust's Invocation à la Nature from Berlioz's Damnation, the composer notes that the conductor must mark all nine beats of the 9/8 time signature in order to achieve precisely the nuanced fluctuations in tempo specified in the score. The final vocal phrase, in which Faust despairs over the happiness that eludes him, is marked un poco ritardando; Armiliato calibrates the ritardando sublimely, abetting Kaufmann's moving characterization of Faust. "Jonas Kaufmann is a very, very intelligent singer," he says. Upcoming releases for Armiliato include a Decca album of verismo arias sung by Renée Fleming and a Sony disc of Neapolitan songs with Salvatore Licitra.

Building audiences for the future is one of Armiliato's primary concerns. He recalls that when he was growing up in Genoa, people would whistle "La donna è mobile" in the streets. But he points out that in the present day, an excellent Italian-television opera program, Prima della Prima, airs late at night - when most people are asleep. Still, a video from an outdoor concert in Germany including the Traviata "Libiamo!" with Anna Netrebko and Marcelo Álvarez shows Maestro Armiliato cultivating the next generation of opera-lovers by encouraging the many children in the audience to clap along."

Nobody can doubt Armiliato's seriousness of purpose. Yet he is still uplifted by the sheer joy to be had from opera. "I am so happy to be doing La Rondine in New York. This is one of Angela Gheorghiu's great roles. The piece is like a bouquet of beautiful flowers. And whenever I conduct it, I can just feel that the audience is molto, molto felice. What could be more rewarding?"

New York-based SCOTT ROSE is author of the novel Death in Hawaii.

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