Saturday 17 June 2017

Rossini's best comedy: I talk to conductor David Parry about Rossini's Il turco in Italia

Rossini: Il Turco in Italia at Garsington Opera in 2011 (Photo Mike Hoban)
Rossini: Il Turco in Italia at Garsington Opera in 2011 (Photo Mike Hoban)
The conductor David Parry has conducted a remarkable sequence of Rossini operas at Garsington Opera, and this year he and director Martin Duncan return to their 2011 production of Rossini's comedy Il turco in Italia. Of course David conducts far more than just Rossini, but thanks to his work at Garsington and with Opera Rara, it is bel canto with which he is most associated. I met up with David, in a break between rehearsals for Il turco in Italia to talk about Rossini's comedies, his serious operas and what makes bel canto tick.

David Parry (Photo Marco-Borrelli)
David Parry (Photo Marco-Borrelli)
David thinks that Il turco in Italia is Rossini's best comedy (though La Cenerentola comes close), partly because the standard of the music in Il turco in Italia is so very high, 'as long as you only do the music which Rossini wrote'. As ever Rossini was in a hurry and some items are by another hand; unfortunately Rossini didn't finish the finale so that you have to perform the replacement.

But it isn't just the music which raises the comedy up, it is the drama too with its meta-theatrical device of a poet creating the drama and manipulating it so that it becomes the plot of the opera that he is writing. David finds this an incredibly modern idea, and inside this device the characters are more rounded than some of Rossini's other comedies. David points to the moments of real depth in the opera, such as Fiorilla's Act Two aria when she is divorced and poverty-stricken. Like most good comedies, the work is a near tragedy. Add to this that David calls the orchestral writing brilliant.

David rates Il turco in Italia far higher than L'Italiana in Algeri, though everyone in Rossini's day simply assumed that when he wrote Il turco in Italia he was just regurgitating ideas from the earlier opera. This isn't true, and David talks about the far bigger canvas that Rossini used in Il turco in Italia. But this idea of Il turco in Italia copying L'Italiana in Algeri is still around today and it is one of the reasons to which David attributes the opera's relative lack of performances, though the relative paucity of arias probably does not help either (in Act One Fiorilla has just one short cavatina).

In fact, it is very much an ensemble piece and even moments like Selim's entrance turn into ensembles; so much so that David feels that this is something Rossini was experimenting with.

Rossini: Armida - Jessica Pratt - Garsington Opera 2010 (Photo Johan Persson)
Rossini: Armida - Jessica Pratt
Garsington Opera 2010 (Photo Johan Persson)
Ironically, the majority of Rossini's mature operas are serious operas, rather than comedies yet performances of Rossini's serious operas have lagged behind those of the comic ones. David thinks that this is gradually changing, and for instance, in Germany Rossini's serious operas are starting to be performed. David conducted Ermione in Rostock last year and will be conducting Mose in Egitto in Cologne next season. One of the reasons why the serious operas have been neglected is the casting problems, they are still difficult to cast but they were virtually impossible to cast 30 years ago. David comments that there are, thankfully, a lot more tenors around now so that there is the possibility of finding singers for the brilliant high tenor roles and also tenors with the right low registers needed for the roles Rossini wrote for Andrea Nozzari (such as the title role in Otello).

David finds operas such as Ermione and Otello great operas which deserve to be at the centre of the repertory. The problem in the past has been that when there were productions, these were lacklustre ones which did not take the operas seriously as a piece of drama and David sees Graham Vick's 1995 production of Ermione at Glyndebourne as being instrumental in bringing about a change. So by 2010, when David conducted Armida at Garsington, the production was not only a critical success, but there was no problem getting people to come to see it.

When he is conducting an opera in the opera house, David is fully involved in the production, involved not just with the music but the whole text of the opera. He finds he usually gets on well with directors and productions are collaborations. He does not think of conducting as a separate discipline and sees any separation between music and acting as old-fashioned, adding that after all, singers are acting with their voices. He likes to be at production rehearsals 'so that I can stick my oar in (in a constructive way)'. He rarely finds singers saying ' I can't do that', and comments that 'you can sing in most positions if you have a decent technique'.

At Garsington, David has worked with the orchestra  mostly on Rossini for the last 15 years so he feels that it is now a finely honed machine in this repertoire. And David likes the Garsington audiences, feeling that many are afficionados, really listening and watching. He gets to meet them too, both at events and during the long interval, so he enjoys the feeling of connection. He thinks the new house has the most amazing acoustic and is a good size for this repertoire. Though he adds that he still has a huge affection for the old house as Leonard Ingrams (founder of Garsington Opera) brought him in to conduct Rossini there. And he has now done 10 or so Rossini operas with the company, and Martin Duncan's production of Il turco in Italia debuted in 2011.

Rossini: Maometto Secondo - Darren Jeffrey - Garsington Opera 2013 (Photo Mike Hoban)
Rossini: Maometto Secondo - Darren Jeffrey -
Garsington Opera 2013 (Photo Mike Hoban)
But David does not just conduct Rossini and bel canto. He was the first conductor for ENO's production of Madama Butterfly working on it with the director Anthony Minghella. He has recorded Wagner's The Flying Dutchman (for Chandos's Opera in English series) and conducted the opera in Portland, as well as performing Wagner with bass John Tomlinson. But it is bel canto for which David is best known.

He understands that, in its way, bel canto has as much value as other operatic styles,and sees it as important that ornamentation is not a decorative add-on but is a means of expression using the voice. Decorations should be about intensifying the emotion, as well as being fun, and he always insists that if there is a decorated repeat the first four bars should be straight so that the audience knows that it is a repeat.

His first professional job was conducting La cenerentola with English Music Theatre in 1976, and it just happened that he found he both enjoyed it and was good at it. His subsequent work with Patric Schmid (founder of Opera Rara) was about heightening expression in the music rather than just showmanship. He feels that if you do bel canto operas truthfully then they are great pieces, and he highlights Rossini's mature operas which he feels are the greatest by some way. He enjoys the way Rossini finds the balance between expressivity and tight formal procedures. And when these formal procedures break down (such as in the gran scena at the end of Ermione), this has a terrific effect. He also comments on Rossini's amazing macro-harmonic sense, so that endings of operas feel just right, with a strong sense of the harmony going somewhere. Operas on his wish list include Guillaume Tell (a long opera, of which he would like to find a version which really works) and Otello.

The other area for which David is known is his series of recordings of Opera in English for Chandos. In fact he has conducted two Offenbach operas in English at Garsington (La Perichole and Vert-Vert) and has done a lot of opera translations.

Looking ahead, David is conducting a revival of La traviata at Scottish Opera in the Autumn. This season he conducted Rossini's La scala di seta there, it was intended to be a concert performance (part of Scottish Opera's new Sunday afternoon series). The performers were off the book, but as it was a comedy David felt there needed to be some sort of production and created one, simple but effective, in four days working with what he calls a fantastic cast. It made him realise how difficult staging can be, for example one of the arias had a long introduction with a cor anglais solo, requiring the director to ask the question, what is the character doing?
Rossini: Il Turco in Italia at Garsington Opera in 2011 (Photo Mike Hoban)
Rossini: Il Turco in Italia at Garsington Opera in 2011 (Photo Mike Hoban)

He is conducting Rossini's Mose in Egitto in Cologne in the Spring (another opera on his wish-list), and will be at Nederlandse Reisopera in Autumn 2018 for Tosca. In the UK, he is conducting the new orchestral version of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park at The Grange in Hampshire in September 2017.

Last year David did a concert of Rossini's music with the tenor Michael Spyres at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro and in Florence, and this year he and Spyres will be joined by two other tenors John Irvin and Sergey Romanovsky for a concert this Summer in Pesaro. With three tenors, and music by Rossini, the concert will of course include the famous tenor trio from Armida (something David describes as a crazy piece, but fun).

Martin Duncan's production of Rossini's Il turco in Italia, conducted by David Parry, opens at Garsington Opera on 26 June 2017, and runs until 15 July 2017, with Sarah Tynan, Luciano Botelho, Katie Bray, Quirijn de Lang, Geoffrey Dolton and Mark Stone. Full details from the Garsington website.

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