Conductor  Donato  Renzetti

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Donato Renzetti is one of the most renowned Italian conductors in the world. He conducts both concerts and operas we well as recording discs.

He was a prize-winner at the Diapason d’argento competition (1975), the Gino Marinuzzi Competition in San Remo and the Ottorino Respighi Competition at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena (1976). In 1978 he won the bronze medal at the I Ernst Ansermet Competition in Geneva and in 1980 he was the absolute winner at the X Guido Cantelli Competition at the Teatro alla Scala.

Renzetti conducts some of most important orchestras in the world, among them the London Sinfonietta, the London Philharmonic, the London Philharmonia, the English Chamber Orchestra, the RIAS in Berlin, the Hungarian State Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic, the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, the Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia (Rome), the Dallas Symphony, the Belgian Radio and Television Orchestra in Brussels, the Orchestre National du Capitol de Toulouse, the Orchestre National de Lille, the Orchestre National de Lyon, the Zeeland Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra della RAI in Milan, Turin and Rome.

He has collaborated with such soloists as Salvatore Accardo, Lazar Berman, Mario Brunello, A. Bulin, Michele Campanella, Domenico Ceccarossi, Severino Gazzelloni, B.L. Gerberg, Nikita Magaloff, Antonio Meneses, Viktoria Mullova, Mstislav Rostropovich, Maria Tipo and Alexis Weissenberg; he has performed at the world’s great opera venues, among them the Opéra de Paris, Covent Garden in London, the Grand Théâtre de Genève, the Staatsoper in Munich, the Capitole de Toulouse, Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Dallas Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Bunka Theatre in Tokyo, the Megaron in Athens, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and every major opera house in Italy. The conductor has been a guest at festivals in Glyndebourne, Spoleto and Pesaro as well as the Verdi Festival in Parma. In 1987 he conducted the opera Aida with Arena di Verona in Luxor (Egypt).

From 1982 to 1987 he was Principal Conductor of the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia, from 1987 to 1992 he was Principal Conductor of the Orchestra Regionale Toscana, from 1993 to 2001 he was Principal Conductor of the Orchestra Stabile di Bergamo and from 2004 to 2007 he was Principal Guest Conductor of the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra. In 2007 he was appointed Artistic Director and Principal Director of the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana.

The conductor’s discography includes numerous recordings of music by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Simon Mayr and Cherubini on the Philips, Frequenz, Fonit Cetra, Nuova Era and Dynamic labels; he also recorded the previously unperformed Overture by Schubert. His opera recordings include Attila, Il signor Bruschino, La  cambiale di matrimonio and La Favorite; on DVD he has recorded La Fille du régiment at the Teatro alla Scala, La Cenerentola at the Glyndebourne Festival, La Gioconda at the Arena di Verona and L’Italiana in Algeri at the Pesaro Festival. His recording of Schumann’s Manfred with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala won the XIX Premio della Critica Discografica Italiana.

Since 1987 he has been a teacher of conducting at the Corso Triennale di Alto Perfezionamento at the Accademia Musicale Pescarese. In 2002 the Regione Abruzzo conferred upon him the  Premio Frentano d’Oro for the merit he has earned in Italy and abroad. The Associazione Amici della Lirica of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro honoured him with the  Premio Rossini d’Oro in 2006.

-- Biography from the website of the Mariinsky Theater 

In the fall of 1984, the young conductor Donato Renzetti made his debut with Lyric Opera of Chicago in the Benois production of Ernani by Verdi.  He would return in subsequent seasons for I Capuleti e i Montecchi, La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, I Puritani, and Otello which opened the season in 1992. 

It was during his first appearance that I had the chance to sit down and chat with this budding talent.  My thanks to Marina Vecci of Lyric Opera for providing the translation.

Here is much of what was said at that time . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Let me first ask about Verdi.  What is it about his operas – especially the early operas
that makes them so durable?

Donato Renzetti:    There is a problem with the word “durable” because it’s only in the last 10 years that the early Verdi has exploded into a success.  I don’t need to explain the whole Verdi story that you know very well, but the difference between Donizetti, Mercadente and Verdi lies mostly in the strength of the Italian people.  Verdi was the only one that was a revolutionary.  Besides being just a musician, he had great faith in the history of the Italian people.  He started with texts about great leaders like Attila and the big histories of people gaining their freedom like I Lombardi and Masnadieri, and even Giorno di Regno.  Another difference between Verdi and the other composers was in his way of orchestrating.  It is a very simple kind of orchestration, but different from the others.  Verdi’s use of forte (loud) was different that Donizetti – always relative to the melody.  In the early operas of Verdi, the fortissimo is never in the aria or duet, but in the musical recitative.  In other words, it’s used when there is a dramatic action.  This really characterizes the early Verdi, because after this period, beginning with Ernani, we start dealing with one person only and not the history of a people.  In Ernani you have a woman who is loved by three men.  That is a very important development in the work of Verdi.  The early part is Verdi being heroic and nationalistic and revolutionary.  He loves the whole people.  The middle phase utilizes one big heroic person who is often the name of the opera, such as Ernani, Rigoletto, Traviata and Trovatore.

renzettiBD:    In Trovatore, who is the bigger character – Manrico or Azucena?

DR:    Azucena, even though the opera is named for Manrico.  This is the difference between the early Verdi and late Verdi.  Also there is something of his fate which can help the career of a composer – the letters in his name standing for “Vittorio Emmanuele Re d’Italia” which was a popular slogan of the day.

BD:    If Verdi had not lived, would Mercadante have been the #1 Italian composer of the time?

DR:    In my opinion, before Puccini, yes.  But Mercadante is not known at all now.

BD:    You’ll be coming back for a new production of Capuletti.  How soon do you become involved with the designer and director for a brand new production?

DR:    The ideal way of doing a big production would require conductor, director, and set designer get together early and cooperate fully.  I have already seen the set designs and I’ve already had a meetings and discussion with the designer and director.

BD:    Did you have any input into the designs?

DR:    Some, yes.  I don’t like to do a new production without knowing who will be in it – both onstage in the roles and in creative end of it.  It is very important to cooperate with the others – very much like a surgical team.  It’s best to fight in a room together and arrive at a decision before beginning the work.  I played in the percussion section at La Scala for 16 years, so I’ve seen many conflicts between the conductor and the stage director.  I have learned a great deal.

BD:    I would think being a percussionist would give you a better eye and ear to the over-all concepts and details.

DR:    It also gave me lots of time to study the scores!  I’ve also played the violin, but as a conductor, the experience playing in the orchestra has been very important.  But to go back to what we were saying about the conductor and set-designer, if they don’t have a relationship before, then later on he cannot afford to get angry if he sees something that he doesn’t like or something that doesn’t suit his purpose.  When he is conducting the orchestra in the pit it’s too late to worry about it.  If the conductor hasn’t gotten involved before, then the stage director is always right.

BD:    Can you still have that kind of involvement when it’s not a new production?

DR:    I try not to do any that are not “new” ones, but I would do one where it’s by a great designer – like Benois – where it would be guaranteed to be good and traditional.  But I’ve been lucky in that most of what I conduct are not old productions.

BD:    How much do you have to compromise, then, to be in a certain theater or with certain singers?

DR:    This one here in Chicago was a compromise, but to work with singers of the caliber we were to have – Bumbry, Pavarotti, Cappuccilli, Ghiauro
v – made this contract very interesting and worthwhile.  [See my Interview with Grace Bumbry.]  This is much better than a new production with poor singers.  Opera is singers. 

BD:    [Surprised at this remark]  Opera is singers???

DR:    Yes, and conductor, but it’s not production.  Opera is so very difficult because it is everything together.  In a concert, the conductor is the problem.  If the conductor is bad, the concert flops.  But in opera, this is not the case.  There are so many things that can go wrong in the theater.  Every night is different.  Singers are human and they can have a night when they are not feeling well, so they sing badly and there is nothing a conductor can do on a night like that.  If the same singer is bad every evening, then you can protest him and get him kicked out!

BD:    With so many variables in every performance, is there any night when nothing goes wrong?

DR:    Yes, of course.  Otherwise I would change jobs!

BD:    OK, how often is it a good night – one in six?

DR:    When the opera is well-rehearsed, there are usually no big problems.  There might be small problems – an out of tune note, or an early or late entrance – but this is opera.  I don’t particularly like a perfect opera.  On records it is perfect…

BD:    [Gently pressing the point]  Is there never a perfect night in the theater?

DR:    Three hours of music can never be perfect.  I get mad when I read a stupid remark in the newspaper where they say, “The chorus was not together with the orchestra,” or some such comment.  There are maybe 50 in the chorus with 50 heads trying to start exactly on one gesture from the conductor.  It might have been fine at rehearsal but slightly off at the performance.  That is not what is important.  Music is what is important.  The heart is what is important.  When I go to a performance, I want to go out of the theater having experienced at least one minute of “goose flesh” – one minute of real excitement.  For me that is interesting, but you cannot have three hours of that; but with a minute, that is a good performance.

BD:    But don’t the composers write it so it will be three hours of excitement?

DR:    The composer writes it, but to realize it and perform it is a different thing.  All music – even Wagner, even Brahms – not everything is great.  There are moments of magnificence, but not everything is great.

BD:    Is this what separates the genius from the mediocre – more moments of magnificence?

DR:    For me that is true, but I am very instinctive about music.  I like many things.  Good movie-music moves me.  If I get something out of it, it’s great music for me.  It might be wrong for someone else, but what gives me that kind of emotion is great music.

BD:    Is great music still being written?

DR:    No.

BD:    [Surprised]  When did it die???

renzettiDR:    What do you mean by great music?  If we mean a certain series of sounds that gives you a certain type of emotion
like nature and passionthen great music is dead.  But if we intend to include a great technique and certain kinds of noises and all kinds of different sounds, then music goes on.  I have conducted a great deal of very modern music – avant guard music – and it’s very different.  For technique, it’s fantastic.  For the conductor, works written by Berg, Stravinsky, Bartók, and now Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono and Berio, the orchestration is great and it’s a challenge.  [See my Interview with Luciano Berio.]

BD:    Is the challenge to overcome the music?

DR:    The point is that one should never overcome the music.  It is a very personal thing.  The contemporary conductor must do all kinds of music – many styles and periods.  At least for me that is important.  I know that you cannot conduct everything well, but it is important for me to know as much as I can about music.  I might do it once and say the piece is not for me and then not do it anymore.

BD:    Well, back to my question – when did music die?

DR:    Remember that for some, this noise is great music.  For a percussionist, modern music is very important.  But I feel that great music died after Berg, and opera was finished after Wozzeck

BD:    Then was it too late for a composer like Britten to have written such lyrical music?

DR:    Well, there you are.  That is why for me music is an instinctive response rather than an intellectual exercise.  It’s a very personal thing.  I perform music and am not a musicologist.

BD:    Do musicologists do a disservice by their slavish attitude towards music?

DR:    That requires a very long answer.  I work a lot in Pesaro where Rossini was born and where there is the Rossini festival, and every year the Rossini foundation commissions a new production of an unknown work of his.  He is remembered by just three or four operas, and he wrote almost 40.  In this case, musicologists have been working for years to uncover these operas, so they do a very important service which is something that a conductor really cannot do.

BD:    But what about the musicologist who finds pages cut by the composer and tries to restore them?

DR:    There is disagreement about this, and a wrong opinion about what the “critical edition” means.  If I get a score with an aria which has always been used plus three others which have been inserted, it is not mandatory for me to use any of those three just because they are in the “critical edition.”  It is really a history of the opera, showing what has been done in various theaters and how the arias have been done in different ways.  But that doesn’t tie the conductor to do it more than one way.  Now in the case of Rossini, the critical edition has a great deal of meaning because once Rossini wrote the opera, when it was done in another theater the tenor might ask for something and Rossini would write it for him.  So this critical edition will have all the various things that have been done.  But I am not in agreement with those conductors who take the critical edition as the only possible one to use.  We were supposed to use the new critical edition here for Ernani, and it has an aria which Verdi wrote for a tenor, but then after the performances, that tenor did not return the materials to either Verdi or the publisher.  Pavarotti has learned this material, but when he cancelled we did not ask the replacement to learn this new music. 

BD:    Then you a not slave to the score?

DR:    No, definitely not.  I am very young, but I have a lot of respect for tradition and for the great conductors of the past.  When conductors cut things, there were often good reasons for those cuts.  Not all of the Italian traditions of cuts and cadenzas are good, so I need to find out how they started.  Verdi would often work things out with the various performers, but he had the power to put a stop to things he didn’t like.  You know what he said about putting in the high C – it was alright as long as the note was brilliant.  But traditions are born to do things which are not in the score, and the critical edition comes out and does not have all these variations.  On the other hand, the publisher often has to get a score out in a hurry, and later mistakes are found to have been printed.  So the critical edition has its merits, but to abandon all of the great traditions is, I feel, a mistake.  Tradition has wonderful things and awful things. 

BD:    So is it your job as conductor to decide which traditions are good and should be followed?

DR:    Certainly, but always keeping in mind the style and taste of the music.  Remember that in Italy, every small town has a theater, and these wonderful little theaters often expand these traditions both good and bad.  In the great theaters with the great conductors, things were kept reasonably close to the printed page, but in the small theater, a singer might do things just to get applause and not be restrained by anyone.

BD:    Is that something that separates the great composers from the modern ones – older ones worked with the artists to make the score work well with them, but modern composers try to force the musicians to do exactly what they have written?

DR:    In the past, most composers – good and bad – would work very closely with singers, and had a good understanding and tolerance for the singers’ needs and wants.  Opera today doesn’t have the cadenzas and set pieces which allowed singers to do things themselves.  Only Italian operas have this problem of the singers wanting to do more things.  Before Puccini, opera was introduction, aria, recitative, duet, ensemble, finale.  When you get to Puccini and the last operas of Verdi, you get theatrical action in a continuous way.  French and German opera is a different kind of style of singing and composing. 

BD:    Do you conduct these other styles of opera?

DR:    I am young, and even though I’ve done a few things, I would like to understand more of the culture and people before going into that repertoire.  I need to learn their traditions just as I know my own Italian traditions.  Before I die, though, I hope to do Boris and Tristan and Pelléas.  In the mean time, I study them.  I could lead Tristan tomorrow, but I think the conductor should not only lead the orchestra, but should be the maestro and teach them.

BD:    You are special in that way – waiting until you learn and understand before trying to conduct these works.

DR:    This is the system today, to have young conductors do things before they learn them.

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© 1984 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in a dressing room backstage at the Civic Opera House in Chicago on November 12, 1984.  The translation was provided by Marina Vecci of Lyric Opera.  Portions were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made and posted on this website early in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.