Riccardo Chailly: the conductor on Puccini, Fellini and life at La Scala

Neil Fisher Tue 9th April 2019

Four decades with Decca, life at La Scala, Puccini, rare Verdi, and Fellini films - there’s much on the menu when Neil Fisher enjoys a meal with Riccardo Chailly

Chailly

(Chailly in La Scala – photo: Brescia & Amisano)

Riccardo Chailly takes charge of ordering the wine. 

‘This is Amarone,’ he says, as two inky-coloured glasses are placed on our table at the conductor’s favourite Milanese restaurant. ‘It’s temperamental. But, after the Verdi last night, I think it’s the right choice.’

It is lunchtime (even Chailly doesn’t quaff Amarone for breakfast, I think) but my Verdi hangover is still with me. At La Scala, where Chailly has been Music Director since the beginning of 2017, the Milanese maestro was conducting Attila, Verdi’s ninth opera. Although a great vehicle for some fearsome basses in operatic history (Boris Christoff, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Samuel Ramey all had successes with the title-role, the bloodthirsty Attila the Hun), Attila is not considered top-drawer Verdi.

No one told this cast, chorus and conductor, however, for the performance that launched the current season at La Scala was tremendously invigorating. No, Attila doesn’t push the same emotional buttons as La traviata or Don Carlos, but, with Chailly the complete lynchpin of this production, there’s an eerie and almost hallucinogenic flow to the compressed (and remarkably sparsely scored) tale of the brutal despot and the Italians who conspire – after some operatic conniptions – to bring him down.

Bringing Attila back to La Scala is all part of the plan, Chailly tells me as we sip our temperamental vino. First came Giovanna d’Arco (‘Joan of Arc’) in 2015, after a gap in Milan of 150 years, then came Attila – ‘but the arrival point will be Macbeth [probably in 2020], the first great masterpiece of Verdi,’ says Chailly. ‘And the two operas, Attila and Macbeth, have a connection that you cannot miss. If Macbeth is the masterpiece that it is, it’s because of the preparation that he’d done with Attila. The colouring of the orchestra, the famous tinta, dark and deep, even ‘muddy’ sometimes, is all there. The witches’ scene in Macbeth is almost a direct quote of the feast scene in the Third Act of Attila. It’s almost like a mirror effect, forwards and backwards between the two operas.’

Chailly

(After conducting a piano concerto by Nino Rota (Rota as soloist) in Lanciano in 1974)

Verdi had a difficult relationship with La Scala during his life, I observe. ‘More than difficult! After Attila was first performed in Venice, he was so unhappy about the next staging in Milan that there are letters where he says: “This theatre does not provide nor guarantee enough good stage realisations for my operas.”’ It’s a testament to how much store Verdi set by purely theatrical considerations; and to the fact that he didn’t make idle threats. After Giovanna d’Arco, Verdi withheld a world premiere from La Scala until Otello, a drought of more than 40 years.

Today, Chailly very much wants to talk rare Verdi and very much wants to talk about La Scala. Officially we’re here to talk about his 40-year association with Decca and the diverse recordings that will continue the relationship into the next decade. But there are connections to explore. Themes tend to recur in Chailly’s life and career. In 1978, Chailly embarked upon his Decca debut with Rossini’s William Tell, recording the composer’s grandest opera in London with an all-star cast including Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Sherrill Milnes and Ghiaurov. It was a talisman year for him, however, because he also made his La Scala debut, and it was rare Verdi to boot: I masnadieri, an opera seen even less than Attila. ‘Claudio Abbado was Artistic Director. I was rehearsing Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel in Palermo when he called me to take the first flight back to Milan – the conductor of I masnadieri had fallen ill and he wanted me to conduct it.’ Out of The Fiery Angel, into the fire. ‘I had to take the chance,’ Chailly says. ‘But I flew to Milan with great anxiety, insecurity.’

This seems strange. Milan was Chailly’s home and La Scala was practically the family business: his composer father, Luciano, had been Artistic Director there between 1968 and 1971. But Luciano didn’t offer his son much reassurance. ‘He was never a great, let’s say, consigliere in those choices,’ Chailly says, as our waiter doles out plates of delicious raw artichoke salad. ‘He was very critical about my musical background. He always had the conviction – which is right, actually – that in order to enter into somebody else’s compositions, a conductor should be able to compose himself. But, because I had been assisting Abbado on his symphonic seasons with the La Scala orchestra for two years, that gave me the confidence to jump in.’

Both the Decca execs and La Scala were satisfied with Chailly Jnr’s efforts that year. Abbado invited him to continue his Verdian adventures in Milan with I due Foscari in the 1979-80 season. In 1982 Chailly got his first big orchestral job, as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (now the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin). It was the beginning of another adventurous journey.

Chailly

(Receiving his first La Scala ovation, 1978)

In Berlin, Chailly ticked off many of the symphonic heavyweights of the repertoire but there were many off-the-beaten-track moments too. The 55-CD box-set that Decca has produced to mark the 40th anniversary includes two numbers from an album of Puccini orchestral music, the Preludio Sinfonico and Capriccio Sinfonico. ‘My debut recording in Berlin!’ Chailly exclaims. ‘Can you imagine?’ I do imagine: an orchestra of cerebral Germans appalled that their new maestro was offering them lightweight operatic offcuts. ‘Not at all,’ Chailly replies. ‘Their attitude was the exact opposite. They’d had legendary conductors, such as Ferenc Fricsay, then Lorin Maazel, great guest conductors like Eugen Jochum. They were always interested in skipping the usual stuff, moving into new things. And they actually adored Italian music.’

As the ‘other’ orchestra in west Berlin, the BRSO had to carve out a niche while cohabiting in the Philharmonie concert hall with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. So not much competition there, then. ‘I had the privilege to be close to Karajan because he allowed me to attend a lot of his private rehearsals. It was one way of discovering his greatness as a sound magician, and a very special time for me.’

A hefty contribution to those 55 CDs is the complete Bruckner cycle started during Chailly’s Berlin years: punchy interpretations played with plenty of imagination. How well does the conductor think those have stood up to the test of time? ‘I don’t know,’ Chailly confesses. ‘How can you be convinced that you’ve settled on your Bruckner cycle forever, when at least in three quarters of those symphonies you have to pick from two to four different editions – and that’s in each movement. And at the time there were not so many options as there are now. You still had to choose a version, which gave me a lot of headaches. I was pleased with the work we had delivered, but probably today I would have used different editions.’ While it was Bruckner’s intense aptitude for self-criticism that led to his endless rewrites, Chailly argues that the textual confusion is an opportunity, not a problem. ‘It’s a treasure of scores that he left – and each has great reasons to be considered. And to get out of the habit of what you know, to move into something completely different – that’s my approach.’

Chailly

(Intense focus: in the control room with the DSO Berlin and producer Michael Haas)

This curiosity is really the hallmark of Chailly’s career and his artistic credo. ‘I actually consider conducting my “secondary” profession,’ he says, as he gets to work on his main course, osso buco with the traditional Risotto alla Milanese on the side, which makes my pasta look a bit feeble. ‘The first one is researching, which I adore. Studying, knowing the unknown, that gives me incredible power and adrenalin to enrich the moment of performance. And in the process of studying there is a lot of discovery.’ Even that very first album with the Berliners of works by Puccini contained premiere recordings teased out from the archives. Later, there was a series of ‘Discoveries’ on Decca: Verdi, Puccini, Mendelssohn, Rossini. ‘It’s a privilege to know how much more there is, to broaden your knowledge.’

There were also some great totems of the repertoire that Chailly didn’t want to record until he was satisfied he had discovered enough about them. Some 20 years before his thrilling Beethoven symphony cycle with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Decca asked him to record the symphonies with the Royal Concertgebouw, just as he was starting his tenure in Amsterdam. ‘I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not ready.” And in fact, Wolfgang Sawallisch was chosen by EMI to do the Beethoven with the Concertgebouw.’ This, as far as Chailly was concerned, was the right decision. ‘He was a great maestro at the peak of his maturity and knowledge.’

The Gewandhaus was the orchestra that first performed Beethoven’s symphonies as a cycle in the 1820s, and it had personal associations with (most of) the great icons of German musical romanticism, including Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms. Still, Chailly hints that the success of their Beethoven project came as much from challenging the orchestra to reinterrogate the scores as it did from harnessing the Leipzig tradition. ‘There was a lot of talking with the musicians,’ he says, hinting that not all the talking was entirely convivial. ‘Because there were a lot of surprises.’

When Chailly was tempted to La Scala – an appointment that brought a premature end to his time at Leipzig – he made it clear that his mission was to restore the primacy of the Italian operatic tradition. Backstage at the theatre, he brought into the Music Director’s office – once the lair of Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti – portraits of the theatre’s secular saints, Verdi and Puccini. They are his preoccupations now, but he is still in the business of finding new layers in their music. His edition of Attila included a romance for the tenor not heard since Verdi’s time. More cheekily, Chailly tells me he also added five bars written by an aged Rossini, dreamt up by the retired composer to preface the beginning of the Act 3 trio, which he had played on the piano during one of his private family parties in Paris.

Chailly

(Continuing his family’s tradition at La Scala, where he plans to perform the premiere of one of his father Luciano’s works)

And even with familiar Puccini Chailly has pushed to uncover music that was either cut or suppressed. In his Il trittico (out on DVD on Hardy) he included an earlier version of a monologue by Michele in Il tabarro (‘much stronger than the one we know’) and reinstated the ‘poison aria’ in Suor Angelica which, despite Puccini’s pleas, had been omitted by most sopranos from early on and was subsequently removed from the definitive edition. ‘It’s an incredible moment – the music gets “drugged” into polytonality as she prepares the poison. It’s almost Debussy-like.’

He is proud that the recent production of Madama Butterfly, which opened the La Scala season in December 2016 (and which has just been released on DVD by Decca), featured the original 1904 score. The premiere’s infamous failure at La Scala ‘was the greatest pain in Puccini’s heart for all his life’, says Chailly, so now amends have been made. Later this year in Milan Chailly will also give the original version of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and the 2019/20 season will begin in December with a fresh look at Tosca, with Anna Netrebko taking the title-role. It will be another new critical edition by Ricordi, a kind of Urtext ‘with almost 50 bars we have never heard’. The team at Ricordi gave the manuscript to Chailly as a present ‘and it is almost unreadable, because Puccini had a neurotic way of writing. But you can see the spots which had been cut or shortened.’ What fascinates Chailly about Puccini is his flair for timing, so seeing last-minute cuts or edits can reveal even more about the composer’s process. ‘He is so economical, so calculated, it’s almost like a film, not an opera, in terms of speed, changing the mood, changing the subject, changing the atmosphere. Everything is so fast.’

After our main courses, we move on to espressos spiked with sugar. I ask Chailly if, since swapping Leipzig for Milan, he misses leading a symphonic orchestra. He gently chides me, because he is also Music Director of the Filarmonica della Scala, which, like the Vienna Philharmonic, runs independently of the opera orchestra, although its players double up. And he has been busy with them in the recording studio, too. Next comes a Fellini film music album, featuring music from Nino Rota’s scores for the great Italian auteur. ‘It’s clearer if you call it “The Nino Rota Album”,’ says Chailly. ‘Because Nino Rota is the genius who should be celebrated. And of course that includes his great film music, but not only that. He was a man of high culture and incredible knowledge. He was an extremely refined person, a delicate personality – a gentlemanly, stylish man.’

The Godfather composer worked with Chailly in 1974, seven years before he died, in a summer festival in Lanciano, Abruzzo. Rota had written a piano concerto for Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, but the pianist repeatedly postponed performing it, so he played it himself and Chailly conducted a student orchestra. ‘I remember the simplicity, the gentleness, the complete “anti-bullshitismo”. He played magnificently well. I don’t think we delivered the most glamorous performance, but he never gave any sign of irritation or impatience.’

The album will draw only on scores from Fellini films, among them the familiar 8. These were movies that the young Chailly would rush to see in the cinema. But he draws my attention to the suite from Il Casanova (1976), a dark rumination on the Venetian lothario. Rota’s contribution is ‘an incredible universe of sound, from semi-Baroque music with a harpsichord in the orchestra, up to almost a quotation from The Rite of Spring’. There is also a suite from Fellini’s ‘mockumentary’, The Clowns, for which, ‘because it’s circus-like music, Rota reproduced the wildness. That music shouldn’t be too refined or polite. You have to dare to play it the way I think it was conceived.’ Can the Philharmonic loosen up enough? ‘Yes, because they have been playing Rota’s ballet La strada for many years. And the Philharmonic recorded this Rota repertoire with total conviction, just after we finished a studio recording of Cherubini. So you can see the flexibility of this orchestra.’

Does Chailly have any unfinished business? His late father wrote 15 operas, none performed today. Chailly has considered rehabilitating one of them at La Scala, but he performs only two operas a season at the theatre and suggests it would be too difficult to fit it in. Instead, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Luciano Chailly’s birth in 2020, he will conduct the belated world premiere of his father’s Sonata tritematica No 4 for orchestra. ‘It was actually composed the year I was born, 1953, which is the hugest coincidence. I’m looking forward to that.’

We look back at that young conductor who rescued I masnadieri in Milan just over 40 years ago. This season, the opera is returning to La Scala, although under a rising conductor from the next generation, Michele Mariotti. Chailly is proud that he is widening the pool of maestros at La Scala, noting that, back in the 1950s, it hosted such luminaries as Karajan, Furtwängler, Walter, Bernstein and Barbirolli. Now he wants both ‘the greatest and oldest maestri, and the best of the younger generation’.

Does that mean that Chailly is happy to put his own ego to one side, so that others can have some glory too? ‘Well, egoism is a big problem,’ he says. ‘Because it is part of all conductors. I would be stupid if I say, no, I don’t have an ego. I try to temper my ego as much I can, suppress it.’ He grins. ‘But for a conductor that is quite a heavy task.’

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to the world's leading classical music magazine, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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