Carlo Rizzi
Carlo Rizzi
©Tessa Traeger

The Italian opera conductor Carlo Rizzi has become a proper Welsh boyo since laying down local roots during two spells as music director of Welsh National Opera (1992-2001 and 2004-2008). He has never moved away and still puts in regular shifts at WNO.

This season Rizzi is conducting Bellini's bel canto masterpiece I puritani, a romantic tale set in Cromwellian England. It opens in Cardiff this coming Friday at the Wales Millennium Centre.

You're never away from WNO for long. Why is the company still so important to you?

I live in Wales, so here I can mix work with being at home. That's something I value a lot because in this business you're at home so very rarely. And apart from that, over the years I've developed a rapport with the people here, particularly the orchestra and chorus, so I very much enjoy coming back. It's pleasant because we don't have all the minutiae of getting to know each other. I know where to start with them so we can immediately get down to thinking about the music.

Does it feel strange when you return a guest conductor?

No, not at all. The organisation knows me here, and I've worked with [chief executive and artistic director] David Pountney many times here and elsewhere. Obviously there are certain decisions that belong to the music director, but in a way it's easier because I just come back and make music! I don't have to worry about anything else.

Do you still get to choose your repertoire?

It's always a collaboration rather than me saying I want to do a particular opera, although in a couple of years' time we'll be doing one I told them specifically I wanted to do because I've never done it before. I can't tell you what it is yet.

When David Pountney took over he said he wanted me as a presence each year if possible. Last year we did Rossini [Guillaume Tell and Mosè in Egitto] and this year we're exploring Bellini. I'd never done I puritani; it's one of those operas that people assume is easy for the orchestra and chorus, whereas I actually think it's very difficult because it needs to be done well — with passion and love. That's why I decided to add this opera to my repertoire here rather than somewhere else: because the conditions are good and we have a very good cast.

I puritani is rarely performed in the UK yet it's one of the peaks of bel canto opera. Why do we so seldom see it?

First you need to find a tenor who can do it! And a soprano. You cannot do these operas without the right singers. I hate the expression 'singer-led opera' because then it just becomes a show — how many seconds can you hold a top C — and I'm not interested in that. But it's true that in Bellini the orchestra often does little more than simply support the vocal line, and that has to be done extremely sensitively.

And yet his operas have surprising power.

Absolutely! One of the most exciting tunes, Suoni la tromba, the duet at the end of the second act, is harmonically very simple but it's very powerful.

From Guillaume Tell (WNO 2014)
From Guillaume Tell (WNO 2014)
(© Richard Hubert Smith)

Bel canto needs a special kind of soprano. Tell me about Rosa Feola, the 2014 WhatsOnStage Opera Poll nominee who sings Elvira.

Rosa came on the scene slightly late in the day, but the head of music asked me to listen to her and she's fantastic. And — it's funny how these things work — between performances of I puritani I'm going to be doing The Pearl Fishers in Zurich, and she'll be the soprano there too!

Singers praise you for being a singer's conductor. What do you think they mean by that?

I start from the point of view that you have to work with the singers rather than against them. Now, there are certain singers who just want to show off their voices. I am not even minimally interested in that. But with singers who want to engage with the music I try to get the best out of them. And if that means choosing a slightly different tempo or easing something to help make the voice sound better, then I think it's the right thing to do. I'm sure that every theatre director tries to get the best out of an actor, and this is what I do with singers.

Talking of directors, last season you conducted a triumphant Guillaume Tell with WNO but this season the Royal Opera has not been so lucky with its own new staging. How do you collaborate with a director on a new production? Is it a partnership of equals?

This is always a thorny question. The thing is, once the conductor first meets with the director, half the budget has already been spent — on sets etc. It is a collaboration but only up to a certain point, because although in theory I could say 'I think your vision of this opera is absolutely wrong', I wouldn't like it if a director came to me and said 'I think you should be conducting this another way'. So it's difficult. But there are still things you can talk about with some directors — though not all — in order to improve things. I can certainly tell a director what I think the music implies.

If a director has a concept that doesn't work, it will go on not working no matter what you do. When people sit in the theatre they look at the stage, not the orchestra; so they receive through the eyes as much as they receive through the ears, if not more so. So if what comes through the eyes is terrible, it makes what comes through the ears seem terrible as well. There's no way round it.

Sometimes people get confused as to what makes a good production. You'll hear people grumble 'Oh, it's a modern production', yet I've worked on some phenomenally good modern productions and some boring traditional ones. It's about how you do it.

The one thing that is fixed is the score. If it were not for the music I'm pretty sure there are not many librettos that would ever make it to the stage; so in my experience — and this will be my 97th opera — when the director starts from the music it's fine.

WNO's new production of Bellini's I puritani opens at the Wales Millennium Centre on 11 September and plays in repertoire until 4 October. It will then tour to Southampton, Bristol, Llandudno, Oxford and Birmingham.