Deep in Verdi’s opera “Don Carlo,” an impassioned solo cello line embroiders a bass aria with a vein of feeling.
On a recent evening, the conductor Carlo Rizzi was leading the work at the Metropolitan Opera. Rizzi isn’t demonstrative on the podium; his gestures tend to be controlled, focused, professional. But from a seat at the back of the pit, it was possible to see him, at the end of the aria, smile slightly and blow a subtle kiss down in the direction of the orchestra’s principal cello, Rafael Figueroa.
It was an affectionate, familial gesture from a man who has become family at the Met. “Don Carlo,” which runs through Saturday, is part of a three-production fall for Rizzi — along with Cherubini’s “Medea,” the season opener, and Puccini’s “Tosca” — that brings his number of performances with the company to more than 250 since his debut in 1993.
“I am not 20 anymore,” Rizzi, 62, said in an interview the morning after a “Don Carlo” and before a “Tosca” that evening. “Particularly after the pandemic, I want to enjoy what I’m doing. That’s why I’m happy about these three works at the Met. Each one, in a different way, has been rewarding.”
Rizzi is among the stars of the Met’s not-quite-stars, in company with conductors like Nello Santi (who led some 400 Met performances between 1962 and 2000) and Marco Armiliato (nearly 500 since 1998). These are not famous names, just musicians experienced and respected enough to allow the company’s vast repertory factory to function, particularly when it comes to core Italian works like “La Bohème,” “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata” that must be put on with perilously little rehearsal time.
His name and face familiar to Met regulars — from the side, with his toss of silver hair and chin stubble, he looks a little like Plácido Domingo — Rizzi is the kind of artist who can be entrusted with “Medea,” a rarely performed opera that he had never done or even seen, late in the game, in addition to his long-scheduled “Tosca” and “Don Carlo.”
“He did three operas at once,” said the soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who sang the title role in “Medea.” “Who else can do that? And not just get through them: These were three spectacularly conducted operas. In my opinion, he is one of the best Italian conductors living right now.”
Yet many descriptions of Rizzi include variations on the apologetic phrase “but in a good way.” “It’s going to sound pejorative,” the tenor Michael Fabiano, who starred in “Tosca,” said, “but I find him academic, in a good way. He’s very studied and highly informed.”
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, added, “He’s considered to be really strong, really solid, really reliable — solid in a good way.”
The takeaway is that the soft-spoken Rizzi embodies qualities of patient, unshowy craft and dependability that are often overlooked, sadly old-fashioned and definitely unsexy. But they should not be taken for granted.
“It’s underestimated how difficult it is for a conductor to succeed at the Met,” Gelb said. “There aren’t so many who have the degree of expertise and level of musicality when it comes to Italian repertoire that he has. We’re fortunate to have a conductor of his quality willing to come here to do the standard repertory.”
Born in 1960 in Milan, Rizzi didn’t grow up in a musical family; his father was a chemist and his mother an accountant. But he was shy as a young child, and his parents tried to draw him out with piano lessons; he flourished. (His two siblings ended up with musical careers, too.)
On top of his studies, Rizzi spent many nights watching opera at the Teatro alla Scala. These were Claudio Abbado’s years as music director there, and the productions and casts were regularly superb.
“I was a pianist, and at the time I was very good at sight-reading,” Rizzi said. “That means that every clarinetist, bassoonist, singer and double bass player was coming to me. And making music together started to become more interesting than just the piano.”
He conducted chamber orchestras, and Mozart concertos from the keyboard, and in his late teens began working as a repetiteur — the opera rehearsal assistant position that was the main root of old-school conducting careers.
Rizzi did well in a couple of competitions, and began to find work in regional capitals like Palermo and Trieste. Word spread among singers. He was invited to conduct the Donizetti rarity “Torquato Tasso” at the Buxton Festival in England in 1988; that led to an engagement at the Royal Opera in London, and a broadcast reached Brian McMaster, then the leader of Welsh National Opera, who hired Rizzi as music director in Cardiff.
Matthew Epstein took over for McMaster just as Rizzi was starting his tenure. (Rizzi served in the role from 1992 to 2001, then again, after his successor resigned, from 2004 to 2008.)
“Let’s be honest: Carlo, with his name, is going to be used around the world mostly for the Italian repertory,” Epstein said. “But in Wales he did ‘Elektra’; he did ‘Rosenkavalier’; he did ‘Peter Grimes’ and ‘The Rake’s Progress.’ He’s a superb theater conductor, in the smallest of small groups of people who really work in the theater.”
His Met debut was in “La Bohème,” which he has since done more than 60 times with the company. He led a new “Lucia di Lammermoor” in 1998, a new “Il Trovatore” in 2000 and two new stagings of “Norma,” in 2001 and, starring Radvanovsky, on opening night in 2017. “Medea” was his third time opening a Met season.
Yet he remains under the radar in New York. His work this fall has been like his Met career in general: nothing fancy, nothing fussy, just clear, compelling readings. “It’s not anything new or different, just the idea of being musically aware with every dramatic beat,” said the tenor Russell Thomas, who sang the title role in “Don Carlo.” “This is maybe my fourth production, and I never had anybody go into that much detail.”
Rizzi’s “Medea” had the formality of Gluck, who influenced Cherubini, mixed with hints of the tumultuous “Sturm und Drang” movement to come. “Tosca” was colorful and propulsive; “Don Carlo,” sober and weighty.
“The way they play ‘Medea’ is not the way they play ‘Tosca,’” he said. “The flexibility is one of the great things about this orchestra.”
Among Rizzi’s upcoming projects is to record orchestral suites he has drawn from “Madama Butterfly” and “Tosca.” In future seasons at the Met, he’s slated to return for, yes, Puccini and Verdi — including more “Bohème” and a revival of “Un Ballo in Maschera.”
“I really feel, since we did the ‘Norma’ opening night to now, he’s a much different person,” Radvanovsky said. “He’s more relaxed; I feel he’s more comfortable in his baton skill, his skill with the orchestra. His musical language has really relaxed and grown.”
Rizzi said: “I don’t want to sound like an old sage, but I’m always in development. I learn more about conducting every day.” Perhaps unexpectedly, given that he is best known for leading the most familiar works in the repertory, in 2019 he became the artistic director of Opera Rara, a London-based company devoted to underperformed titles.
“Carlo is incredibly knowledgeable, musicologically and dramaturgically,” Epstein said. “That’s why this Opera Rara thing is good for him. But he should be the music director of an opera house in Italy. It’s silly he hasn’t. And he should have had a go in this country as music director in one of the main houses. He’s not the ordinary Italian conductor — he’s just not. He’s better.”
Fabiano, the tenor, locates in Rizzi “the spirit of these older conductors — Votto, Fausto Cleva, Gavazzeni — who had an inherent knowledge of the repertory and knew deeply the needs of the singer. An understanding of what singers need, and the deep care for the letter of the music, the construction of the music, makes for a very terrific maestro.”
And while Rizzi is not the most breathlessly marketed baton, Donald Palumbo, the Met’s chorus master, put it simply: “For me, he’s a star.”