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On the new Bucharest production of “Rigoletto”
An interview with the conductor Cristian Sandu

Actors with great voices, not singers.

Costin Popa: Cristian Sandu, you have been chosen to be the musical leader of the new “Rigoletto” production at the National Opera House in Bucharest.

Cristian Sandu: I am very pleased about this, indeed. I had conducted the “Opera Promenade” concert before and I was honored when the new invitation arrived.

C. P.: You’ve also conducted performances of “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Elixir Of Love”, highly appreciated by critics. How was the musical preparation for “Rigoletto”?

C. S.: The joy of making this production also came from the fact that I had an extraordinary collaboration with Stephen Barlow, a theatre director who imprinted a rhythm and a theatrical vision of well-nigh cinematographic quality to this performance. It was great that together we could overlap the director’s theatrical image upon Verdi’s score musical. Barlow is a true maniac of detail. From this point of view, it was difficult to find a balance between the fundamental aspects of this performance: stage acting, theatre and music, because the director constantly related to these artists as actors endowed with a voice rather than as mere singers who also did some acting. The cast was largely made up of young people who had interpreted “Rigoletto” before but under less pressing circumstances. Since this was the greatest lyrical theatre in Romania, we had a great responsibility and had to maintain a high level, because expectations were tremendous in the first place. So we carried out an extremely meticulous, exacting program, starting from the truth imparted by the musical score and then trying to stay as close as possible to the image that Verdi wanted to convey.

Experiments on the stage

C. P.: As conductor, how did you adapt to the directorial style? What kind of discussions did you have with Barlow, who made the suggestions, who gave in, how did you come to work in harmony? You must have spoken about the need to align the dramaturgy on the stage with the dramaturgy of the orchestra, of the musical score.

C. S.: We tried to keep a balance, because if the directorial vision and the stage performance had done a disservice to the performance as a whole in musical and theatrical terms, we could have had problems. I talked to Stephen and we experimented, on the stage, with very many stage postures for the singers, the chorus. I was an analyst… in the audience. I actually had his unconditional support. I suggested things, he suggested things and we tried to put them in tune, to make them work together.

C. P.: Could you give us a few more details?

C. S.: Well, I’m referring, for example, to the scene in which the chorus tells the Duke about the kidnapping of Gilda. An interesting element was the moment when the kidnapping instrument, the ladder, was introduced. I asked that this moment should be highlighted by a subito piano, poco a poco crescendo on the stage, which is not written in the musical score and not marked by other chorus productions, in order to emphasize the mystery and suspense of that moment, to have less scenic performance, doubled by this element of surprise on the musical plan. Stephen understood, took my suggestion and demanded it explicitly from the chorus. I was very happy about this.

C. P.: So there was total harmony. You never felt frustrated or coerced by the director as regards your concept, which came from Verdi.

C. S.: No, no. Of course, the small discrepancies that existed were due to the fact that in the beginning, whether it is a new or an old production, there appears a reflex gesture, which is the hardest to eliminate. The performances that followed the premiere made it very clear that we were getting more and more united, that our cohesion was ever more solid and the results were increasingly better.

“You have to sing the sound, to give it life!”

C. P.: Cristian, did you find that the orchestra of the National Opera was stuck in its ways, and did this create additional problems for you?

C. S.: For me, whether it’s about vocal or orchestral interpretation, singing or instrumental phrasing, it is very important to superimpose the sound image on the style it needs to be applied to. There has to be an absolutely perfect overlap. The difficulty, so to say, was to succeed in genuinely creating the effective strength of sound in piano, its robustness, density, softness and, at the same time, determination and pithiness superimposed on a vocal line that requires a longer phrase, greater support; you can’t sing, for example, a Verdian staccato just like a Rossinian one. So in a way, that was the problem, in the sense that the orchestra played everything in almost the same way, and then I had to explain the need for them to actually render the sound. I gave examples, in Italian, where there is a clear distinction between cantare and suonare. I said, “You must play this as if you were singing, so you must truly sing the sound, give it life. Don’t make it sound abrupt, merely technical and instrumental, but make it expressive”. The word can only validate and support its tension and meaning through the color and articulateness imparted to it by the orchestra.

C. P.: So what you’re proposing is an absolutely equal partnership between voice and accompaniment.

C. S.: Yes, because the orchestra is, after all, the one that gives voice expressiveness, sense, color, that fills and fulfills it. And this is very important to me. This is what I aspire to.

C. P.: What does the Verdian sound and sonority mean to you?

C. S.: In equal measure, the Verdian sonority, both at the level of voice and at that of the orchestral discourse, involves a development along two coordinates: a “horizontal” one, grafted upon on a vastly extended melodiousness, on long vocal phrases, doubled, in the “vertical” plane, by robust, round and generous sounds, based on the high precision of instrumental attacks and articulations. A sound that is genuinely “sung” vocally, calibrated on a sustained tempo and created as an extensive soundtrack. Verdian sound must be impetuous yet mild, robust without being devoid of elasticity, soft but not shallow, deep and profound at the level of expression and at that of the meaning encapsulated in the poetic text.

Between rigorousness and rhythmic freedoms

C. P.: The results pleased you. How was working with the singers? Did you go to the booths?

C. S.: I attended all the directing rehearsals; I supervised the booths and the ensembles. At all times, I tried to stay close to the original written by Verdi. Any production, whether classical or modern, avant-garde, it must always comply with the truth of the Verdian musical score, in terms of the tempi, the phrasing, the construction as a unitary whole. It was good, I enjoyed the collaboration of talented singers, some of them were very young or less experienced, like the tenor Tabone. With him I had a special collaboration, because it was necessary. As for the rest, of course there were times when it became clear that an operatic area, however deeply entrenched in the tradition, may not override the rigor and the concept of discursive musicality and dramaturgical construction. I had to explain that freedoms are only allowed within the rhythmic measure. So, a musician can only afford to be voluble within the measure, because otherwise, the structure of the musical score doesn’t allow one to exceed its frames and sing very freely just for the sake of Verdian romanticism. After all, a tradition is not about lingering or not lingering on a top note but about superimposing the musical image on the dramaturgy of the moment, about ensuring the link between text and music. If this is not clear, then everything becomes an interpretation… by ear, amateurish and this is something I can’t condone.

C. P.: Did you drop some traditional extra top notes?

C. S.: I wouldn’t have insisted on this but the Armenian soprano did not have that register in order, so I decided not to expose her… especially since those notes are not written down.

C. P.: Was the number of rehearsals enough, could you work in peace? How about the other soloists, besides the inexperienced tenor, how did they perform?

C. S.: Yes, the others were at a good level, and through study and rehearsals all the premises were there for a very good result. I would have liked to have more orchestra rehearsals but this was not possible because of the very busy season, the mounting of the scenery, etc.

C. P.: Yes, the scenery is very complicated.

C. S.: We had to make both ends meet, in the sense that some of the orchestra rehearsals were transformed into Italian rehearsal, precisely in order to have more musical rehearsals with the soloists.

“My baton does not sing!”

C. P.: Were you satisfied with the echoes of the performance?

C. S.: I was very pleased to read all the reviews, which were favorable to the production, I was the instrument players performed meaningfully, i.e. they gave meaning to the accompaniment, which was not sterile, but committed to giving full expression to the moment. This is why, let me repeat myself, I argued and I will argue that, in my opinion, the orchestra and the voice are complementary, that they are absolutely equal partners. And this could be heard in the sound, in their performances, in their emotional involvement, in their creativity during those moments. Because only through them, through the instrumentalists can we succeed. I, for one, could not sing, my baton cannot sing, it can sing only through the orchestra. In general we got on well, even though, naturally, we had to make small changes which pertain to my personal conception on the work they were able to execute and include in their own vision.

C. P.: For example?

C. S.: I’m thinking of the changes of tempo, certain reinforcements of the melodic line which is unwritten but exists in the vocal text of the singers’ melodic line, who can insist on some dilutions or concentrations of the tempo.

C. P.: Regarding “Rigoletto”, I think we can conclude, unless you want to add something…

C. S.: I’m absolutely sure that this production has opened the eyes of many, in terms of both the exigencies and demands of Verdi’s music and the vocal and mental opening of the young performers in the cast. As for the performances that followed the premiere, many of them returned with a different mindset, they came better prepared. It was clear that in this period they had worked and reassessed all our previous efforts. That I enjoyed very much, realizing that I hadn’t worked in vain.

C. P.: How do you think the audience received a performance like this, which shifted the plot from the years envisaged by Verdi and Piave to the time of Al Capone?

C. S.: I’m absolutely certain that the production will be greatly successful in the future too. Because, above all, Verdi’s music explores the human and affective side within us, within each of us. Hence, its highly accessible language, which speaks to our sensibility. Because each of us can eventually identify with the characters. I want to say something about Verdi and the road Puccini opened later. The great merit, the great change in Italian romantic drama was the fact that Verdi superimposed everything on our sensitivity and humanity. He relinquished the instrumentality of the initial bel canto, the beauty of the voice integrated as part of the technical execution and focused on the emotional, human meaning of the text, of the word, which subsequently opened the door, naturally, to verism.

“I was fortunate to have sensational teachers”

C. P.: Cristian, I would like you to tell me something about your activity; you are a lecturer at the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy in Cluj-Napoca, you have a PhD in Musicology and you conduct orchestras throughout the country.

C. S.: Aside from the fact that I am a teacher at both the Orchestra Department and at the Canto Department, the opera class, my work includes honoring the stages of philharmonics with symphonic or vocal-symphonic concerts, or even with opera galas. My concern is to hand down to others what I have learned from my masters, whom I thank and who have been extraordinary. Yes, I was fortunate to have sensational teachers. I’m referring here to Gheorghe Victor Dumănescu, Maestro Petre Sbârcea, who, although he drove me also received guidance from two grand masters from different cultural spaces: Leonid Korchmar, Professor at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, the musical director, at that time, of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, as well as the great Italian conductor Maurizio Arena. In 2008, at a competition, I was privileged to receive his instructions for a while. A highly demanding professor, extremely severe, but with the huge power of essentializing and abstracting the musical score, of reducing music to its phenomenal essences. Maurizio Arena opened my eyes regarding dramaturgy in opera. Extraordinary!

C. P.: What are your preferences in the lyrical repertoire?

C. S.: Mozart, alongside Rossini, Verdi and Puccini. Anyway, opera remains my great love, any style, any era.

C. P.: I know you have a very intense activity abroad…

C. S.: In Germany I’ve been conducting “Aida” and “Rigoletto” quite a lot, because they are in demand, with an Italian company. For two years we have already been present in smaller theatres and for me it is very important to work with Italian artists, to benefit – as a young conductor – from their experience. When I stage Italian operas with Italians, even if they are a certain age and have gone through many skillful hands, it is a great pleasure and a great service for me. In the short term, I will again be present in Kazakhstan, at the Festival that celebrates 80 years of theatre in Almaty, where I will conduct galas and a symphonic performance, then of course I will continue my collaborations with the philharmonics in Romania, and I will return to Bucharest for the following performances with “Rigoletto” . . . ”

The interview was taken in Romanian language, by Costin Popa from, available here.

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