As the myth of the maestro goes, inspiration arrives on the podium in a bolt. What the public sees of the job is the conductor summoning energy and imagination in the heat of the moment.
For sure, there’s something to that. But the full truth is less glamorous.
When Corrado Rovaris leads La bohème at the Academy of Music for five performances starting Friday, April 26, the Opera Philadelphia music director will be following Puccini’s painstaking directions and admonitions in the score. All conductors do that.
But he’ll also be guided by something few other performances of the opera have: the ghosts of conductors past.
Rovaris has spent considerable time with the copy of the score owned by La Scala in Milan — a mid-century document scribbled with librarian markings that memorialize interpretive decisions made by legendary conductors who have led La bohème at the opera house over the years. Among them are Carlos Kleiber and Herbert von Karajan.
Of the quickened plucked notes leading into “Musetta’s Waltz,” a notation warns — in Italian — that although the passage speeds up, it should not sound like losing a grip on a ball rolling down the hill.
Regarding a couple of notes in the cafe scene, one marking says to make it sound less like the snappy dotted rhythm that is written, and more like a sly grace note.
In one place, a librarian has written: “Separated, but fat. Not too long and not too heavy.” All that instruction to communicate the emotional intent of a mere three notes.
“Little things,” admits Rovaris, “but they make a difference.”
How much to heed these markings, not to mention all of Puccini’s own directions — as opposed to one’s own interpretive impulses?
“I think it’s a balance. You must know the tradition. If you don’t know the tradition, you have a problem,” says Rovaris, 53, who was assistant chorus master at La Scala in the mid-1990s. “It’s about not overreacting to the indications. It has to be natural.”
Puccini, he says, “wants a natural shape to the words,” like human speech.
La bohème was premiered in an 1896 Turin production led by a 28-year-old Arturo Toscanini, and its popularity hasn’t dimmed. It is Opera Philadelphia’s most frequently produced title; this will be the ninth time the company has programmed the piece since the first time in 1977.
A few elegantly composed snapshots of joy and anguish in the lives of a group of Parisian artists, the opera has remarkable emotional range and a score that stars the orchestra as much as the singers. For many, the 1972 Karajan recording with Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, and the Berlin Philharmonic is the gold-standard interpretation, though the 1979 Kleiber-led La Scala production (also with Pavarotti) surpasses it, astonishing in its power and expressivity.
Rovaris’ thinking has also been shaped by the writing of Luigi Ricci, the Italian vocal coach and conductor who worked with Puccini and who said the composer always waved away conductors from wallowing in or over-romanticizing his music.
“For bohème, he always was saying: ‘Go! Go! Faster!’ He was screaming at the conductor, ‘If you get asleep, the audience will get asleep.’ The score is full of a tempo, a tempo [an indication to return to the main tempo]. Why? It’s very easy with this music to make it too sweet. It’s like Italian cuisine. If it’s really good, you don’t need too much.”
About the energetic opening four notes, a motif that gets repeated throughout the opera, Rovaris says they must come with no hesitation or slowing. The character of the music should take its cue from the characters of the opera. “They are four kids having fun. It gives you the freshness of the young.”
And so it will be in this Opera Philadelphia production, a reprise of the 2012 premiere that features images of works by Monet, Van Gogh, and Renoir from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation. Soprano Vanessa Vasquez marks both her Opera Philadelphia debut and her first time singing Mimì professionally (she performed it as a student at the Academy of Vocal Arts). Evan LeRoy Johnson is Rodolfo, Troy Cook is Marcello, and Ashley Marie Robillard sings Musetta.
For many, the public face of Opera Philadelphia is gregarious general director and president David B. Devan. Rovaris is a more self-effacing type, though the Italian conductor has had considerable influence at the company, choosing repertoire, scouting for singing talent, and building the orchestra and chorus.
“I don’t think people realize Corrado is a bit of our secret sauce when it comes to some artists doing their most interesting work and doing it here,” says Devan. “Christine Goerke doing Turandot, Laurent Pelly doing Lucia here and then taking it to Vienna, Brenda Rae in Tancredi that led to Lucia, and even in bohème he has championed so many emerging artists. Vanessa doing her first Mimì with us, Lisette Oropesa doing her Violetta here. They all did it here because of Corrado.”
More artists will try on new work here in future seasons, Devan said, “and it’s 100 percent because of Corrado.”
The opera company’s orchestra has grown in quality, Devan says, and in its repertoire. “One of the great things he’s done is led us on a repertoire expansion. He gets a lot of play for Italian repertoire, but look at Powder Her Face, Written on Skin. The contemporary married together with the older canon has really improved the musical capacity of the organization, both for the orchestra and the chorus.”
“I find him to be a humble person, and I’ve worked with a lot of conductors,” says Martha Hitchens, opera orchestra timpanist since 1980. “He definitely knows what he wants to get, and he works very hard. It’s mentally exhausting to work with Corrado sometimes, because he keeps going.”
Rovaris focuses on conveying the emotion of each moment, says violinist Dayna Hepler, the opera orchestra’s concertmaster since 2012. “Even small things. You are playing so much music that sometimes you forget about small moments, and he says, ‘Don’t forget to phrase this part.’”
Of his style of working, Rovaris says: “You have to convince people. Sixty percent of our job is psychological.”
And that means working with the qualities of the artists around you.
“Everything is different because of the cast you have,” says Rovaris. “If an interpretation is too set in the mind of a conductor, it’s not good. It depends on who you have in front of you.”
Still, there are some qualities that remain constant, a lens through which Rovaris hears this music regardless of score markings and the wishes of singers.
“Reasonable. Don’t exaggerate. This is the motto of Puccini.”
Performances April 26, 28, May 1, 3, and 5 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets are $25-$299. www.operaphila.org, 215-732-8400.