Enrique Mazzola
Photo: Ben van Duin

An interview with Enrique Mazzola

15 April 2024

The singer dictates the tempo

Roberto Devereux is the final opera in what is customarily called the Tudor trilogy. What place does this opera have in Donizetti’s oeuvre? 
There was no Tudor trilogy as far as Donizetti was concerned. He wrote other operas as well that deal with the history of the Tudors, but in the repertoire we tend to focus on Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux. Donizetti himself never thought of combining these three works. He received separate commissions from different opera houses in Italy to compose individual operas, with possible librettos proposed to him. At a certain point, he decided he wanted to turn the drama of Roberto Devereux into music. It is interesting how the three operas in the trilogy all feature Elizabeth I (Elisabetta in the operas, ed.) in some form or other, but never as the title role. In Roberto Devereux, Elisabetta’s vocal part is extremely important — I would say that in a way she is the counterpart to the tenor role, making her one of the principal roles. 

Can we trace an evolution in Donizetti’s approach to composition in the three operas?
Yes, definitely. Donizetti evolved considerably after Anna Bolena, not just as a composer but also as a theatre maker and emotionally. Even if you just look at the length of the operas, you see changes. Donizetti was still quite young when he wrote Anna Bolena, and he had yet to prove his skills as a composer. In this opera, he composed lengthy recitatives and arias, along with extensive choral passages. So he was very expansive in his composition, making Anna Bolena a relatively long opera, the longest of the three. If we look at Maria Stuarda and then Roberto Devereux, we see the style becoming somewhat ‘dryer’. The recitatives are shorter and very direct. The dynamic markings in the music are kept to a minimum, and so you could say they too are ‘dryer’. This change in style is undoubtedly a result of the fact that Donizetti no longer had to persuade the world of Romantic music in Italy: “Look, I’m a new composer with amazing ideas”. He was already a known name by that point; now he was famous, and so he started writing what he wanted to write rather than what he was expected to write. 

Does that mean the vocal parts in Roberto Devereux are less demanding? 
No, not at all. Roberto Devereux is not an easy opera for singers, with the most challenging role being that of Elisabetta. Donizetti presents her as a complex character. I think he wanted to translate that complexity into an equally intricate vocal line. So at times you have wonderful cantabile passages, but that line is frequently interrupted by jumps in the intervals: octaves, sevenths, ninths, unexpected intervals. 

That means the soprano needs to master the lower register as well; she has to be able to shift to the middle register in a fraction of a second, and move up an octave to the high register a fraction later. Donizetti’s composition really adds to that complexity in Elisabetta, for example through what he does with the rhythm: rather than being tight and straightforward throughout, it is full of syncopation, stops and surprises.

Enrique Mazzola

‘You could say it is a typically Italian form of communication’

This opera also stands out for the many incidences of acceleration or changes in tempo. That is quite different to the notion of bel canto as a style known for its fixed rhythm. In bel canto, you generally get a steady adagio, or a faster passage, for example an allegro vivace, but always with a constant tempo. But in this opera Donizetti accelerates the tempo — accelerandi — in a lot of places, sometimes speeding up in slow passages. It feels like a kind of mania in the thought process of the characters. 

You could say it is a typically Italian form of communication. Italians do that in conversation: after a few seconds of reflection and speaking slowly, they have a flash of insight and suddenly speed up. That is so nice, and Italians love it. I had the opportunity to consult the facsimile of Donizetti’s original manuscript and it was striking to see how often the composer wrote “affrettando” (hastily) or “accel.”, short for accelerando (speeding up). That contravenes the bel canto tenet that says you should have a constant, steady pulse. So he is beginning to break the rules.

Repetitiebeeld Roberto Devereux
Barno Ismatullaeva (Elisabetta) during a rehearsal | Photo: Ben van Duin

Can you tell us some more about the importance of tempo in bel canto
You could say that in bel canto, the tempo resides with the singer: the singer dictates the tempo. We haven’t yet reached a period where you have the flowing tempo of the kind we find in Puccini’s Bohème, for example Mimi’s aria “Mi chiamono Mimi”, where you can speed up or slow down a little in response to how you feel; that is typical of Puccini. You couldn’t take such liberties in Donizetti’s day. That was partly due to the fact that it was much harder to keep everyone together musically. The conductor in the modern sense of the word had yet to be invented. So you may wonder how they still managed to make music together. Well, firstly the singer dictated the tempo. The singer had a major responsibility in indicating the pace of the music. We see that reflected in the score: the vocal numbers often start on an upbeat and that partial bar determines the tempo. The singer then probably looked at the principal violinist, a ‘primo violino’, the orchestral member we call the concertmaster these days. Rather than facing a conductor or the audience, this concertmaster was watching the singer constantly to keep in time with them. Sometimes there would be a ‘Maestro al Cembalo’, which translates literally as ‘master or leader at the harpsichord’. Of course, they weren’t actually playing a harpsichord; they were the person who rehearsed with the singers and orchestra, but they also took the tempo from the singers. So you didn’t have a conductor like you do nowadays who says, “Everyone has to keep to this tempo, this is the aesthetic result I’m aiming for, this is my vision.” That explains my initial surprise at the many instances of accelerando phrasing, because it must have been incredibly difficult in those circumstances to keep everyone together. In all probability, the singers had to be extremely clear. Perhaps they had to spend more time and effort rehearsing this too. 

Could you call the musical score for Roberto Devereux innovative? 
We can certainly see strong signs of Donizetti’s development in the art of composition in Roberto Devereux. He wanted to break with the strict rules of composition, and he set an example that would later be repeated by Giuseppe Verdi, whose long journey as a composer also started with unreserved acceptance of the rules of bel canto, only to subsequently break them one by one. Just as Donizetti does in Roberto Devereux

What does the composer Donizetti mean for you? 
Donizetti has meant a lot for my artistic career. I have probably experienced the best moments of my adventure in opera with Donizetti’s music. He has helped me a great deal. In a sense, I am grateful to Donizetti for everything he wrote because he has given me the opportunity to express myself beautifully and positively. 

His music is uncharted territory for young conductors. You can’t just pick up a book that tells you how to conduct bel canto. If you want to conduct a bel canto work, you have to prepare the score in great detail, changing the dynamics here, adding an accent there and so on. It is like preparing a delicious meal. You might think you can buy the perfect chicken, stick it in the oven and you’re done, but that is not how it works. You have to prepare everything properly. You have to remove the unwanted parts and stuff it in the right way. You add rosemary and other herbs, you prepare the sauce, you carve the chicken correctly... Otherwise it will just be disappointing. 

Enrique Mazzola

‘If you want to conduct a bel canto work, you have to prepare the score in great detail’

If you buy the score for Roberto Devereux and give it to a student conductor, they will feel helpless because the score doesn’t come with guidelines. If you conduct Stravinsky’s Firebird, Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony – the Pathétique – or Verdi’s Falstaff, you will find all the instructions written down for you. I remember well how confusing I found the bel canto operas when I started to conduct them: why did I have to change this, why did have to do that? Working with the singers let me learn what I was supposed to do as a conductor. They gave me suggestions: “Do that here, it works better. And you’d be better off approaching it this way here. A rallentando would be useful here in helping me get my breath back.” So I had to learn all the rules myself by working with the singers. 

Can you describe bel canto as a concept for us? 
It is difficult to give a single unambiguous definition of bel canto. The term gets used in different contexts. We can give an aesthetic definition, we can define it as an approach to composition or writing music, or we can use it to refer to a period in opera. So there are a range of meanings and it all depends on what you want to describe. 

As a conductor, I spent many years studying composition and I see bel canto more as a means of composition, which of course also becomes an emotional vehicle. If I had to summarise it in just a few words, I would say it is a way of writing music that reduces the orchestra to a very minimalist accompaniment, with a lot of repetition — minimalist in the modern sense too. Superimposed on this stripped-down accompaniment is an exquisite melodic line produced by the singers, who dominate the orchestra. The orchestra can have quite a hypnotic effect thanks to that minimalist approach. But the minimalism and neutrality of the orchestra also give the singers the opportunity to shine with their high notes, or show off their skills in going deep, or with rapid ornamentation and so on. That is classic bel canto. But there are times when I open the score of an opera from the late-nineteenth-century Italian repertoire, such as Madama Butterfly, and see phrases that make me think: that’s bel canto. You can even come across fantastic bel canto moments in Wagner’s Holländer or Weber’s Der Freischütz. Bel canto certainly doesn’t end with Donizetti!  

Text: Luc Joosten

Roberto Devereux will be performed from 18 April to 6 May 2024 at Dutch National Opera & Ballet