When Speranza Scappucci (Certificate ’95, piano, M.M. ’97, accompanying) began her piano studies at Juilliard, she didn't imagine she would one day be at the podium here, but on November 19, she’ll make her Juilliard conducting debut. She’ll lead Juilliard singers and the orchestra in Rossini’s infrequently performed two-act comedy Il Turco in Italia, the first performance of the Juilliard Opera season.
Il Turco in Italia (“The Turk in Italy”), with a libretto by Felice Romani, takes place in an 1850s Romani (gypsy) camp near Naples. There we meet the beautiful but unsatisfied Zaida (sung by Kara Sainz), who has fled Turkey and her unrequited love, the Turkish Prince Selim (Michael Sumuel). We’re also introduced to the playwright Prosdocimo (Szymon Komasar), the flirtatious Fiorilla (Hyesang Park), and her husband, Geronio (Daniel Miroslaw). Selim’s arrival thrusts into motion a complex and libidinous cabal with dalliance and disguise as looming themes.
“The subject is very Italian,” Scappucci, who grew up in Rome, told The Journal in a recent interview at Juilliard. Brought up in an opera-loving family, she started playing the piano at 5 after her older sister’s teacher noticed her good ear and focus and suggested Speranza also take lessons. She did indeed have a gift, but she found at Juilliard that she didn’t see herself as having a career as a solo pianist and began to explore vocal accompanying. And once she did that, she recalled, “I had friends who were singers and would ask, ‘How do you pronounce this word?’ And I really started to develop this passion for coaching.”
That passion led her to working with legendary conductor Riccardo Muti for eight years at the Salzburg Festival, Metropolitan Opera, and Rome Opera, and as an assistant conductor, she routinely collaborated with the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, New York City Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and the Glyndebourne Festival. Along the way, she made what she describes as an organic transition from coach to conductor. “All of a sudden you’re thrown on the podium and you’re doing it,” she said.
Brian Zeger (M.M. ’81, piano), the artistic director of Juilliard’s Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, who was one of Scappucci’s collaborative piano teachers here, saw her conduct Così fan tutte in 2012 at Yale (she was the first woman to conduct a Yale Opera production). “I knew from the moment she lifted the baton that she was a conductor; she is not just a coach who can conduct,” he told The Journal. Both Scappucci and Il Turco had been on Zeger’s radar for a while, he added, noting that the opera “fits into my philosophy that it’s important for young singers to experience classic styles—but that they don’t necessarily have to experience them in the most famous works.” Indeed, style emerges among this opera’s challenges, which push vocal limits even for the most capable singers. Il Turco is thoroughly bel canto, though for Zeger, “the singing strikes a balance between the showiness of classic Rossini and a more grazioso character—a sweetness and lyrical quality that I identify a bit more with Donizetti.”
Il Turco’s premiere at La Scala in 1814 trod closely on the heels of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, which premiered to widespread success the prior year in Venice. But with L’Italiana in their ears, Milanese operagoers were disappointed by what they hastily dismissed as a work of self-plagiarism on Rossini’s part. Il Turco further owes its subsequently patchy performance history to extensive adaptation and revision. The opera fell into a century of repose until, amid the fervent postwar interest in bel canto, Maria Callas (in the role of Fiorilla) resurrected the work in 1950 at the Rome Opera.
Perhaps another reason for the opera’s relative rarity is the plot—or lack thereof, something that wasn’t as important to 19th-century operagoers. “The emphasis in this period was vocal style”—not dramatic pacing, director and faculty member John Giampietro told The Journal in an interview. Giampietro, who makes his Peter Jay Sharp Theater directorial debut with the production, has set it in a 1960s-era Neapolitan spa, which presents multiple opportunities for framing the piece. At that time, Italy was experiencing an economic boom and Turkey was undergoing a period of industrialization and social change that resonates with the opera’s themes of cultural conflict. “And the spa presents an excellent setting for the work’s comedic drama to unfold,” he added. Il Turco is, after all, an opera buffa.
Coming back to Juilliard to conduct “is like a circle of life that really completes itself,” Scappucci said of the educational experience that launched a career that has taken her around the world and now back to New York City, one of three cities, along with Rome and Vienna, she now considers home. And yet, she says, when asked how it feels to be back at her alma mater, in some ways “I feel like I never really left.”