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Although still only 41, the conductor Pietro Rizzo has already performed close to 50 different opera titles around the world, and he’s now back in Japan with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Don Carlo” — his third production for the New National Theatre, Tokyo.

According to this young Italian veteran, Verdi’s powerful Romantic masterpiece from 1867 is a work not many companies can successfully mount, since, as he told The Japan Times recently, “It is quite a complicated production, requiring six quality opera singers plus extra orchestra members. However, every single song is a hit.”

Among the “quality” voices this time are renowned Spanish tenor Sergio Escobar (as Don Carlo), the acclaimed Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia (Elisabetta di Valois) and Japanese veteran Hidekazu Tsumaya as the feared Grande Inquisitore.

Moreover, Rizzo believes this four-act production — which the NNTT first performed in 2006 with Swiss maestro Marco Arturo Marelli directing the starkly dramatic staging — is uniquely authentic to the music itself.

As he explained, “It focuses on a main aspect of this opera that does not seem, at first glance, to be the main theme, as everyone focuses on Don Carlo’s and Elisabetta’s failed love story. But that is the struggle between politics and religion, and how those two forces oppress everyone’s freedom — and it is very deep within the music.”

Sung in Italian with Japanese subtitles, the opera tells the real-life story of Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias (1545-68) — the eldest son and heir of King Philip II of Spain — who in 1559 lost his betrothed, Elizabetta — the eldest daughter of King Henry II of France — as part of a peace deal to end the Italian War of 1551. Not only did he lose her, but she was married to his father — who then imprisoned him in solitary confinement for the last six months of his life.

Set against a backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, these conflicts between church and state present what Rizzo termed, “A universal theme that applies today as much as it did 500 years ago. The universal message of this power struggle, the oppression against people, is also shown clearly in this production as there is no specific time period for the setting and the costumes.”

Rizzo also noted how this work was very personal to its composer.

“With his involvement in the Italian independence movement and his own strong anticlerical feelings,” he explained, “you can see Verdi’s views and his opinions regarding both politics and religion throughout the opera.”

Meanwhile, though this is the fifth time Rizzo has conducted “Don Carlo” in houses across Europe and Asia, he said, “Even if you do the same work over and over, it will be different. I change many things, try new things and learn new things — it can never get boring.”

Indeed, while praising the NNTT’s “world-class” orchestra, Rizzo — who has conducted some of the world’s finest, including the Metropolitan Opera and the Bavarian State Opera — added that its chorus is “one of the best I’ve ever worked with; the level of preparation and work ethic is astonishing.”

Having spent nine years on the staff of leading companies in Europe, Rizzo said he now relishes the chance to travel that being a freelancer offers — and “that is important as an artist.”

Regarding “Don Carlo,” he added that even though this is his fifth time at the helm, “Even if I have my own conception of the music, it is always different. Last year, I did it in Seoul, but the one here is completely different — the singers are different, musically but also dramatically, as they are different people who bring different emotions.

“So even if you do the same production over and over, it will be different; and that’s exciting as an artist.”

“Don Carlo” ends its run at the NNTT’s Opera Palace on Dec. 6 and 9. For details, visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.

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