English National Opera's new production of The Coronation of Poppea could not be in a safer pair of hands than that of conductor and early music specialist Laurence Cummings. When he returns to the London Coliseum on 18 October 2007 to conduct Monteverdi's last opera he'll be reunited with director Chen Shi-Zheng, a partnership that resulted in one of ENO's greatest triumphs of the 2005-06 season with the same composer's Orfeo. I caught up with Cummings during rehearsals for Poppea to discuss what the implications of performing the piece at ENO are, as well as his plans for the London Handel Festival and his general artistic outlook.
Although Monteverdi is well known as one of the founders of opera in the seventeenth century, many general opera goers probably aren't intimately familiar with the operas. Cummings explains Poppea's significance: 'It is a very important opera, partly because it comes at the end of Monteverdi's career. In a way, he encapsulates the history of opera in Italy in the first half of the seventeenth century. The difference between Orfeo in 1607 and Poppea less than forty years later is incredible. You can feel the fact that Venice was a real melting pot, with lots of different styles. Much ink has been spilt on the subject of how much of the opera is actually by Monteverdi. In fact, that issue doesn't bother me. We spend so much of our time as historical performance specialists trying to get as close to the original text and the composer's intentions as we possibly can that it's quite liberating to feel that we're playing a work that's by many hands. I like to think of it as being similar to how painters had a whole workshop of apprentices helping out. It frees you up to take a few liberties where you might not normally be able to. The original theatre would have been relatively small but we're performing in the Coliseum, which is the largest theatre in London, so I've amplified certain aspects.
'For instance, I've added trumpets, which aren't in the original score, to augment the coronation. There are trumpets in Orfeo. Also, I'm almost entirely convinced that a lot of the ritornelli are not written by Monteverdi, because there are two versions of the manuscript, one from Venice and one from Naples. In some ways Venice is closer, because that's where it was first performed, but there are lots of mistakes. The Naples score was at more of a distance, and it has totally different violin parts. What's clear is that the bassline was written down and then the other parts were added on top. So I've amplified it by giving it a five-part texture, which all the string parts in Orfeo and The Return of Ulysses have.
'It serves us very well because the Coliseum is a large place to fill; and what you would normally do with the extant version is use two solo violins, but that wouldn't make enough of an impact in a huge theatre. Therefore we've chosen to use eight violins, six violas and two cellos. It's not a big orchestra, but it's bigger than it might be. I've added the trumpets because the music for the coronation is redolent of trumpets in any case - I think that the original probably meant to indicate violins imitating trumpets - so I thought, why not have the real thing? Once you've realised that the two violin parts aren't by Monteverdi anyway, it frees you up to make this kind of small liberty. I do feel a bit cheeky, but the most important thing is that it will be strong dramatically. The audience is waiting a long time for the coronation to happen - they sit through the whole opera before it happens, and it's actually quite a quick scene. So I think it really needs to burst through and make a huge impact.'
Although a familiar title, The Coronation of Poppea might not get a casual opera goer rushing to the box office to buy tickets. But Cummings is convinced that there's something in the piece for everyone. 'It's like a Shakespeare play; he draws the characters so incredibly well. The interaction between characters is fascinating. They have fights and arguments. They have seduction scenes. They flirt with each other. There's a scene where Nero instructs one of his lackeys to go and tell Seneca to die before the morning. So he goes off to find Seneca, who says "I know why you're here - the gods have already told me". The servant is very reluctant to tell him the news, but Seneca already knows and is resigned to it. He thinks it's a noble fate and is stoical about it. The music suddenly feels very wise. Then he prepares his bath, gets inside it and slits his wrists. Straight away after that, you get two commedia dell'arte figures, Damigella and Valletto, the young maid and the valet, who flirt with one another. It's almost a sex scene - they talk about each other's bodies, and the music represents a palpitating of the heart. That's a very timeless feeling. The juxtaposition of Seneca's death with these two young things making out and practically dancing on his grave is quite shocking and very modern. Also, the production is very visual and strong. The music is so beautiful - many of the arias are like ballads - and the final duet between Poppea and Nero is so ravishing and lyrical that you could imagine it being a number one hit in the charts!'
The Orchestra of English National Opera is no stranger to music of this period, but there are particular challenges in performing Monteverdi that have to be addressed. 'It's very exciting working with the ENO orchestra,' says Cummings, 'because they're very 'game on'. We're lending them baroque bows, and they're playing with gut top strings - E and A strings for the violas - so they're really interested in the style, which is great. It's nice for me because I did Orfeo with them last year and we used the same things, so it feels like we're moving on from there rather than starting from scratch. They are a great and very adaptable orchestra. We've got a specialised continuo team, because obviously there aren't contract theorbo players in the ENO orchestra waiting just to play this! It's a very lavish continuo: three harpsichords, three theorbos, one lirone (which is a kind of organ that you bow, but the fret is flat like a guitar so you can play all the strings at once - it makes a very regal sound), a chamber organ and a harp. It's really great to be able to play with all those continuo colours.'
This Poppea is part of a cycle of Monteverdi's operas that ENO has undertaken with the same production and musical team, and Cummings feels that there is a definite benefit in this. 'Shi-Zheng's vision goes even further than the operas, in fact, because he includes the Vespers and sees them as the four seasons. Orfeo is the spring, Poppea is the summer, Ulysses is the autumn and the Vespers is the winter. He's already staged the Vespers in Boston but I think he'd like to do them somewhere else as well. I think it's great to stand the pieces side by side because it shows the development of opera through the seventeenth century. It was such a young form when he wrote Orfeo, which was the first truly great opera; by the time you get to Ulysses the characterisations are much stronger because the form was more established. The journey of Orfeo as a character is very smooth; in Poppea, every character's journey has a different pace. Nerone is hysterical and mad right at the start and doesn't change very much - only his situation changes. Poppea has her eye on the crown right from the start and she's on a very slow, smooth journey to that. Ottone is on a downward spiral all the way through. All these strands going on at the same time are what make it so interesting.'
ENO has assembled a stellar cast of young stars for this production, including Kate Royal and Tim Mead, alongside established names like Robert Lloyd. Cummings feels the mix is just right. 'Young singers are always open to pushing things and experimenting with different ideas. I think you need to do that in this music; you can't play safe. It's luxury casting to have Robert Lloyd as Seneca - absolutely incredible. In a sense he brings his own wisdom on top of that of Seneca, because he has so many years of experience. And I think it's a coup for ENO to have Diana Montague come on right at the end as the page of Venus. It's just a short part, but it's the most ravishing piece of music. You've had the whole coronation and suddenly you have serenity. It's very exciting to have her doing it.'
Another of Cummings' activities as a performer is the annual London Handel Festival, held in March and April every year. He evidently revels in the opportunities it provides. 'What's special about it is that we celebrate Handel as a Londoner. He lived in Brook Street for thirty-six years, he composed a lot of his major works here, they were performed here, he was naturalised British, he loved being in London. So I think it's important that London honours him. We're very lucky that we're able to perform in the church he attended every Sunday, St George's in Hanover Square. We have big links with Handel House. Also, one of our prime purposes is to continue to perform the works that not everybody else does. We do an opera every year, and we try and do one that isn't done very often. So in recent years we've done Poro, Ezio and Sosarme, for instance. That's exciting, because there are so many operas and oratorios that people don't know. People get stuck on the same ones - which are fantastic pieces of course, and I'm glad they are getting performed.
'It's been asked whether we need a London Handel Festival now that the composer is considered more mainstream (unlike thirty years ago when he wasn't getting performed much at all). Well, I would say that there is, because we have a mission to bring the less familiar works to light. That also teaches us something about the works we know very well, because we understand his development more clearly.'
The 2008 festival has already been announced and includes the usual mixture of familiar and little-known works. 'We're doing Atalanta as our main staged opera performance at the Britten International Opera School at the Royal College of Music. We're pragmatic about choosing the piece to fit the singers who are available, but we've wanted to do this opera for a long time. Joshua was chosen to suit some of the singers from our Handel Singing Competition that we run concurrently with the festival. We hadn't done it for about fifteen years and it's not had a London outing for a while. Some people think we should have themes to our festival, but my experience with themes is that they work so far then you find yourself contorting concert programmes to fit the theme. I'd rather have a breadth of repertoire. We're very lucky to have such a loyal audience - you can put obscure things on and they will come.' Other works on offer next year include Bach's St Matthew Passion and Handel's Aci, Galatea and Poliferno.
Early music forms the basis of most of Cummings' performance schedule at the moment. Would he like to explore the music of later periods? 'I love music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but I don't feel I have anything special to say about it. I could do it, but I have a passion for the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that I want to share and develop. I've been playing the harpsichord now for a long time, and I don't feel I'm anywhere near reaching saturation point. There's still so much I want to play, listen to and research; if anything, I'm getting more specific. I do some Mozart and Haydn and I enjoy the fact that that feels 'late'. Having trained as a harpsichordist for so long, it's wonderful to play the fortepiano and discover you can actually play loud and soft!'
From an early age, Laurence Cummings had a huge interest in music. 'My grandmother was a self-taught pianist who used to play in the local picture house in Birmingham, and in a dance band as well. She got me interested, so I had lessons and I sang as a treble in my local parish choir. I continued with church music right the way through; at thirteen I learnt to play the organ and throughout my teenage years I wanted to be an organist. Then I went on to be an organ scholar at Oxford, but while I was there I got interested in historical performance. It was an exciting time; Nicholas Kenyon had just brought out his book about authenticity and there was lots of resistance to the whole movement. I found that exciting, so then I switched to the harpsichord, though I continued to play the organ too. I still love the cathedral repertoire, but I think if I'd gone into it and done it day in, day out, I probably wouldn't like it any more.'
He insists that it was a desire to inspire, rather than the appeal of power, that drew him to conducting. 'I felt I knew how the music should go; I thought I had something to say and should stand up and say it. I was motivated by wanting to put these projects on.'
Cummings balances his conducting career with his post as Head of Historical Performance Studies at the Royal Academy of Music. 'I love it. I'm lucky that the Academy is so flexible and allows me to do a project like [Poppea], for example. Performing eats up a lot of your time, and it means that I often end up having early morning meetings and teaching in the evenings. But I love being with young musicians because it reminds you of why you wanted to do it yourself. Their eagerness and enthusiasm is very inspiring. It's great to give people the tools to continue developing on their own.'
He feels it was his mission to make historical performance more of a mainstream activity at the conservatoire. 'When I was a student at the RCM I felt that the Early music department was rather ghettoised. We were on the top floor of the new building and about as far away from everyone else as it was possible to be. It just seemed a shame not to be more integrated. That's why we call it 'Historical Performance Studies' rather than 'Early Music', because anyone can perform in an historically performed manner, even if you're not using a baroque violin or baroque bow. My mission at the Academy is to try and get as many students involved in the department as possible. All the brass students play natural brass as well as their modern brass, and we have lots of second study string and wind players doing baroque. It's seen as a 'cool' thing to do; you're respected.'
Cummings says that although he has drive, he doesn't have ambitions to conquer the music world in a big way. Specific projects beckon, such as performing and recording certain works: he's conducting a Vivaldi opera at next year's Garsington Festival as well as the 2009 revival of David McVicar's production of Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne, and wants to record the whole of the Handel harpsichord works at the Handel House. 'Music is like food to me; I just need it. People ask me how I can fill my diary with so much music, but I never tire of it. The music gives you the strength to carry on.I'd like people to remember me as a conductor who achieved exciting musical results whilst continuing to be a nice person. I don't think it's necessary to cause tension when making music. I want to be a person who brings people together. Good musician, good bloke - that's what I aspire to be.'
Laurence Cummings conducts ENO's new production of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea at the London Coliseum from 18 October 2007. The ENO website is available at www.eno.org.
The London Handel Festival includes a range of performances from March to April 2008; a gala concert on 12 November 2007 will help to fund the Festival, as well as launching the Festival's latest recording. Details can be found here.
Read other recent interviews with singers such as Rosalind Plowright, Andrew Kennedy, Susan Graham, Sally Burgess and Marcello Giordani here.