Opera Interview: Sir Andrew Davis

"Coming home" – Sir Andrew Davis on his return to Glyndebourne

15 August 2011

Sir Andrew DavisFor twelve seasons, from 1989 to 2000, Sir Andrew Davis was Music Director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, conducting and presiding over many memorable productions there: the three Janacek operas directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, the Graham Vick Eugene Onegin, and the hauntingly beautiful Pell้as et M้lisande, also directed by Vick, to name but a few. But Davis then moved on, in particular to the Lyric Opera of Chicago (which has an auditorium three times the size of Glyndebourne) and since then has not conducted on the Sussex Downs until now, where he has returned for eleven performances of this season's revival of Rusalka. We caught up with him as the run was already under way – with some highly favourable notices already in print. How did he feel, being back at Glyndebourne after a decade away?

"Well, I have attended a few performances here as an audience member in recent years, but the experience of being back here as a working conductor is extraordinary. It's like coming home. There are new faces of course, along with old and familiar ones, but I have been reminded all over again of the incredible quality of the work done at Glyndebourne – it is so good! And there's the luxury of the long rehearsal period, the opportunity to get to know all the cast, to see for myself how they work and play together – it’s all pretty fabulous."

What do you think of this production of Rusalka? "I think it is beautifully done, intensely moving and with human and dramatic qualities that anyone can respond to. I felt that as soon as I began work on it." Have you conducted Rusalka before, and if so, how does this production compare? "Yes I have, but you can't really compare the two – I did Rusalka some time ago at the Met, and it was quite different. This production gets under the skin of the work. I think it is dramatically truthful and it responds to the way that Dvorak, with the care that he has taken over the musical structure, the incredibly beautiful orchestration, draws you into the plot. And that surely is what opera is all about."

RusalkaSome critics argued when it premiered in 2009 that the director, Melly Still, had created very beautiful stage pictures but had failed to dramatise and intensify the human relationships that form the core of the opera's plot. What do you think? "I completely disagree! Melly has been here, re-rehearsing this revival, and I absolutely adore her and the way she has brought the work to dramatic life. She fully understands what needs to be brought out by the principals and I think she has done an incredibly fine job – it is a beautiful production but it is much more than that, and to my mind it all comes together in a very satisfying way. I won't have a word said against her!" It is of course a tribute to Glyndebourne's production values that whenever possible they bring the original director back, to revisit what he or she has done and to tweak it in the light of experience. And judging both from the reviews and from informal audience reactions from those who saw it in 2009 and again this year, this Rusalka revisited by Still and conducted by Davis has indeed matured and strengthened. I was enchanted by it anyway, when I saw it in 2009, so if it really has improved further it ranks as a must-see!

But there are several love affairs going on at once for Davis, starting with his orchestra for Rusalka – the LPO, Glyndebourne's resident house orchestra. "What can I say about the LPO? It is great to be working with them again, a simply beautiful orchestra that produces a fabulous sound. It has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of my return here, working with players of such quality and such accomplishment. And then there's Rusalka herself, who is someone really special – she's one of ours!" Indeed, Dina Kuznetsova, who made a great Glyndebourne debut as Alice Ford in Falstaff two years ago, is a product of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's young artist programme, and has clearly been earmarked by Davis as a singer to watch.

As a conductor, how do you regard conducting opera as against symphonic concerts? Do you prefer one over the other? "The short answer is that I try to have a career that balances both, opera and symphonic, but recently I have been spectacularly unsuccessful! It's the way it sometimes works out. It has been one run of opera followed by another – I came here having just done Peter Grimes at the Royal Opera House. But I do have some symphonic work ahead – apart from the Elgar Violin Concerto (with Tasmin Little) and Percy Grainger at the Proms, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, I am conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra later this year in a big Grainger programme, that will be recorded." It is of course the 50th anniversary of the death of Grainger and a chance to explore some of the extraordinary music created by the hugely gifted but often quirky Australian. The Proms airing of Grainger's symphonic suite 'In a Nutshell' was in a sense just a taster – albeit a very welcome one.

So if opera is at the centre of Davis's activities at the moment, what triggered his love of the art form. Did you have an 'opera is my life' moment? "Actually I suppose I did, when I was 19. I was a Saturday student at the Royal Academy of Music and there was an inspirational teacher there called Graham Treacher (appointed Fellow of the RAM in 1963) who opened my eyes and ears to modern music. He made us study Stravinsky and other scores and invited us to explore other modern composers for ourselves – so I went out to a music shop and came across the score of Berg's Lulu, which I bought and took home to study and I suppose you could say I became obsessed by the work. And Lulu has fascinated me ever since. I went on to do it at Glyndebourne, in the three act version completed by Cerha, and it remains one of my favourite operas: although during the Glyndebourne run there were certain well-known opera figures who went round muttering that the two act, incomplete version was much better! But I cannot agree – you have to see the completion of the story, and the completed version really works in the theatre." I mention in parentheses that it was Davis conducting the Glyndebourne Lulu, with Christine Schaefer in the title role, that first opened my own ears to the extraordinary melodic lucidity of this initially off-putting score. Davis looks pleased. "I love the work – it's one of my all-time favourite operas."

RusalkaWhat are the others? I try a sort of Desert Island Discs question on Davis – if you were given the chance to conduct just five more operas before you die, which ones would they be? He does not need to think too long. "Capriccio, Lulu, Nozze di Figaro, Falstaff and The Ring." I object to the latter choice, not in the spirit of my question. "All right, if just one work by Wagner then Parsifal." A fascinating quintet. And if you could conduct just one of these, which would it be? Davis seems to hover a little between his first two choices but quickly gives up. "Sorry, I can't possibly choose."

Mention of Capriccio reminds me that this was the opera in which Davis made his debut at Glyndebourne. "Absolutely right. It was 1973 and it was Sir John Pritchard who talked me into taking on some of the performances, despite my complete lack of experience in the opera house pit. And I fell in love not only with the opera, but with the total experience of the art form." What is it that makes opera in particular so special for you? "Well, it's the total nature of everything that has to go on. Glyndebourne for example has long had particular associations with working composers, and this informs everything they do. And we are now trying to do the same sort of thing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, introducing a creative programme that will see an active collaboration between librettists, stage directors and the music director. It will take some time to come to fruition, but we have embarked on the process and it will pay off. We have also managed to engage Renee Fleming as our creative consultant, and she brings real insight – from the performer's perspective – to the whole business of planning and scheduling our opera repertoire. Watch this space."

A rehearsal session is imminent: Davis looks at his watch, clearly in his element to be back at a house that he loves, working with people whom he admires and respects. I manage one last question. People are gloomy about the future of classical music: are you an optimist or a pessimist? Davis answers without even thinking: "Oh, I'm an undoubted optimist. There is so much going on out there, and there is so much talent. How could I be anything but optimistic!" And with that he is back to the magical world of Dvorak, and the masterpiece he created at the turn of the last century. Davis is back at Glyndebourne, and in some ways it feels as if he has never been away.

By Mike Reynolds

Photos: Rusalka by Alastair Muir; Sir Andrew Davis by Dario Acosta



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