Vladimir Jurowski talks about Glyndebourne's 75th Anniversary Season

The Russian conductor shares thoughts on Verdi, Wagner and matters operatic and symphonic

20 May 2009

Vladimir JurowskiThere's one more full day to go. On 21 May Glyndebourne kicks off its 75th anniversary season, a very special moment in the operatic calendar, with a new production of Verdi's Falstaff, directed by Richard Jones, conducted by Glyndebourne's music director Vladimir Jurowski and starring, among others, Christopher Purves as the fat knight. I asked Jurowski to tell me a little bit about the production.

'Well, I don't want to give too much away but I can tell you that it is an updated Falstaff, set in a period when the notion of excess – excess of drinking, excess of money, excess of sex or whatever - contrasts with the austerity of a preceding period. When I say it is updated, it is not at all like the Macbeth we did at Glyndebourne (same production team, same designer) and I would say that the drama and the comedy in this production is classic and timeless. You have to remember the miracle that was worked by Verdi and Boito. They turned a minor play by Shakespeare, with borrowed passages from some of the less minor history plays, into a masterpiece: the greatest of all Italian operatic comedies, pointing straight towards the twentieth century'.

I suggest that it sounds as if Richard Jones has set it in either the post-First or post-Second War period. 'Well, you'll have to see it, that's probably all I can say. But everything that has happened with this production has been with my full involvement, throughout the whole process. I am interested in the dramatic side, in the way we choose to tell the story, and you have to remember that putting characters into Tudor or Elizabethan costumes tells us nothing nowadays of their relative social positions. If, for example, you see a 'conventional' Falstaff in period costume, you can be forgiven for thinking that Ford and Falstaff are social equals. But they are not! I think our production will succeed in making the class differences clear'.

Was it Jurowski's choice to do Verdi's last opera this season? He words his answer carefully and politely, but it is quite clear that it was! 'My position as music director at Glyndebourne gives me the prerogative to choose the works that we might consider doing, and I have to tell you that Falstaff has been a long-term dream of mine. I have conducted Nabucco, Rigoletto, Macbeth, Don Carlos and Otello and in a way every Verdi opera I have been involved in has led up to Falstaff. I see its musical language coming out of Otello, although Otello is not at all like Falstaff drama-wise. Well, I wanted to do it, and then it was a question of finding the right season, the right blend of operas and artists. I'm very happy to be doing it now!'

Vladimir JurowskiWhat about conducting other Verdi operas? Jurowski is quite clear in his mind what he wants, and does not want to do. 'I would like to conduct a Simon Boccanegra at some stage. And yes, I would like to do a Traviata – but not yet'. No mention, though, of Trovatore, Aida, and Ballo.

I ask Jurowski what he finds musically interesting on his Verdian conducting journey, from Nabucco (a fabulous debut at the Royal Opera House only a few years ago) through Macbeth to Falstaff. 'I think that even in his earlier operas, Macbeth for example, Verdi favoured writing much longer, through-composed passages because they serve and reflect the drama so much better. Nabucco is of course completely different stylistically – you can hear the Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini that permeates it throughout. I could take a passage from Rossini's Moise and put it right alongside Nabucco. But as Verdi matured, and was more able to do what he wanted, he got rid of the old operatic style. This is clear from Otello and from Falstaff.'

As he warms to his theme of Verdi the great operatic setter of drama, Jurowski pours out his own ideas and clear inspiration in the orchestral setting of Falstaff. 'It is only Verdi who would have dared to use the colours that he inserts into the score. In fact I would say that Falstaff is a masterclass in orchestration, with all sorts of peculiarities that I intend to respect. For example, we are using the C clarinet for its tonal colour, valve trombones and valveless horns. We are using wooden mutes on the strings'. Does this make the conductor popular with his orchestra? Jurowski laughs. 'You can really hear the difference, and the sound we produce is true to the work'.

Jurowski is conducting one other opera at Glyndebourne this season, his first ever Tristan und Isolde. Verdi and Wagner, the two giants of the 19th century, in debut interpretations within three months of each other. How does he approach Wagner? 'Well, I have already started at the deep end, with Parsifal. I suppose I took Pierre Boulez as my example there. To be absolutely honest, I don't think I am that keen on early Wagner, Der Fliegende Hollander, Lohengrin and so on, and what I feel is that before I tackle the Ring cycle and Meistersinger, I have to get Tristan under my belt. It is a daunting undertaking – I am only 37, and it will be a huge challenge. I have actually done Act Two (in a concert performance, with Anja Kampe who will sing Isolde at Glyndebourne opposite the Tristan of Torsten Kerl) and now I will give the whole work a go. I am incredibly lucky to be at Glyndebourne and to be able to conduct Falstaff and Tristan like this, in such conditions'.

Vladimir JurowskiI ask Jurowski an impossible question: which work does he feel to be closer to the twenty-first century. Which is the 'more modern'? He takes me by way of answer immediately into the book Verdi and Wagner, written by the Hungarian musicologist Erno Lendvai, a celebrated analyst of Bartok among others. 'Of course, the whole treatment of harmonic language in Tristan is revolutionary. It opened the door to Schoenberg and to twelve tone music, and for a long time people would have said that this alone makes Tristan uniquely modern. But Lendvai analyses both composers very thoroughly and proves – to me at least – that despite Wagner's use of chromatic harmonies where Verdi tended to revert constantly to the diatonic, and despite huge stylistic differences between Verdi and Wagner, in the end both point equally firmly and strongly towards the twentieth century. Let me suggest to you that if Wagner enabled Schoenberg  to develop as he did, then I would see Falstaff as leading directly on to Stravinsky and The Rake's Progress. Or take another example. When Fenton is in the woods in Act Three of Falstaff and the orchestra plays horn calls, you find the same expression and colour in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde'.

It is the end of another long day. Jurowski has the dress rehearsal of Falstaff well behind him, and has just watched the dress of Giulio Cesare – one of the many duties of the music director. What else has he got planned? 'Well, I am about to conduct The Planets by Holst for the first time – that's on Friday. And I have just conducted another of my long-term dreams – Mahler's First Symphony. I found that very satisfying and inspiring'.

What about longer-term plans in the opera house? I first express the hope that Jurowski will be with us at Glyndebourne for some time to come. 'Yes, for the next three or four years. I have some other projects too, some opera at the Bolshoi Theatre once it has been renovated. I want to conduct The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh by Rimsky Korsakov. And in 2013 I hope to be back at the Met, doing Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. And some other things…'

Vladimir JurowskiI invite Jurowski to look back at his time at Glyndebourne so far, and to take stock. Are there any productions which give him particular satisfaction or pride? 'To be honest, every production I have done here I regard as if it is one of my children. It is hard to have any favourites. But I am pleased to have enriched the incredible repertoire of Glyndebourne by bringing Prokoviev's Betrothal in a Monastery to life for example, as well as Rachmaninoff's Miserly Knight. And I was very fond of Die Fledermaus, especially the revival.'

Like most conductors at the top of their game, Jurowski has incredible energy and stamina. He would happily talk on about matters Glyndebourne, Verdi and Wagner for hours – but he has a composer in Berlin to talk to. 'Not Holst' he assures me! I thank him for his thoughts on the season, feeling mightily reassured once again that the musical – and dramatic – side of Glyndebourne is in exciting hands. And I can't wait to see – and hear – Falstaff.

By Mike Reynolds

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Helene GrimaudRelated articles:

Concert Review: The LPO and Jurowski join forces with Mischa Maisky
Concert Review: The LPO and Jurowski play Korngold
Concert Review: Jurowski and the OAE play Schubert
Concert Review: The COE and Jurowski in Paris

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