It is now seven years since Antonio Pappano took the reins at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. A recent press conference announcing the 2009/10 season reflected a house in rude health, both artistically and, in the face of globally difficult times, financially. Having Pappano as Music Director is, without doubt, an important factor in the institution's optimistic outlook.
He is a maestro who seems to lack any of the dictatorial traits of other high-profile conductors but commands respect through the attention to detail and love he lavishes on familiar operatic scores. In conversation he speaks with a gentle charm and modest humour which belie an unmistakable and fiery passion for his work.
For a long time associated primarily with Italian and French repertoire – he has just added to his ongoing Puccini cycle with EMI with a new Madama Butterfly starring Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann – Pappano is now also recognised as a formidable Wagnerian, having just been honoured by the Wagner Society with their Reginald Goodall Medal.
Pappano's season isn't quietening down yet, either, with three productions to conduct before the summer break. There's an all-star La Traviata with Renée Fleming, Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson as well as two works, at either end of the spectrum, which Pappano is conducting for the first time: Il barbiere di Siviglia with a dream cast of Joyce Di Donato, Juan Diego Florez, Simon Keenlyside, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Alessandro Corbelli; and Alban Berg's Lulu, in a new production by Christof Loy starring Agneta Eichenholz.
Lulu opens on 4 June, and I manage to catch Pappano on the phone during a gap in the busy rehearsal schedule. I ask him first about Berg's final, unfinished opera, to be performed in the three act version completed by Friedrich Cerha. Although Berg represents the accessible face of the Second Viennese School, I suggest, Lulu must still be a hard sell.
'Lulu is certainly no walk in the park for the listener,' Pappano admits. 'There's no use covering that up. However it's not that it's so dissonant as such, rather that there are so many things going on all at the same time. So the elucidation provided by a good production helps this immeasurably. Our production is quite stark, then, so that you're not distracted by extraneous, unnecessary décor. This helps you just concentrate, which is very important for a work like Lulu.' Despite this, Pappano is at pains to emphasise the sheer beauty of much of the score. 'What is very much going for the listener is its undeniable sensuality. The balance of unsavoury characters and the search for real love is beautifully balanced in the music.'
The score's sensuality comes out of what Pappano describes as 'The unbreakable bond between Dr. Schön and Lulu.' This inspires Berg to write 'Music that sounds like Gustav Mahler, that comes basically inspired by the Adagio of Mahler's Tenth Symphony.' He expands: 'I would say that a lot of that music is a stretching of the musical language of Mahler; or it's even simplified, because there's probably nothing more complicated than the Adagio of Mahler's Tenth. The music in those sensual moments of great humanity speaks very clearly.
'The other stuff in the piece – the grotesquery, the irritability of some of the music – has to do with these unsavoury characters. But against that you get an act like Act Two, which starts in this very rarefied atmosphere, with a very beautiful tonal palette. The colours of the piece and the finesse of it all is just incredible. I alluded to the story before: Christof Loy and I have worked quite a lot together in the past and I think he's really made the story very strong and very clear. The audience will get a lot from the actors – the singing actors – as well, because you can really see them and feel them. It's a very good story, some of it's unsavoury, some of it's violent and you can't believe it; but that's not Berg, that's Wedekind.' And that's real life, as well, I suggest. 'Well, exactly!' he agrees, with a laugh.
When the new Lulu was first planned, it was to have starred Aleksandra Kurzak, the Polish-born soprano who thrilled audiences this season as the eponymous heroine in Rossini's Matilde di Shabran. When the production was announced a year ago, Kurzak had already pulled out, and the role is now to be taken by Agneta Eichenholz, making her Covent Garden debut. Although Eichenholz is surrounded by familiar names – including Jennifer Larmore as Countess Geschwitz and Michael Volle as Dr. Schön – I ask Pappano if it's a risk to have such a high profile production built around a singer who is largely unknown in this country?
'Whenever you do this opera, there are many risks you take,' comes the honest response. 'For instance, it's not only her who's making a debut in her role. Everyone except the painter, Will Hartmann, is making their debut in their roles. I see that as a very exciting challenge. In terms of the Lulu herself, there's no question that it's one of the most challenging roles in the entire repertoire. But what's lovely about Agnete is that, first of all, she sings a lot of Mozart. This helps, I think, because there's a clarity in the way she delivers the notes, and her intonation is very pure. She also has a kind of secretive allure and a certain mystery about her that are perfect for the role.'
I bring the conversation on to the two other productions Pappano conducts this season, and mentioning the quality of the cast for Barbiere in particular. He is obviously pleased to have assembled such an impressive group of singers.
'When the production was new,' he tells me, 'I remember Simon Keenlyside pulled out before the rehearsals started. So it didn't have the best start, shall we say. It's a lovely, cute production, but I think it needs to be "filled", and our ambition this time was to do just that, to "fill" it. I mean, Joyce Di Donato stole the show last time, and she might very well do so now, but she's even better surrounded, if you like.'
Perhaps the most luxurious piece of casting is that of great Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Basilio. Pappano agrees, 'Can you imagine? That'll be kind of a rumble!' he laughs. He's excited too, to be conducting the work for the first time: 'I've somehow managed to avoid it all my career, and it's my first comic Rossini in the theatre. It's a great masterpiece, but because it's so often played it can fall into that category of works that you put on because you know your audience likes it.' Both Traviata and Barbiere will be featured as big-screen relays sponsored by BP, a natural decision as far as Pappano's concerned. 'I think they're kind of no-brainers. In terms of where they're set in the season and the casts involved, the choice was pretty clear. Maybe a big screen of Lulu would be very adventurous, but pretty stupid!'
Talk moves on to next season and I bring up the high profile run of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, which will see Plácido Domingo drop from tenor to baritone to embody the troubled Doge. Is there a danger, I ask, that people might see this as a gimmick? 'If you think of what it means to Plácido himself,' Pappano responds, 'I don't think it's a gimmick. Plácido's voice is not getting longer, it's getting shorter; he has age, he has experience. He will have tried the role twice before he comes here. I know him well enough that if he realises that it's a mistake, he's not going to put himself in front of the London audience with it. And I trust him on that. It's a jump for him, there's no question, but it's a dream he's always had and, at this point of his career, you give him the benefit of the doubt. It's a title that I adore, but one that I haven't conducted before myself. I've done so much late Verdi in my life – Otello, Falstaff, Don Carlo, Aida – but this is one title that's eluded me. For me it means something very, very special. So Plácido's not, shall we say, the only reason we're putting the production on.'
At the press launch of the 2009-10 season, hints were dropped regarding greater provision for young people and students: in addition to the current standby scheme, one plan was to open dress rehearsals to students. I ask about this development as well as how Pappano sees the challenge of engaging a young audience. 'If we can make it work and it serves everybody's purpose, the plan is that instead of just having a dress rehearsal, we turn it into a performance for young people. For us it's still a dress rehearsal but it will be treated as a performance and it will certainly be up to standard: they'll be getting the real product.
'My worry is more about what does or doesn't go on in the schools, and it's something I talk about in every interview. It's not just to do with classical music but it's about whether or not these kids are growing up knowing who the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are, let alone Beethoven. But I think that exposure to art, to music and to all the creative arts should be tackled together. To solve the problems or to survive the next millennium people need to be creative. It's not enough that they can pass tests; anything to stimulate creativity or to open your ears or your eyes is important. So we do our part at the Royal Opera House, and we have a fantastic education programme.'
When I suggest that, for some, the Royal Opera has a reputation for being inaccessible, Pappano makes no apologies for the fact that top-flight opera doesn't necessarily come cheap. 'Excuse me, but if you go to the Savoy Grill, you're not going to pay MacDonald's prices.
'And Covent Garden's many things, it's not just the stalls but it's the Amphi[-theatre], there's an incredible range of prices. You just have to be savvy enough to get the cheaper tickets sooner; it's true that you'll have trouble getting the £10 tickets on the night, but you try getting a reservation in a top restaurant on a Saturday at the last minute.'
I move the conversation on to Pappano's early career and ask at what stage he decided, if at all, to head down the operatic path as a conductor.
'My first experiences as a conductor were symphonic, actually,' he admits. 'The opera thing came later. I'd been working as a repetiteur in many different opera houses, so the milieu was something that I was extremely familiar with when I got my first opportunity in 1987 to conduct an opera. That was in Norway and it was La bohème. And that was to rehearse it, not just jump in and "bang" – you know – as is so often done. This changed my life. I could see that with all the experience I had from assisting and working with singers, as well as the little orchestral experience that I had, I could somehow put it all together and glory in the theatrical end of the music business. I survived the first couple of jobs, and then you just get hired again and that's how it happened. It was a bolt of lightening, I'd gained an identity and realised: "Ah! This is what I am, this is what I was meant to do!"'
Having achieved so much already at Covent Garden, I ask what further ambitions he has as Music Director. The answer is characteristically selfless, focussing not on personal ambition but on ambitions for the institution. 'I want to try and expand the repertoire as much as possible. You'd be surprised at the number of titles that just fall by the wayside and don't get performed. I would like just to have the opera house strong in every department of the repertoire: the contemporary, the classic twentieth century, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and the Baroque. I want stylistically for us to be at home in every corner of the repertoire. Of course that means the conductor, orchestra, singers, production; there are a lot of factors that go into it.'
He goes on to elaborate the particular difficulties faced when putting on the Puccini and Verdi favourites which he has made a speciality. 'One of the most difficult things, obviously, is what production values to espouse in the Italian classical repertoire. Just modernising it completely doesn't work, and keeping it completely traditional – I'm talking about new productions now – doesn't seem to excite the musical press, even if the audience is happy. That's one of the great challenges, is how to find a visual voice for the traditional, core repertoire.'
Are there any specific directions Pappano wants to go in expanding the repertory. 'Well, we're starting by bringing Lulu back, which hasn't been done since the 1970s. But we want to do more Russian repertoire, more French repertoire. Les Troyens hasn't been done in centuries – of course I'm exaggerating – and the Russian repertoire needs looking at. We're doing that already with [Tchaikovsky's] Cherevichki (The Tsarina's Slippers) and [Prokofiev's] The Gambler. We want to continue doing new work too as well as things like Matilde Di Shabran. When we did that at beginning of this season, audiences went nuts for it and nobody knew a note of it.'
As time runs out I mention a forthcoming recital at the Royal Opera House in which Pappano will accompany Dmitri Hvorostovsky at the piano. He describes his recital work with singers as 'A quest for me just to stay in touch with the sound, which is important when I spend all day telling people what sounds to make.' He finishes with a typically modest touch: 'And of course you've got to have some contact with it too. Also, I grew up as a pianist and I don't want to lose what little skills I still have!'
By Hugo Shirley
Christof Loy's new production of Lulu, conducted by Antonio Pappano, opens at the Royal Opera House on 4 June. La Traviata opens on 18 June (BP Screening 30 June); Il Barbiere di Siviglia opens on 4 July (BP Screening 15 July).
Photos Credits: © Sheila Rock/EMI
News: Antonio Pappano honoured by the Wagner Society
News: The Royal Opera's Summer Screenings supported by BP
CD Review: Pappano conducts Madama Butterfly with Gheorghiu and Kaufmann (EMI)
News: Dmitri Hvorostovsky to give Covent Garden recital with Pappano