Mansel Stimpson talks to the director whose production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra brings Plácido Domingo back to London...
Like Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra has had to bide its time before receiving the recognition due to it. Some would describe it as a masterwork. It’s no longer a rarity. The standing of this opera today is confirmed by looking at the history of the production of it first staged by Elijah Moshinsky for Covent Garden in 1991 when the conductor was Georg Solti and the title-role was performed by Alexandru Agache. This production, of the revised version of the opera, returned in 1995, then in 1997, in 2002 and again in 2004. In addition to that, in 2008 Ian Judge, who had put on the original 1857 version for Royal Opera in 1997, was asked to bring back that staging but this time adapted to the more familiar 1881 revision. Now Moshinsky’s production comes back once more and, to make it doubly newsworthy, Boccanegra is being played by Plácido Domingo, the first time that the world’s most celebrated tenor has appeared in a baritone role in London.
Understandably this is a major operatic event. However, there is good news in triple measure for those unable to obtain seats. First, the same artists present a concert version at the BBC Proms on 18 July, which will be broadcast live on Radio 3. Better yet, there will be two opportunities to view the Covent Garden production: on 10 July it will be shown as a recording on BBC2 and three days later there will be a free live relay as part of the BP Summer Big Screens programme which for Londoners means Trafalgar Square and Canary Wharf.
I meet Elijah Moshinsky to talk about this revival of his production but also to talk about his career generally. He was born in Shanghai but grew up in Australia having moved there at the age of four with his parents who were Russian-Jewish refugees. But, although he mentions this background, it’s what he says about his outlook which seems the real key to understanding this man: “I get enthusiastic about life, and I think that art is part of life and I throw myself into what interests me.” The roots of his commitment to art lie in his early years in Australia. “My parents were always interested in music and they took me to Mozart operas which for some reason absolutely took my imagination. I studied the flute in Melbourne and played as the third flute in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to help me through university.” But, if music was present early on, so were other artistic interests. He did some designing and took up painting which remains what he describes as his main hobby. Yet none of this set a course that would plan his future life: “I don’t think of career; I think of art and life”. When he says that he laughs a little being aware that it could sound pompous or pretentious, but there’s not the slightest doubt but that he means it.
Fate or chance – call it what you will – stepped in. This was after Elijah, already possessed of a first degree in history, won a scholarship to Oxford and came to England where he studied with Sir Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was undoubtedly an influence when it came to shaping Elijah’s views, but the pivotal figure who pointed the way was Sir John Tooley, Chief Executive at Royal Opera between 1970 and 1988, for he it was who set things in motion by inviting Elijah to Covent Garden. This is the more remarkable because he did so not after witnessing some musical endeavour in which Elijah was involved but after seeing his 1972 production of As You Like It put on by students, the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company. “I had never attended an opera rehearsal until I came here: I didn’t even know what it was. But then I got very involved and I assisted here for three years. Basically it was a training.”
In 1974 Elijah handled a revival of Tannhäuser but he really made his mark the following year with a new production of Peter Grimes with Jon Vickers in the title role. “I was very taken by a Left-wing quality in the libretto and, despite the production’s emphasis on the work done in the Borough, the approach was Brechtian. By the time that I had left Australia I was already a committed Left-wing director who believed that Brecht was the way forward, that the world was changing and that theatre could contribute to that!” Putting Brecht on a pedestal in this way may have been both a sign of the times and of Elijah’s youth, but it still played its part in how Elijah would come to look at the world. So too did the attitudes of the man who became his mentor in London, the late Sir Edward Downes. “Ted was a wonderful person. Again Left-wing, a total rationalist but one possessed of all the experience, love and enthusiasm that he got from other conductors such as Kubelík and Giulini. Ted had this philosophy of how an opera should be produced, that it was a combination of director and conductor creating a totally unified work in which you don’t know where one ends and the other begins. In pursuit of that he had a special rehearsal procedure and when we worked together he came to my rehearsals and I went to his, which is not always the case. We became very close friends and both as friend and as colleague I grieve his loss.”
Despite these important developments that came to him as a director of opera, Elijah, influenced by his interest in the psychology of characters and in the philosophy to be found in the background of any work, has also done much in straight theatre. This ranges from Shakespeare to contemporary plays and he regards this as beneficial to his work in the opera house. “I thought that my greatest contribution to opera would be to come to it from the outside, the wider experience being an asset in seeking out the purpose of a work, the interior life of the music. I like to bring to the operatic stage what I would call authenticity – authenticity to the music and to the characters. I completely ignore changes of fashion but am not as traditionalist as is sometimes claimed. Whatever helps the interior life of a piece is absolutely fine with me. When I did Otello here with Carlos Kleiber and Plácido Domingo I was aware of the need to resist being pushed into some power-house style, the tendency to see everything through some distorted mirror as if that would refresh the operatic language. I simply looked at Verdi and concluded that it was a work of genius and that all it needed was to be approached from the inside. Within that approach we invented many original and extraordinary things including the idea of playing the opera in two Acts: that is always done now, but at that time it would be given in three Acts. The other thing was that we set it in the Renaissance period to bring out the Italian sense of glory that the opera requires. I get no kick out of seeing it done with Otello as, say, a Panamanian dictator. To me that would distract from what is the essential issue of the opera which is the breakdown of the man. What you need to do is to find a staging for that.”
Before we move on to Simon Boccanegra I ask Elijah to comment further on the fact that I had read that the film-director Ingmar Bergman had been an influence. “For me he was the greatest director and my admiration for both him and Andrzej Wajda is huge, not just as filmmakers but as stage directors. I was in Sweden in the late seventies and met Bergman. I said to him: ‘Master, what is the secret?’ and this is how he replied: ‘It’s very simple: everyone on stage must know what they are doing’. That’s the very best advice you can give to a director, not that you have to have a concept but that everybody including each member of the chorus must know specifically who they are and why they are doing whatever they are doing. To think that out truthfully is an exploration which involves an enormous amount of work, of analysis.”
On turning to Simon Boccanegra one finds that Elijah is a passionate enthusiast for this work and quick to point to a production prior to his own – that of Giorgio Strehler at La Scala in the seventies with Claudio Abbado conducting – as the one that was instrumental in identifying this piece as major Verdi. “It’s interesting that when you have a production like that, one which suddenly captures the inner life of a work and projects it, you have a kind of ripple effect and everyone wants to do it.” In addition Elijah feels that recent years have seen a shift in the public’s sensibility, an interest in the ambiguous and the profound. These are qualities that he finds in Boccanegra but, while seeing it as a blend of dream and reality, of fable and history, he is very clear-cut as to how he defines the nature of the piece. “The main theme of the opera is as I see it a spiritual progression, something that is very unusual and almost Wagnerian. It’s a piece of poetry written by Boito which gives us a view of a man’s life as he progresses towards maturity. He’s a man who came from simple and clear origins and then, ruling in Genoa for twenty-five years, became a tyrant. There follows the most striking and paradoxical moment in his life. He discovers his long-lost daughter, Amelia, and that opens the gates inside this tyrant to forgiveness and the idea that life can be regenerated. The antithesis is also present in the character of Paolo who represents the dark side that threatens to destroy the idea of redemption and hope. So it’s an opera with subtle shifts, a balance between hope and despair in which the characters are all filled with the most interesting and subtle inner conflicts. These conflicts cause them to seek fulfilment, not necessarily through passion but through acts which end up as either politically disastrous or redemptive.”
Elijah is no less eloquent in describing how he approaches a production, be it a new one or, as here, a revival. “I do an analysis of the opera for myself so that I understand what track I’m on. I don’t have a concept to press on it, but I do know what’s inside the opera, and I work with all the people around me to try to create an organic unity between me, the singers and the conductor – and if the conductor feels it in a particular way I go with that in looking for the inner life of the piece. But, while I have to have an imaginative involvement with that inner life, I seek also an empathy with everyone performing the work. If I can share that empathy, it is possible to create a kind of fusion so that conductor, singer and director are brought together in what is a bit like a chemical process that yields an inspired moment of creation in the rehearsal.”
In the context of this revival of Simon Boccanegra I have a particular interest in how Elijah is responding to two artists. One is the young Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya taking the role of Amelia for the first time. A former Young Artist at Covent Garden, she showed immense promise from the start but when more recently she took the role of Elizabeth in Verdi’s Don Carlo for the second time (the September 2009 revival) I felt that she took on a new and very special stature. So what is Elijah’s response to her? “I find her a wonderful artist with an extraordinary intelligent instinct for the music. Something has sparked inside her to give moment-to-moment life to her role. She is entirely in the moment and I think you are going to see the development of a major Verdian artist able to bring together in absolutely the right way the singing and the acting.”
The other artist is, of course, Domingo. Elijah offers unprompted the following thoughts about his work with the great tenor. “One of the most important things when you work with an artist is that you trust each other, even though the balance of genius comes into it. Plácido is the genius and I’m just the director. My job is not to control him but to inspire him to give his best performance. That’s what I’m here to do when you have an artist who can master it all and reach such depth and quality, but for it to work the singer needs an ignition. It’s a very important relationship, but the great thing about Plácido from a director’s point of view is the presence of several elements: a lack of vanity, a complete immersion in the truth of the work and an extraordinary musical insight combined with an ability to take on board the most tragic and significant incidents of a personal life. I mean you could have somebody with a wonderful voice but a banal imagination and then the work just won’t come up. Plácido is remarkable because he possesses all the qualities.”
One could end there with that praise from Elijah for the artists (he mentions too how he adores working with Antonio Pappano, the conductor here, not least for all the nuances of text which they are able to find and explore together). However, I prefer to conclude with the focus on Elijah himself. “This production is now nearly twenty years old and I can’t make it new. But I hope that with a new insight I can make it fresh. Being almost twenty years older, I now have a different attitude to life and to what it means to be a father, what it means to be an older man. So I want to put my life experience into the opera.”
Five performances at 7.30 p.m. from Tuesday 29 June to Thursday 15 July 2010