Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Mansel Stimpson talks to the versatile director now at Covent Garden for his production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra…
On the day that I interviewed Ian Judge I attended one of The Royal Opera’s invaluable Insight Evenings held in the Clore Studio. The subject was Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and Ian was one of the speakers. No more authoritative contributor could be imagined since he is now staging the more familiar Revised Version of 1881 while utilising the production that has set designs by John Gunter and costumes by Deirdre Clancy and which he created at Covent Garden in 1997 for the 1857 Original Version.
But, despite his extensive knowledge, Ian warned the audience that his comments might well appear flippant. Had they assumed from that that his remarks would be entertaining and amusing, gossipy even, then they would have been correct. But anyone who took that description to indicate that Ian is someone not altogether serious would have been totally wrong for this man is a true professional who, caring passionately about his work, is at heart very serious indeed. It’s simply that the surface manner tends to hide the inner core and this may again be reflected in the fact that he goes out of his way to mention, to some extent jokingly, three matters central to his life: that he was adopted by loving foster parents, that he is rather short in height and that he left school at fourteen and had no further education. That he chooses to emphasise these points may be a pre-emptive strike by somebody wary about how he is perceived, but the fact is that Ian’s career is one of exceptional achievement. This is quite clear from our talk and, if I am right in detecting this half-hidden sensitivity, then I would guess that it plays a key role in enabling him to respond in depth to those works of art that he stages, be they plays, musicals or operas.
These three are the loves of his life as he tells me. “With me it was a case of loving Shakespeare at six – that came first, although musicals were there almost from the beginning. I was at junior school when I went to see Olivier in the film of Richard III so I couldn’t even then have been more than eight or nine. The other boys said ‘you don’t want to see that: it’s all poetry’, but I didn’t know what they meant and when I saw Olivier it was thrilling and frightening, yet he made me laugh too and there was this rich sense of language. I just fell in love with it. I didn’t know it was difficult so when I approached it with affection and excitement it proved not to be. Then when I went to Stratford in 1960 it was just the most exciting thing.”
Fifteen years later Ian would be back in Stratford working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and I wondered to what extent the young teenager on his first visit there could have envisaged that. “It was my dream and I wanted to do nothing else, but I didn’t have a plan and had no idea how a little stage-struck boy from Southport could get into the Company. I thought that they’d take all their people from universities and wouldn’t want me.” In fact the route to Stratford lay through London since at the age of twenty-three Ian came to the capital to go to drama-school and become an actor. “Bad idea: I realised halfway through the course that I was a director.”
The career that would develop for him would be seen by outsiders as diverse, but that’s not how Ian himself views it even if what he has done ranges from Shakespeare (he did a lot at Stratford on the History Plays with Terry Hands and Alan Howard and loved artists like Dorothy Tutin) through many musicals (the small-scale but now famous production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along was his) to international renown as a director of opera. “The musicals had a marvellous effect from West Side Story which I saw in 1957. I’ve always felt that in any art form it is incredibly important to communicate, to draw the audience in and not to become remote. The spot that follows an artist can achieve a lot there. In Shakespeare you have the soliloquies while in musicals you have ladies doing big numbers – and sometimes gentlemen too if it’s The Music Man or My Fair Lady – and in opera, of course, you have the follow spot for the aria and in each case you have that marvellous direct connection when the person on stage takes time out to tell the audience what they feel.”
Ian’s third love – classical music including opera – came into his life rather later – he recalls being bowled over by a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that he received as a present. “The repertoire of the classical world was slightly alien to me until the age of twenty-three but then, my God, I really caught up. I tumbled into it and being in London I joined the Young Friends of Covent Garden so I could get to see everything starting with Birgit Nilsson in Fidelio. In that way I built up a tremendous knowledge of opera long before anybody asked me to direct one. That happened when David Pountney suggested that I come to ENO to do Faust and The Merry Widow. Since then I’ve done a lot, but I’ve never been taken by surprise: I’ve always been asked to do something that I already know. I may one day return to Shakespeare if the right actors come along, but for me the pinnacle is when you can bring together the big crowds and the big themes of Shakespeare with what music can do and that’s the world of opera. When I got offered operas, I didn’t panic because, on reflection, it seemed the inevitable destination for me and I recognised it as what I’m here to do. Some people ask me how I can bear singers who can’t act, but I have an answer to that. When you have, say, a tenor who is a splendid singer he may have acting difficulties, but I’m a teacher and can help and at the very least when he goes on the aria is marvellous! But, if you’ve got an actor who can’t act, then nothing changes. Although I admire the amount of work an actor does rehearsing and taking responsibility for his role, I do feel that singers because of all the coaching over the years are much more ready to take direction.”
It occurs to me that I am not quite certain as to the divide when it comes to a singer seeking help from a director on the one hand or from the conductor on the other. “I love conductors who love the theatre. There are those that come to every rehearsal and others who never do. Fortunately we have many conductors around now with a feel for theatre, people like Tony Pappano and Mark Elder, and I have to say that John Eliot Gardiner who is conducting Boccanegra is ferociously theatrical and I find that very exciting. We worked together on Falstaff in Paris but he’s not well known for Verdi so people are wondering how Boccanegra will sound. We have yet to hear it but I think that the tempi will be unusually quick and vital but that it will also be expansive where it needs to be. The degree of musical excellence you find in his work is what I look for in a production – when it’s not blazing and thrilling and doesn’t capture the spirit of everything we’ve been working towards I feel let down and that’s why I hope to work with him again. As for helping the singers, the hierarchy shifts. On the calls for rehearsals it says ‘Judge/Gardiner’, but when you get into the theatre it says ‘Gardiner/Judge’. So officially that’s where it changes, but with a conductor who enjoys rehearsals it’s a shared thing and in the room I find John Eliot hugely supportive. What I recognise though is that, whereas in the theatre-world there’s nobody driving it along but the actors themselves, in opera it’s the man in the pit who has to come through and hold it together and because of that I am more than happy to take second place.”
This production of Simon Boccanegra has an interesting history. It was originally set up as part of a Verdi Festival in 1997 when it provided an opportunity for the Original Version of the opera to be compared with the Elijah Moshinsky staging of the 1881 revision. Although it featured such artists as Sergei Leiferkus and Plácido Domingo and had Mark Elder as conductor, critics carped about Covent Garden mounting a second Boccanegra production and rather missed the point but Ian quickly defends not only the staging but both versions of the opera even if the revision is indeed superior. “The production [was on a limited budget] and it was quite an achievement. Having a static set with no scene changes except for gold objects flown in to tell you exactly where you were helped to keep down the cost, but it also had its own advantages because you go straight through without those long intervals between scenes. It was Plácido who asked if our set could also be used for the 1881 version with its magnificent Council Chamber scene at the end of Act One not present in the original. Consequently the present staging was mounted in Washington and Dallas but Covent Garden seemed to have forgotten that they owned it and I have to admit that I was the one who approached the management pointing out that London had never seen the 1881 version in my production.
“I love doing this version but I believe passionately that the 1857 treatment is undervalued. Coming out a few years after Traviata, it belongs theoretically to middle-period Verdi. Everybody thinks that the big development in his career came later after the Requiem and leading into Falstaff and Otello. Well, I think that the big change came when the middle-period pieces led into Boccanegra. It was ahead of its time and, because no one could understand it, it wasn’t a success: it seemed to be through-composed, slightly Wagnerian and endlessly oppressive. But the fact that Verdi did it in 1857 with so much of the structure and ideas in place that would remain relatively unchanged in 1881 is a revelation. It’s also a better-balanced work than the revision because in the 1881 version nothing thereafter quite matches the wonderful new scene in the Council Chamber. But the new orchestration is wondrous which means that there’s a magical sound that comes through in everything and, of course, if you see the original but know the revision, you’re aware that with the absence of the Council Chamber highlight you are missing a big slice of wonderful Verdi.”
Although Simon Boccanegra is firmly established in the repertoire, it has never been a favourite with the wider public as opposed to those who are regular opera-goers. Like Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, it’s an opera that lacks those best-selling ingredients crucial to mass appeal: famous arias and a plot in which a love story is absolutely central. Ian understands this but nevertheless rates the opera as one of his favourites in the Verdi canon. “Even though I love Verdi’s Shakespeare operas, especially Macbeth and Falstaff, this is without question his most Shakespearean work: the big political canvas, the solid central character whose private life is in turmoil, a lost child as in Pericles and Winter’s Tale. The fact that Verdi himself lost his daughter makes the story of Amelia incredibly touching and she is indeed the most vulnerable and lovely of Verdi heroines. So the great themes and the Shakespearean ironies are all there and Verdi, as in Don Carlo too, discovers instinctively how to bring out of other material the elements he revered in Shakespeare.”
In approaching this material again Ian is consciously seeking to bring as much clarity as possible to a complex plot (“most people read the synopsis on their way home in the train”). Here again music and words both influence him: “With my love of Shakespeare, the words tell me what I must do, but the music speaks to me in that way too. I find that I have to have music. It’s the only really thrillingly wonderful thing in anybody’s life and I can’t like anybody who doesn’t like music. In the opera house, I do want to make an audience sit up. A lot of people say ‘I love going to the opera: I just let it wash over me’: failure! I really want the audience to leave in a state of inarticulate exhilaration. That’s the state that I am in when I come across a masterpiece and it’s my job to show them what’s wonderful in it and why it’s worth loving. That’s the only thing that matters.”
- The opening of Simon Boccanegra is on Sunday 4 May 2008 at 3 p.m. and runs until 24 May with performances at 7 p.m. (10 & 24 May) and 7.30 p.m.
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
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