Cavalli’s Advocate: Ivor Bolton [Royal Opera’s La Calisto, 23 September-10 October]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

As Covent Garden stages Cavalli’s La Calisto for the first time, Mansel Stimpson talks to conductor Ivor Bolton about his enthusiasm for this work and for much else besides…

Ivor Bolton. ©Christian Schneider

Anyone who looks into the work of the Blackburn-born conductor Ivor Bolton expecting to find a clear trajectory in his career is doomed to disappointment. From the outset his life in music has been determined by many positive possibilities. “I had shifting ambitions from the start. I first kicked off and left my hometown under the inspiration of a teacher called John Bertalot who was a very fine choir trainer and a brilliant improviser. I thought then that I might become a cathedral organist and did go on that track a little bit.”

However, when Ivor arrived in Cambridge and attended Clare College other opportunities beckoned. “It was a place that had a wonderfully congenial atmosphere for developing all sorts of interests. I was a pianist as well as an organist and from that it seemed a natural step to get immersed in the harpsichord. I studied with Trevor Pinnock – he’s a man of innate musicality as every gesture of his body reveals and that’s why, having been awe-struck by his work with The English Concert, I wanted to learn from him. I have made discs both of Bach concerto transcriptions and of solo works and it was the sheer enjoyment of playing that caused me to pursue that so strongly. But already in Cambridge there was a parallel strand in my musical life.”

This parallel strand came from directing the University orchestra and it led to him taking a conducting course at the Royal College of Music. “Also at this time I was beginning to play continuo with The English Concert and the English Chamber Orchestra. But in addition to that it was a time when I started to meet a few singers and realised that I ought to know a bit more about opera. Many people told me of a fine course under Martin Isepp at the National Opera Studio so I applied and got in. But I was also appointed conductor of the Schola Cantorum of Oxford. That meant that Mondays were really hectic: it was the day that I would rehearse them, do all the administration in the evening and then hurry back in order to be at the National Opera Studio at ten o’clock the next morning. I found it exhilarating, however, and it was a very lucky year for me because Solti came to the studio to take a masterclass and he recommended me to Glyndebourne. With Martin Isepp’s support, I cut short the course and went to Glyndebourne that same year. I was assistant chorus-master working with Jane Glover and, since we are here now to do a Cavalli opera, it’s worth saying that Jane is a great Cavalli scholar. I remember too seeing Bernard Haitink conduct Don Giovanni in a way that was so wonderful and expressive that it changed my life.”

Ivor Bolton. ©Christian Schneider

This may have been a clear sign that conducting would become the central focus in Ivor’s complex musical life, but for those who like to pigeonhole an artist – be it in terms of work undertaken, places functioned in, or composers performed – it must be frustrating to find that nothing concrete emerges. This does not worry Ivor. “Most people come into music because they love it; they don’t start off as specialists and I think there’s too much of that today, although you do pin-point composers with whom you feel at home. I do know that I’m not going round the world conducting Verdi operas – I stay clear of that – but I’m happy to be perceived in different ways in different places. I have spent fifteen years with the Bavarian State Opera which is the greatest house in Germany and I’ve not only appeared at the Salzburg Festival each year since 2000 but for eight years now I’ve been working with the Mozarteum Orchestra, for the last four as music director. Because of those experiences, I would say that my centre of gravity is really the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn. Even so, that might not be the perception of me in England where I’ve probably done more Handel than anything else.”

Apart from productions in England, Ivor has conducted nine Handel operas in Munich, a connection, when added to his harpsichord playing, to explain why some associate Ivor Bolton most of all with music from the 17th-century or that written before, say, 1780. In this context his previous appearance at Covent Garden, in 2007, was to conduct Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and it seems to fit the pattern that future plans in Munich include an opera by Rameau, “a composer I’ve long wanted to do.”

But then you note that his work with Bavarian State Opera under Peter Jonas also included besides a Monteverdi cycle such 20th-century works as The Rake’s Progress and The Rape of Lucretia, while his latest success with the Mozarteum Orchestra, which, as he stresses, is a symphony orchestra and not a chamber group as some imagine, is a recording of Bruckner’s Fifth. Such acclaim has greeted this recording that it has now led to a projected complete cycle of Bruckner symphonies. In a sense this brings us full-circle because Ivor recalls another teacher from his days in Blackburn, Jack Longstaffe. “He had such a sense of the classics, insisting that we should know all of Beethoven’s string quartets, all of the Mozart ones too and, of course, the symphonic repertoire. At the tender age of eleven, I was introduced by Jack to the music of Bruckner because he had a real thing about that composer who was then unknown to me and it has stayed with me all my life.”

Umberto Chiummo as Giove & Salley Matthews as Calisto. ©Wilfrid Hösl

Having established the width and breadth of Ivor’s work, which arguably makes him even better known on the continent than in the UK, although his home base is Cambridge, the rest of our conversation centres on David Alden’s production of La Calisto which Ivor conducted when it was first staged in Munich in 2005. It was such a success that it returned in the following two seasons and now arrives at Covent Garden where the opera has not been staged before. Many of the singers (the cast is headed by Sally Matthews in the title role, the Italian mezzo Monica Bacelli as the goddess Diana and Umberto Chiummo as the god Giove or Jupiter) are returning to roles in which they have been heard in Munich, but that they are here at all is probably due to Ivor. He may embrace many other composers, but his enthusiasm for Cavalli is such that he is anxious to promote his work at every opportunity. Two particular instances illustrate this.

Ivor has another Cavalli work coming up in Amsterdam shortly, which he describes as very different to La Calisto. This is Ercole amante of 1662 and also staged by David Alden. “We had long discussions with Amsterdam Opera because initially they wanted to do something a little better known. In Cavalli’s time his most famous opera was Giasone. It’s a great piece and was the most performed opera of that period. Nevertheless, we questioned doing that on account of it having been staged by many opera companies around Europe. Instead we made a case for Ercole amante which was written for Louis XIV on his marriage to the Spanish Infanta.”

Salley Matthews as Calisto. ©Wilfrid Hösl

If Ivor in that instance encouraged a switch from one Cavalli opera to a lesser known one, at Covent Garden he was even more persuasive when talking to the House’s director of casting, Peter Katona. “Peter came to Munich to see La Calisto and liked it very much. I pointed out how little 17th-century opera was heard at Covent Garden. Apart from Purcell, there’s been virtually nothing, and certainly not recently. At that time I was down to do something here, a Mozart I think, but was then told that it might be possible to switch and do La Calisto. About a week later they phoned me up and it was confirmed.”

In the UK La Calisto is famous for its Glyndebourne staging under Raymond Leppard who made a justly famous recording of it with Janet Baker as Diana. That was very much of its day being before the era when ‘period’ instruments gained favour and consequently as prepared by Leppard its sound is very different from what will be heard at Covent Garden, the musicians being The Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble and members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. More surprisingly, it will also differ substantially in its forces from those featured by René Jacobs in his recording made in 1995 since this will be far more pared down. Ivor Bolton has never hesitated over his liking for ‘authentic’ instruments, but he is not a purist about it and has often conducted Handel with a ‘modern’ orchestra. Nevertheless, even if we can’t know exactly how La Calisto sounded in Venice in 1651, Ivor believes that best possible approximation leads us to the heart of how the music was meant to be heard.

La Calisto. ©Wilfrid Hösl

“We’re doing it at 465 because we know that Venetian pitch was on the high side and most members of our cast will benefit from that. It is evident that the orchestra as originally constituted was made up of five or six continuo players, citarones, harpsichord, harp and organ to accompany the voices, and in between you would have symphonias featuring strings in a texture that would sometimes be doubled in the top line by recorders or cornetti and occasionally the odd trumpet fanfare. There’s very little harmonisation where the instruments play with the voices because that wasn’t part of the style. In using those instruments we are not adopting a spartan and purist attitude for its own sake but recognising that it has an effect on the interpretation. The recitative here is not a Mozartean recitative, but what I call a recitativo cantate. You often have just two instruments, a harpsichord and a cello maybe, while the singer has a different harmonic rhythm. This achieves intensity, but it also allows for flexibility in the accompaniment with give and take as the instruments and the voice take turns to lead. People like Leppard did a magnificent job in bringing this music to the public’s attention: they were great advocates, but the style they adopted, beautiful as it was, was very different from what was originally intended.”

Scholarly as all this is, it should not be allowed to hide the fact that La Calisto was always a work in which spectacle was part of the appeal, and that aspect will certainly be present in the Covent Garden staging. Furthermore, the story-line, involving gods and mortals and sexual confusion (the latter not excluding cross-dressing when Giove transforms himself into Diana), is such that David Alden has described the opera as a riotous sex-comedy. Nevertheless, the absurdity of the situations in which the characters find themselves does not exclude depth of emotional feeling, however ironic our own viewpoint as observers. “Like an oil and vinegar mix, the sincerity has to be there as well as the comedy and each puts the other into sharper relief.”

Every comment that Ivor makes reveals how much he loves La Calisto and its composer (“I hope it whets an appetite for people”) and he is equally enthusiastic about his cast (“good people and very hard-working”). In particular, he is looking forward to working with Monica Bacelli and is surprised to learn that this is only her second appearance at Covent Garden. (She last appeared at Covent Garden as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro in 1994.) “She is a supreme artist and masterly in this style and much loved at La Scala and in Salzburg and throughout Europe, She is, indeed, one of my most beloved artists having worked with her in Florence and elsewhere, and I’m very honoured to serve her in La Calisto.”

  • The opening night of La Calisto is Tuesday 23 September 2008 at 7.30 and runs until Friday 10 October
  • The performance on Saturday 27 September is at 12 noon
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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