Never The Same Twice: Fabio Luisi and Aida [The Royal Opera’s Aida – 11 March-15 April 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to Fabio Luisi who conducts the first eight performances of Covent Garden’s revival of David McVicar’s production of Aida…

Fabio Luisi. ©Balu

This month sees the Italian conductor Fabio Luisi making his debut with The Royal Opera, Covent Garden. He has been asked before but his schedule prevented him from accepting. He has become a world-traveller making regular trips to Japan and to America and visiting many European concert halls and opera houses. Fabio Luisi is Chief Conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (appointed in 2005, his contract has been extended to 2013) and has recently been appointed Principal Guest Conductor at the Met in New York. In addition he is Artistic director of the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo and in 2012 he becomes Music Director of Zurich Opera. This time Fabio was determined to accept Royal Opera’s invitation. “I was unhappy to say ‘no’ because Covent Garden is Covent Garden. It’s not only one of the most important opera houses but the orchestra is outstanding. So when this possibility came up I told myself ‘Now I have to go because who knows if in the next year or so I will be free to do it’. For me to be here is a great opportunity.”

Fabio Luisi was born in Genoa in 1959 and discovered his instinct for music when four. “At that age you can’t decide for yourself so it was my parents who decided that I should have piano lessons and that proved to be a very good move: I liked it from the very first moment.” It seems reasonable to think that such a decision was particularly relevant because Fabio’s father had played saxophone in a jazz band and could read music.

Although Fabio’s piano studies led to him obtaining a diploma at the age of nineteen from a local conservatory, his plans were to be transformed. “Initially conducting was only a very remote possibility and one which I didn’t take seriously. But then at the age of seventeen or eighteen I started working with singers as an accompanist, first of all coaching young singers and then coming into contact with some more notable ones. That was very interesting and, while I still felt that the piano was wonderful and wanted to continue it, I became aware also of its limitations. In contrast the orchestra provides so many more possibilities, be it in opera or in the concert hall; there’s the chance to work on the sound of the different instruments and to do so with a huge repertoire. I wanted to be part of that and after continuing to coach singers for a couple of years I told myself that I had to make a decision – and that is how I came to study conducting.”

The significant figure at this point in Fabio’s career was the Croatian conductor Milan Horvat (born 1919). “He was working in Genoa and I was fascinated by him, so after a performance I asked if he taught anywhere and he told me that he had a class at the Academy in Graz. So that was where I went, and he is the only one with whom I have studied.” That experience followed by four years as a répétiteur at the opera house in Graz confirmed that Fabio would seek a career in conducting and he now encountered conductors whose work was significant for him. “There were many who had something from which I felt that I needed to learn, and among them were Bernstein, Karajan and Celibidache. Bernstein I admired for his energy and for being constantly in the music. With Karajan it was his mind that appealed: his was a very, very clear and intellectual kind of conducting. As for Celibidache, he paid such attention to the sound of the orchestra and showed how important it could be to play slowly in order to bring out things that normally we don’t hear.”

Fabio Luisi. ©Barbara Luisi

Fabio’s first performances in America came in 2000 when he conducted the New York Philharmonic and went to the Lyric Opera in Chicago for Rigoletto. That fact emphasises his interest in both opera and in the symphonic repertoire but the balance between the two has varied considerably. “I began as an opera conductor because everybody thinks of an Italian conductor as one who conducts opera. I was very blessed because people came to me and gave me a lot of work. In Munich I did Il Barbiere di Siviglia, in Vienna Tosca and in Berlin Le nozze di Figaro. At that time I had 80-percent opera and 20-percent concert work. But the opera appearances were all as a guest conductor and prior to 2007 when my position with Staatskapelle Dresden and Sächsische Staatsoper came up I functioned as a music director or chief conductor only in symphony orchestras – which was very good for me because I could learn the repertoire. Next year the division will probably be even and from 2012 or 2013 it looks as though opera will be taking up to 70-percent. I’m very lucky because I can choose how, where and with whom I will work. Consequently I will try only to do things that really interest me and in good opera houses and with whatever fine orchestras may invite me.”

When it comes down to what music interests him, Fabio has made a point of embracing less-familiar repertoire. “I am musically curious and like to explore: what I don’t know, I want to know. Sometimes I discover that something is not my thing, but at other times it very definitely is. The symphonies of Franz Schmidt were a case in point.” Fabio has not only recorded them but has conducted the Fourth (and last) Symphony several times, not only during his recent debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra but in San Francisco and at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. His debut with the New York Philharmonic included Honegger’s Fifth Symphony. In Japan promoters seem unduly wary of anything that is not tried and tested – Fabio tells me that with Beethoven it’s always the Seventh Symphony that they want; with Brahms it could be the First or Fourth or just occasionally the Second, but never the Third! Despite this he believes that the younger generation in Japan are more interested in culture than are young people in the west. “For my generation it was important to go to the theatre, to the concert and the opera, to read books and to have a knowledge of classical culture, but in Italy, Germany and Austria today the schools and the family no longer explain to young people that there are many different levels within what entertains; in Japan it is much better.”

And so to current matters. When Fabio Luisi begins Aidain the Royal Opera House for the first time, his immediate task will not be without its hazards for the Prelude to Act One begins quietly and continues in that vein. “It is far easier to begin Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony: two loud chords to catch the attention. Verdi’s music is much more refined and, beginning pianissimo, you have to draw the audience in. That is what Verdi does, and I simply have to trust the composer. The Prelude has neither force nor violence but it is dramatic in another way since it is music that begins inside of you and then comes out little by little.”

This particular production by David McVicar concentrates on the dark side of an opera which has sometimes been staged as a lavish spectacle. The story, however, is of two lovers, Aida and Radames, who are entombed and die together as the climax to a narrative in which the individual is subjected to the power of the state. Furthermore, that state enforces an ancient religion that is devoid of any human compassion. Consequently McVicar’s approach seems amply justified although it may take some people by surprise, not least when the ‘Triumphal Scene’ is reconceived as a comment on the cost and suffering of war. I wonder to what extent what we hear from the pit is coloured by the director’s concept. “There are always many possible ways to tell a story and perhaps the most interesting aspect of my job is to make theatre. My responsibility is to be aware of the possibilities so that, while my first priority is to respect the score, I have to make the music fit in with the stage. This is indeed a very hard and a very dark production and that extends to the way in which the dances are presented. You need to have a correspondence in the pit so my treatment of the dances will not be at all perfumed because that would not be right. I think that Verdi would have thought the same way.”

Talk of masterpieces being open to different readings leads Fabio to comment in wider terms. “There is never only one way a work could go and it depends on the singers too. Every singer needs something different: every singer has his or her own way of telling the story through their singing and you have to respect that. Therein lies the beauty of it. They give so much in their various ways and I have to take that and make it part of what I am doing, but each time it is different. That applies in the concert hall too: if my ideas were to lead to an outstanding performance of a work and you could hear it under my baton played by both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Dresden Staatskapelle each would sound completely different because they don’t play in the same way. I don’t find any contradiction in that because music lives in the moment when you are performing – it’s not something that’s steady and the same for all time. I’m very happy about that because otherwise I would conduct Aida once in my life and never again. If I knew it was always going to be the same it would not be interesting.”

Fabio believes that Aida is a great work but also one that is often misunderstood. “It’s a mistake to think of it as a huge spectacle with elephants and horses and so on. It’s really a chamber opera in the sense that the focus is on the relationships. It’s in the intimate moments that Verdi is so very, very strong but the pace needs to be kept going and the danger in this opera is that the big scenes can result in a performance which is heavy and slow. I find David McVicar’s approach very helpful in all these respects.” Although the opera’s setting is Ancient Egypt, this production serves to remind us of regimes of terror and dictatorship in any period of time, so might this encourage an audience today to think of recent events in Egypt and of the current situation in Libya? “History repeats itself and if this piece should make an audience think of the present conditions in those countries then that is fine. But I would hate to see it taken further with somebody putting Mr Gaddafi [into the performance]. But if there is a sub-conscious connection, why not?”

To conclude I mention a parallel: giving over the whole of the opera’s final scene to the lovers in the tomb with slow music throughout seems to invite comparison with Tchaikovsky’s daring in ending his ‘Pathétique’ Symphony with an Adagio, Tchaikovsky’s work ending in tragedy, but Fabio has his own ideas as to that and is eager to compare the two pieces in order to define what differentiates them as well as what unites them. “They are different, yet they are also alike. The difference is that Tchaikovsky’s last movement is like a resumé of life, the light at the end of it. In it you sense somebody finding equilibrium after all the fighting and struggling, finding their own peace and being at peace with everything. It’s a very, very deep thought born of trying to understand and finding your way for yourself. Verdi is similar to the extent that the music at the end for Aida and Radames is positive. It’s in the major tonality and that’s a sign that they have found something. But it’s not as in the Tchaikovsky a consequence of philosophical thought but something born of Radames being condemned. He makes no choice. The situation is one into which they are forced, so that’s the difference. Yet there’s something alike in the fact that peace is found at the end of both works. In Aida it’s very interesting that it is at the beginning of the final scene that the lovers cry, but at its end their love has enabled them to find peace. Each work concludes in its own kind of peace.”

  • Aida – Eleven performances at (mostly) 7.30 p.m. from Friday 11 March to Friday 15 April 2011
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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