Opening Doors: Thomas Hengelbrock [The Royal Opera’s Così fan tutte (10-24 September 2010) and Niobe Regina di Tebe (23 September-3 October 2010)]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the German conductor making two appearances at Covent Garden as the new season opens…


Thomas Hengelbrock. Photograph: Karl Forster

When Agostino Steffani’s rarely heard opera Niobe, Regina di Tebe, was performed at the Schwetzingen Festival in 2008, one of those in the audience was The Royal Opera’s Director of Casting Peter Katona. He had previously seen Thomas Hengelbrock conduct in Paris and it was his enthusiasm both for the opera and for the conductor that would lead to an invitation to present the work at Covent Garden where it opens on 23 September. Hardly less striking is the fact that, although Hengelbrock has not been at Covent Garden before, he was asked to conduct not only this work but the latest revival of Jonathan Miller’s much-admired production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte which starts off the season on 10 September (and may well be available live on a cinema-screen near you even if you should happen to be out of the country – check details on the ROH website). For a newcomer to be invited to conduct two operas is highly unusual and must surely be interpreted as a mark of respect for a musician who has built up a considerable reputation in Europe. Further evidence of how highly Thomas Hengelbrock is regarded is evidenced by his being contracted to Bayreuth next year to conduct Tannhäuser.

Given the fact that Thomas is a violinist as well as a conductor and someone devoted to scholarly research into music, one might assume that he was born into a musical family. However, he tells me that this was not the case. Both of his parents were teachers, his mother being a theologian and his father a professor with a particular interest in philosophy. “Music was not a very important thing in our family”, but even so there was enough interest in it for his mother to bring home recordings by Bach. “My mother tells me that as a little boy I would sing along with those recordings. My first experience of music was that whenever I heard Bach I had the feeling that I knew it and I could sing it immediately. I don’t know where that came from, but it seems to have been instinctive.”

If that can now be seen as a significant pointer to Thomas’s future, two subsequent events would prove even more crucial. The first came in his home town of Wilhelmshaven when he was about ten years old. “I happened to attend a concert there for which I got a seat in the middle of the front row. What I heard was Mozart’s A major Violin Concerto [K219] played by the wonderful Russian violinist Ricardo Odnoposoff [1914-2004, born in Buenos Aries to Russian parents]. It made such a deep impression that I came home and told my parents that I definitely wanted to play the fiddle, that I didn’t want anything else in life other than to be able to play this music. From that first moment I was fanatical about it and secretly, without telling my parents, I took an exam and got a place in a music school. To go there I left the school I had been attending and after four years of studying the violin I took my examination at the age of nineteen. My family had to accept all this, worried as they were. Today, being the father of two sons, I recognise what it means for parents to accept a son leaving home at fifteen and breaking off his schooling because he was absolutely sure that he wanted to be a musician. So I’m very grateful to my parents that they did accept it and let me go.”

Thomas Hengelbrock. Photograph: Bertold Fabricius

Indeed, Thomas’s initial career in the orchestra pit found him playing in ensembles such as Concentus Musicus Wien and Freiburger Barockorchester which he co-founded in 1985. That conducting would become central was not something that he ever anticipated. The possibility did not register until that second significant moment came along. “It was all due to Antal Doráti. The occasion was the first rehearsal for Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. He was to conduct and I was the concertmaster of the orchestra. It so happened that he was late in arriving and the orchestra suggested that we start without him, so I stood up and went ahead. Apparently Antál arrived some ten minutes later to find the orchestra rehearsing and, without our knowing it, he chose to go up to the balcony and listen to the full three hours of rehearsal. Afterwards he came down, introduced himself and asked to speak to me. What he said was: ‘You were definitely doing a great job and you should become a conductor’. I said, ‘No, I love the violin: I don’t want to be a conductor’. However, he asked me to work with him as his assistant and consequently I would visit him a lot in Switzerland near Berne. I must say that he was an incredible and touching man with an impressive personality and strongly philosophical. So he made me think about things, although it took me years to accept that I should do less on the violin.”

Although his work as a conductor is now central, Thomas’s approach to it continues to be influenced by his experiences as a player and, indeed, there is no question of him ceasing to pick up the violin. “Even in recent times I try to lead from the violin whenever that is possible, even in opera. You don’t need to conduct everything, and I think that when you know your musicians it’s great to give them responsibility for the music. Having played with hundreds of conductors as a concertmaster, I think it’s very important for the players to listen to each other – even more important I would say than to watch the conductor. Similarly I try to give the singers responsibility, as now with Così fan tutte. They are responsible for their parts, for the tempo; but they have to give us clear ideas so that the orchestra can follow them. You empower the singers and players in this way but as the conductor you also set the rules of play. That’s part of my job, I think, and if you make music from four centuries it’s necessary to get the piece properly established in its own style, its own sound. So, having got everybody to contribute, the conductor’s responsibility is to bring all the opinions about a piece together so that they become one opinion, by which I mean that he has to ensure that it all coheres.” These comments bring out the conductor’s need to supervise but Thomas Hengelbrock never sounds like one of those conductors who are autocratic since his methods avoid being dictatorial. “That’s what people say, that I’m not a dictatorial fellow.”

As regards Thomas’s repertoire some may be surprised that he should be noted for his work with contemporary composers and for his interest in a wide range of music-theatre while also frequently favouring ‘period’-instruments and being a noted exponent of early music. Asked about this dichotomy he expresses his distaste for pigeonholing. “I’m just a music junkie, and I’m so grateful that I’m touched by so many different things in music.” Contributing to this is the fact that when he hears something new he immediately wants to understand it, to explore it. This attitude is reflected in Thomas’s comments when he looks back on his early days and speaks of encountering music that spoke to him be it new or old. He mentions the benefit of coming across Heinz Holliger and Luigi Nono during his time at the music high-school in Freiburg. “With all the political inflections that his music has, Nono in particular had a big influence on me.” But it was no different when Thomas found himself able to respond for the first time to early music and to ‘authentic’ music practice. “To be honest I hated all that as a teenager but then I heard a Dutch amateur orchestra that had been prepared by a member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and that opened my eyes and ears. It was so touching and immediate that I said to myself: ‘Okay, now I have to study and discover this music’. That became the starting-point for me when I was in my early twenties and realised how beautiful this music could be.” It led to Thomas playing with all the major European names including Frans Brüggen, Bob van Asperen, Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

The Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble which Thomas founded in 1995 and which plays at Covent Garden for Niobe covers everything from the Baroque repertoire to contemporary pieces. Even so, I wonder if when it comes to an opera like Così fan tutte Thomas’s close connection with period performances means that having the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House for this piece would not be his preference. “I work with modern orchestras a lot, you know – I’ve just come from conducting the Munich Philharmonic in The Creation and they did a wonderful job. I think the most important thing is the musicians themselves, musicians who really appreciate what they are doing. You have to do it with love and enthusiasm and when that’s the case whatever the type of orchestra people will buy it. My Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble plays on a range of instruments and for me that’s a luxury, but when I am on tour with other orchestras they play with their own instruments.” That’s not quite the whole story, however, since Thomas, speaking ahead of orchestral rehearsals, tells me that a number of ‘period’ instruments such as trumpets and horns have been offered to him for this Così.

Charles Castronovo as Ferrando, Troy Cook as Guglielmo, Sally Matthews as Fiordiligi & Nino Surguladze as Dorabella (Così fan tutte, Royal Opera, January 2010). Photograph: Richard H Smith

Mozart has featured strongly for Thomas – he has conducted most of the operas and directed at least two of them – so how does this composer match up to his declared love for Johann Sebastian Bach? “In music-theatre Mozart is unique: such a genius. The music is so striking, so touching, especially those moments when it feels as though the world has come to a stop.” And where does Thomas stand regarding the meaning of Così and the belief of many that the real story is of how Fiordiligi and Ferrando discover true love but ignore it because society expects them to remain faithful to those to whom they are already betrothed? “The interesting thing is that each time I look at the score I change my mind”. He laughs when he says this, but at once elaborates his feelings. “The piece is so deep and I think that when you have a big masterpiece you are able to get all kinds of different things out of it. There’s not just one opinion.” The argument that the truth about Fiordiligi and Ferrando is revealed by the intensity of their music is challenged by his remark that as part of established 18th-century practice you expect the prime couple to be more serious than the ‘mezzo’ figures of Guglielmo and Dorabella, while Despina’s role is that of the comedienne. But Thomas does acknowledge that at the close, Mozart, not the only composer to do so, achieves poignancy even stronger than you would get from a minor key. “He writes a pure piano C major which is so sad. I like very much the ending as Jonathan Miller stages it. It’s an open ending and a new starting-point. The characters have to face the reality of how things are and, then, after taking aboard what they have experienced, they can start again, but that’s another story.”

Thomas is relishing his collaboration with Miller and together they are finding new details to consider. “In the past certain passages have been done in strict tempo but, if you look very, very carefully at the score, this doesn’t need to be so, and the extra freedom at such moments is something that Jonathan is taking up with pleasure.” But, however great Thomas’s delight in doing this Così, it is inevitably the staging of Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe which is especially meaningful for him. That’s because he himself was responsible for setting up the staging at Schwetzingen in 2008 and, indeed, it is his edition of the score that is being used. “It’s a fantastic piece, a great tragic opera which I like very much. Having travelled round Europe, I have a large library of manuscripts. You come across musicologists who know about pieces like this and you find sources contemporary with the works that confirm their success. So I looked into the music of this Italian composer who wrote many operas of which fifteen survive. There are other beautiful ones but I chose Niobe which has wonderful duets, a touching lament and a remarkable role for a male soprano. That character is Niobe’s husband Anfione and it must be one of the most difficult roles ever written for a male soprano. The singer for whom it was composed was the German equivalent of Farinelli and it is my belief that unless you cast a female singer in the role – someone like Cecilia Bartoli – then the only person capable of singing it today is Jacek Laszczkowski who will, of course, repeat his performance here.”

By chance Maria Bengtsson who sings Fiordiligi in Così took the role of Niobe in the 2008 staging, but at Covent Garden the role will be performed by Véronique Gens. This presentation, again directed by Lukas Hemleb, is based on that at Schwetzingen and Thomas hopes to keep the best of that while also enhancing it. “There we had a very small theatre and this is a big piece so I am very, very optimistic that it will work well in Covent Garden.” The opera dates from 1688 and is one of those ancient dramas involving conflict between gods and humans but the aim here is to create something that is its own world and timeless. In keeping with his attitude on other matters, Thomas has no preferences when it comes to staging a work in its own period, in modern dress or in a mode outside of time. All that matters to him is that the director should be doing things that truly relate to the material. “Lukas is a very intelligent régisseur and someone who has a deep understanding of things. As regards the sets and the lighting, these are by Raimund Bauer who is a great artist and one of the best in the world in that sphere. So I think that this is a wonderful production and the piece itself is truly worthy of being rediscovered.”

For those seeing Niobe for the first time, has Thomas any observations to make? “Many opera lovers know the works of Monteverdi up to this last, Poppea, written in 1642. But from then until the first Handel operas reached the stage around 1708 there is this huge gap with no works at all being known to most opera-goers. I think that Steffani is the connection between the two with recitatives that echo the way that Monteverdi and Cavalli wrote theirs but with arias which for the first time point towards the big arias of Handel. I hope that those who attend it will love this production, but I hope most of all that they come out saying that they love the music. There’s so much music from the past still waiting to be discovered, and that’s how it is with life too: we discover so few things about life. If we can only open the eyes and the minds of people then we open another door, and since I love Niobe I just hope that I can convey my love of it to the English public.”


  • Così fan tutte – Seven performances at 7.00 p.m. from Friday 10 September to Friday 24 September 2010 (3 p.m. on Sunday the 19th)
  • Niobe, Regina di Tebe – Six performances at 6.30 p.m. from Thursday 23 September to Sunday 3 October (the final performance beginning at 3 p.m.)
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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