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Sharing Britten’s Dream: Rory Macdonald

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Rory Macdonald, preparing A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Linbury Studio Theatre at Covent Garden, discusses his career and Britten’s operas…

Rory Macdonald. ©Marco Borggreve

When Rory Macdonald was growing up in Glasgow music was at the heart of things. He comes from a musical family and started to play the violin at the age of six and the piano a few years later. Although his violin-playing would take him into the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, he recalls how at school he had played both instruments to a similar standard. “To the annoyance of my teachers it used to go in phases as I found myself enjoying first one in preference and then the other. It really depended on what I was being asked to play so on occasion my piano teacher would get one up on my violin teacher by giving me a piece that I would really like.”

With this background it could not readily be foreseen that Rory would become a conductor. “I suppose I kind of fell into it by accident”, he says, but his memories of his teenage years suggest that the direction of his career was not really down to chance. “I spent three years as a member of the National Youth Orchestra and the amazing thing about that orchestra is that it gives you the chance to work with really top-notch conductors – everyone from Colin Davis to John Eliot Gardiner, from Rostropovich to Norrington. Sitting there it was always fascinating to think about what it was that these very different conductors did to make the orchestra sound better. Previously I had played with some good orchestras in Glasgow, but there I was with 150 kids from right across the country and I’ll never forget the sound of that first rehearsal. I believe it was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet with Yan Pascal Tortelier and just the weight of the string sound was something I’d never experienced before.

“But then one discovered too how things would improve over ten days of intensive rehearsals and that started to get me interested in conducting. On those NYO courses I had friends who used to compose – in fact I did too, just a bit – and we would have informal concerts of those compositions and I ended up conducting a number of them. Later, when studying music at Cambridge, I conducted quite a lot and by then I had realised two things. One was that I didn’t have any strong preference between the violin and the piano and the other was that, despite practising hard when I was younger, the idea of perfecting one’s technique didn’t inspire me to the extent that it did those friends who loved the violin for its own sake. I was more interested musically in the larger shape of things. Even so, I don’t ever want to find myself in a situation where I don’t play at all – at times you really feel the need just to sit quietly in a room and play something through.”

If fate played a role in shaping Rory’s future, it lay in the fact that another conductor encountered in his days with the NYO was Iván Fischer. He knew enough about Rory’s interest in conducting to point out that at some future date he might want to apply for the scheme that Fischer was running in Budapest for young conductors. “After Cambridge I wanted a change from an academic environment so one of the e-mails I sent off when wondering what to do next was to Budapest. I auditioned and was accepted for a year but ended up staying for two. Looking back it seems like a brave step to have taken – many sectional rehearsals were involved and I started off in English and then in pigeon Hungarian – but at the time I just did it. When you come out of University you feel in some funny way ready to take on almost anything.”

If Rory was to learn much from Fischer, comparable benefits were to come from his period at Covent Garden between 2004 and 2006 when he was in The Royal Opera’s Young Artists Programme (“it was the chance to work with Pappano that made me want to apply”). Rory is equally helpful is his present post as Assistant Conductor of The Hallé (in Manchester), for it means that he works closely with Mark Elder. He paints quick portraits of these three conductors who are the ones who have meant the most to him. “Fischer is able to characterise music through detail and strong colours and he conducts with bravura – he’s typically Hungarian in certain ways, a larger than life figure. In many respects Mark Elder is the polar opposite. Just from the physical point of view he doesn’t seem to do very much – and that’s how he likes it: he’s talked to me a lot about Reginald Goodall and is greatly influenced by his style. He gives space and depth to music in a wonderful way – you sense that space yet he always maintains the flow. As for Pappano, from him I really learnt how to work better with singers: he’s so fantastic at integrating stage and orchestra, so as to realise the drama to the full. It’s been great to work with these excellent musicians who as personalities are so different.”

Rory has conducted a lot of opera recently but is no less keen on working in the concert-hall and is enthused by his work as music director of the Hallé Youth Orchestra. “The kids are a great mixture. They come every Sunday and seem to enjoy it. If they are really inspired by a piece you can see it in their faces, and their responses are so fresh that it’s great working with them: their commitment is tremendous. The music scene up there gives you hope for the future and the Hallé has a youth choir as well as a youth orchestra, in addition to which they are planning to set up a children’s choir for an even younger age group. That will feed into the youth choir which in turn will feed into the main Hallé choir and that’s terrific.”

For the rest of our time together, I talk to Rory about the revival in the Linbury Studio Theatre of Olivia Fuchs’s justly acclaimed production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By chance it’s part of a run of Britten works for Rory since it follows Owen Wingrave at this same venue and also Albert Herring. “When I considered that prospect a year ago, I thought that I might be sick of Britten by the end of it, but not at all. You pick up on the elements that recur throughout his works and find links. Certain textures in the ‘Dream’ are reminiscent of Wingrave despite the fact that this opera is very much it’s own world – or perhaps I should say ‘worlds’ since there’s more than one. Then again the high legato string line at the start of Act Three reminds me of the Sea Interludes in Peter Grimes.

“But what I’ve enjoyed most in working on this has been the wonderful lyricism and the superb sense of structure. Compared to the interludes in Herring, I find the ‘Dream’ much more cohesive since apart from the wonderful snoring music it features just short little fades between scenes. But the two operas are linked dramatically in that both works offer comedy while also dealing with serious issues. The genius in Herring lies in the way that it is able to veer towards tragedy for a while near to the close. That’s the point at which Britten provides that marvellous Threnody which is, I believe, some of his best music. Just for a while you feel that it could end in tragedy and one of the great things about the ‘Dream’ is that it captures so well the turbulence of human relationships.”

Despite some productions that have chosen to retain the traditional pastoral approach, it has long been recognised that Britten’s operatic treatment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream shares with his Nocturne (for tenor and orchestra) a world of sleep and dreams and psychological complexity, a fact well brought out in this imaginative staging. Rory, however, rejects another oft-formulated and more critical view. “I know that there’s this received opinion that the music for the lovers is rather bland and dull, and it is true that when the four lovers enter and you have this quarrelling you don’t immediately identify with them because you don’t know their background. It can be rather like being irritated if, when travelling on the tube, you come across some couple having an argument. But the thing is that the music for the lovers is very deeply felt, both in the moments of sadness to be found and in the more ecstatic sections that feature. That part of the opera which involves the juice that acts like a love potion contains music that reminds me of comparably ecstatic elements in The Midsummer Marriage although Britten and Tippett are such different composers that you rarely find similarities in their works. Ultimately, the ‘Dream’ is not unlike Così fan tutte in that you feel that the lovers might not pair off in the right way and here it could so easily end in acrimony. But none of the relationships is an easy one – even that between Oberon and Titania is quite fiery.”

As an admirer of the composer’s own recording of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – on Decca – Rory would see it as folly not to take account of Britten’s approach, not least in matters of tempos. But in finding his own take on the music Rory is aware of how interpretations can be affected by the voices involved. Although he mentions his pleasure at working again with Jacques Imbrailo, we talk finally of the role of Bottom portrayed in the original production by Darren Jeffery but this time by Matthew Rose who was acclaimed for his performance of the part in a recent Glyndebourne production. “I did see the original staging here and I remember thinking that Darren was terrific. In Matthew’s case I know that it’s an opera he loves almost more than any other and he absolutely inhabits the role. Our approach is different from the Glyndebourne one though and in rehearsals we have certainly taken the view that Bottom must feel everything genuinely. That even applies to the play within the play in the third act where Bottom as an amateur actor isn’t just clowning around but throwing himself wholeheartedly into the theatricals.

“Playing it so seriously is part of what makes it so funny. In any case the whole question of Bottom’s character is fascinating and it has been suggested that the love scene between Titania and Bottom when he has on the donkey’s head is notable for the sincerity of the music – the suggestion being perhaps that real love is valid whatever the nature of those involved. Bottom the weaver is in some ways a sort of life force in this work but there’s a remarkable mixture in him: on the one hand there’s a masculinity that’s close to being macho but there’s also incredible tenderness as well and that’s very evident in the scenes where he has been transfigured into a donkey. The fact that he’s tender and deeply in love is what makes it so touching.”

  • The opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the Linbury Studio Theatre, is on Monday 28 January 2008 at 7.00 and runs until 11 February; performance on 3 February at 3 p.m. and on 9 February at 2.30 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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