Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Falling in love with Wolf-Ferrari - an encounter with Friedrich Haider

Wolf-Ferrari's I gioielli della Madonna in Bratislava
Wolf-Ferrari's I gioielli della Madonna in Bratislava
Bratislava in Slovakia might seem an unlikely place to come across the opera I gioielli della Madonna (The Jewels of the Madonna) a 1911 rarity written by the Italian/German Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, a composer best known for his one-act opera Il segreto di Susanna (Susanna’s Secret) and his comedies based on Goldoni. But the Slovak National Theatre (SND), based in Bratislava, has as its Music Director and Opera Director the Austrian conductor Friedrich Haider who has spent the last 12 years exploring, conducting and recording Wolf-Ferrari’s music, and the opera company there has the sort of large permanent ensemble which is necessary to bring off I gioielli della Madonna, an opera with around two dozen named roles.

Friedrich Haider
Friedrich Haider
I was in Bratislava to attend the premiere of SND’s I gioielli della Madonna (see my review) and interviewed Friedrich Haider in his office in SND’s modern offices in their new building. Performances of opera are split between the old building (built in 1886 and last renovated in the 1970's) and the new one (designed originally in the 1980's but not completed until 2006), which is shared with the ballet company. The drama theatre uses another auditorium in the same new building and there is also a studio theatre.

In person, Friedrich Haider is lively and affable, eager to communicate his love for the music of Wolf-Ferrari and full of questions, so that our interview was very much a dialogue and we concluded with a discussion of initiatives in the UK to attract younger audiences, something that interests him keenly.

We started with Wolf-Ferrari, a composer about whom Friedrich feels very strongly. He first came across Wolf-Ferrari's work in 2002. In London for a recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, he found a score of Wolf-Ferrari's opera Il segreto di Susanna (Susanna's Secret) in a second hand book-shop. Reading the score through for the hour until the shop closed, he fell in love with the work and bought the score. A performance on the radio in Munich followed, with baritone Renato Bruson, and subsequently Friedrich made a recording live recording with the Oviedo Filarmonia. After this first big step with Wolf-Ferrari, he looked at all the composer’s scores that he could find, and was not disappointed. Friedrich regards over 70% of Wolf-Ferrari's music to be good, and certainly above average for many of the composers being discovered today. Wolf-Ferrari was of mixed Italian and German heritage and trained in Munich. Though he loved Wagner's work he was against both Wagnerism and Verismo in his own operatic style. His first comedy Le donne curiose (1903) demonstrated his lighter touch, and made him an overnight success; Mahler heard it and conducted it in Vienna. Though Wolf-Ferrari would write 9 comedies, I gioielli della Madonna which SND is performing, is very different in style, being darker, eclectic and more dramatic (and is often erroneously regarded as an essay in Verismo). Friedrich feels that you must know it to truly appreciate it, but that the work has everything that an Italian opera needs.


The plot is, on the surface, quite simple: two men Gennaro and Rafaele compete for the same woman, Maliella, and Gennaro steals the jewels of the Madonna to get her, with tragic results. Friedrich sees the musical style of the piece arising because the plot demands it. It is the only work in which Wolf-Ferrari demonstrates that he can be a modernist, with passages at the end of Act 3 which blast tonality with a sequence of chords which you can no longer analyse. There are four bars which Friedrich calls futuristic and remind him of Shostakovich, demonstrating that Wolf-Ferrari had post-Romantic harmony at his finger tips.

SND's new building in Bratislava
SND's new building in Bratislava
Friedrich does not see Wolf-Ferrari's eclectic style as conscious, but rather it reflected the way the composer felt about the needs of the plot. He quotes Wolf-Ferrari as saying that when you write in D major it is important that it is a new D major, and he goes on to point out that Wagner followed the harmonic complexity and daring of Tristan und Isolde with the opening of Die Mestersinger which is in C major, which Friedrich calls a C major which has never been heard before.

Friedrich, isn’t interested in the particular style of a piece, for him if a work is good or not is expressed by the work itself and not its style, and he emphasises that he does not believe in the linear development of music, pointing to Richard Strauss's development after the daring of Elektra. Also a pianist, Friedrich goes on to comment that having played many of Richard Strauss's songs he has realised that the C major which Richard Strauss writes at the beginning of his career is very different to the C major at the end.

I gioielli della Madonna can seem just a common criminal story But Friedrich finds a deep psychological meaning in the work which makes it more rewarding to interpret. The society depicted in the piece is very much of the South, with a strong connection to religion and a cult of the Madonna which he calls much more than religion, being positively existential. The whole piece rooted in this society and for a production to work it needs to have Southern Italy (or perhaps Southern Spain) as its setting. For the people in this area, Gennaro's stealing of the jewels from the statue of the Madonna is the most terrible thing that he could do.

Auditorium of SND's historic building in Bratislava
Auditorium of SND's historic building in Bratislava
Friedrich is also keen to explore Wolf-Ferrari’s links with analytical psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) whom he met in Vienna, citing the way Gennaro’s obsessions with his mother, the Madonna and with his step-sister Maliella link to Jung’s woman/Madonna/mother archetypes. He also points out the way Wolf-Ferrari characterises Rafaele and the Camorra with jolly music (including a waltz) rather than solemn, dangerous music. It shows they are like you and me, and not always dangerous.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the way Friedrich links the jewels of the Madonna to Rafaele’s attitude to Maliella. She is his Madonna, and when she loses her virginity (her Jewels) he is no longer interested.

During the rehearsal process they realised that the piece was still relevant as papers were full of an event when in Southern Italy a procession of the Madonna stopped and made a bow outside the house of a Mafia boss who was under house arrest.

Wolf-Ferrari's opera buffa works can be difficult to perform because of the transparency of their orchestration, but Friedrich sees the difficulties of performing I gioielli della Madonna arise because of the work's complexity, both in terms of harmony and instrumentation. It is not simply written and for a conductor it is not easy to manage. (I suspect that this and the large number of small solos are perhaps also behind the work's absence from the opera stage).

Wolf-Ferrari's I gioielli della Madonna - SND - Bratislava
Wolf-Ferrari's I gioielli della Madonna - SND - Bratislava
The large chorus and number of soloists make the work logistically difficult to stage though Friedrich has benefited from the big SND ensemble and the strong choral scene in Bratislava, thus making it easy to cast the many smaller roles with quite a few being sung by members of the choir. The response to the work of all the performers has been consistently enthusiastic and there was a lot of positive energy in rehearsals. Rather intriguingly not only are Wolf-Ferrari and Friedrich of mixed Italian and German heritage, but so is the stage director of the production Manfred Schweigkofler.

Friedrich has recorded a number of Wolf-Ferrari's works, including the violin concerto which Wolf-Ferrari wrote in 1943 for the young violinist Giulia Bustabo with whom he had fallen in love. When planning the recording, the young violinist Benjamin Schmidt agreed to look at the score (it was a work he did not know), but after reading the score through Schmidt was highly enthusiastic. And the press were equal in their enthusiasm for the work, when the recording was released. Friedrich feels a strong connection with Wolf-Ferrari, and regards such success as not so much his as for the composer.

Other recordings planned include a setting of a Biblical story, Talitha Kumi (a sacred mystery for tenor, baritone, choir and orchestra), all the overtures and intermezzos, an early serenade and the late missa brevis. They will also be recording the performances of I gioielli della Madonna and are currently seeking a record company.

I gioielli della Madonna is being performed in SND's new building, which Friedrich regards as being acoustically too dry, but it has excellent technical facilities. SND is a substantial organisation with 950 employees and they do 150 operas per year (reduced from 170 by Friedrich in order to facilitate more rehearsal time), along with ballet and drama.

There has been a 20% increase in ticket sales since he took over, and Friedrich comments that though they are never totally happy and always find something to improve, their work is there to be judged by critics and people and this increase shows that people appreciate the work. Friedrich has also tried to have a fresh, more modernist approach in the stage direction, though he admits that the production of I gioielli della Madonna is perhaps conservative.

Peter Konwitschny's production of La Boheme - SND - Bratislava
Peter Konwitschny's production of La Boheme
SND - Bratislava
Regarding modernist direction, Friedrich takes a pragmatic approach commenting that he does not want stupid things, but some modern direction can be good and he cites as an example the Peter Konwitschny production of La Boheme which the company premiered in January 2014. But an audience must want to see a production, and there is the cost to consider, but Friedrich wants productions in a style which will speak to the audience of today.

He regards direction in Germany today as being in something of a corner. Directors need to remember that an audience is coming to the work and it should be appreciated by them, and understood by them and for Friedrich too many directors forget this. As with most other opera companies he is concerned with the number of young people coming to see productions, and is pleased that their numbers in Bratislava have increased, pointing out that this is not the case in many companies in Italy and in Germany. SND is doing more young people's productions and these have been received fantastically.

Up until now Friedrich Haider has been both Music Director and Opera Director, but he is stepping down as Opera Director feeling that combining the two roles is too tiring and he wants to devote his energy to the music but will feel that he can still comment. He also wants to continue his campaign to attract young people, taking it out of the opera house and go to universities and schools to speak about music and opera. He points out that though when you talk to them people are interested, they need to know about opera first, to know that it exists and what it is about.

Though we come to the end of our allotted time, our discussions continue as Friedrich Haider escorts me out of his office, still full of alert energy despite being interviewed by a series of journalists and highly interested in what is going on in musical and operatic life in the UK.

This article also appears in OperaToday.com
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