Saturday 30 October 2021

Everything is in the music: conductor Antonello Manacorda on returning to La Traviata at Covent Garden, balancing concert work & opera, & music-making being a journey rather than a single event

Antonello Manacorda (Photo Nikolaj Lund)
Antonello Manacorda (Photo Nikolaj Lund)

The Italian conductor Antonello Manacorda is currently conducting the current revival of Richard Eyre's production of Verdi's La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, with Lisette Oropesa, Kristina Mkhitaryan, and Anush Hovhannisyan sharing the role of Violetta. Based in Berlin, Antonello will be returning to our shores later this year for a concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (23 November 2021), with further orchestral engagements in the UK planned including with a period instrument ensemble. These neatly sum up the various threads in Antonello's career, opera, symphonic concerts and historically informed performance, as he balances a career in the opera house with being the music director of the Kammerakademie Potsdam.

We meet at the Royal Opera House after Antonello has had a long day rehearsing two different casts for La Traviata [which subsequently received strong reviews, see Tim Ashley's review in The Guardian]. He made his Royal Opera debut in the production in 2019 with Ermonela Jaho as Violetta, Charles Castronovo as Alfredo and Placido Domingo as Germont, and they made a DVD of the production [Amazon]. This meant intensive and very meaningful rehearsals, so he feels that he is very in the production. Richard Eyre's production debuted in 1994 and has been revived many, many times but Antonello feels that the only possibility of giving a piece a long life is when it is a masterwork and is directed by a master, as it is here. And in 2019, Richard Eyre came to one of the rehearsals and was happy to see how the house kept faith with his production.

Verdi: La Traviata - Lisette Oropesa in the current revival at the Royal Opera House (Photo Tristram Kenton/ROH)
Verdi: La Traviata - Lisette Oropesa in the current revival at the Royal Opera House (Photo Tristram Kenton/ROH)

With operas that are not masterworks, there might be temptations to find other solutions to the work's problems, but with La Traviata, all that happens is that production adapts to the personalities of the various singers. But Antonello admits that he is quite strict with the singers, ensuring that they stick to Eyre's production as he feels that Eyre got the essence of the opera. Of course, details are different, breathing and such, but the character of Violetta is very important, here she is strong yet broken and fragile, almost schizophrenic. Another aspect of Antonello's direction comes over during our discussions about the current rehearsals, his interest in the score, in what Verdi wrote rather than traditional ways of doing things.

But the personality of the soprano playing Violetta can change any production of La Traviata; whilst a particular singer can bring a lot to the evening, the piece is so strong that it sucks the character of the person and the soprano becomes Violetta Valery, though each in her different way. He adds that the success of any revival starts in the Royal Opera House offices, deciding who to sing the role as they must understand the production and bring it to life, and the same importance applies both to the conductor and the revival director (Pedro Ribeiro for this run). Another thing that comes over from chatting to Antonello about his schedule, is quite how much care, attention and rehearsal time the Royal Opera is giving the revival.

Antonello feels that La Traviata can be wrongly perceived as a bel canto opera and though there are virtuoso, bel canto moments he thinks of opera is very expressionist, with a true story and strong sentiment in the situations so that by the end the work is not bel canto any more. Verdi writes for the text, and though Antonello loves La Traviata he does not see himself as a bel canto specialist as the virtuosity in the opera is there for a reason. In his conducting career, he conducts very little bel canto opera, no Bellini, no Donizetti though some Rossini.

Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail - Christian Nickel, Lisette Oropesa - Wiener Staatsoper (Photo Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)
Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Christian Nickel, Lisette Oropesa - Wiener Staatsoper
(Photo Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)
What he has conducted a lot of is Mozart, a composer whose operas he clearly holds in high regard. He comments that for some reason, opera houses usually asked him to conduct Mozart for his first appearance (the Royal Opera being the exception), perhaps because they think that Mozart's operas are easy. But Antonello sees them as most difficult, yet very much his cup of tea. He has worked on the composer and his music a lot, and he finds that Mozart and Da Ponte wrote for the text, so the text in their collaborations is orchestrated perfectly. Mozart's operas have been a constant in his life, which he sees as very healthy and he finds Mozart's music brings you back to basics. In October 2020, he conducted Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Vienna (a revival of Hans Neuenfels' production) with Lisette Oropesa as Konstanze, a production he returns to in March 2022.

He has also been lucky with some of the masterpieces he has been invited to conduct and cites for example jumping in at short notice for Berlioz' Beatrice et Benedict in Laurent Pelly's production at Glyndebourne in 2016, an opera that you don't get to do a lot. And he now has a relationship with several different houses, which means that he has a say in what he wants to conduct. He also adds, 'I am picky'. He has always avoided Puccini and is now giving himself a challenge and conducting his first Puccini opera, Madama Butterfly in a new production in Frankfurt, and because he has the opera on his schedule he has been asked to conduct it in Brussels and elsewhere. But he has difficulties with Puccini.

Antonello's early career was as a violinist (he did not start conducting until he was 30), and he was concert-master for Claudio Abbado in the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (which he co-founded) and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Abbado was a big influence in Antonello's life, and Abbado did not conduct bel canto and did not conduct Puccini. For Antonello, Puccini does not do text, instead, he presents emotions to the listener, and Antonello finds Madama Butterfly can be quite impressionistic. The planned production in Frankfurt started out with Antonello working with a director whom he loved, but unfortunately, they cancelled though the new one is very interesting. The production will avoid exoticism and be about the people, not the situation. And we both agree that nowadays, Madama Butterfly is not so easy to do, but Antonello feels that it can also be very contemporary, and be psychological rather than about a clash of cultures.

He prefers building a new production because he likes to work with directors. He is interested in the stage, the design, the process and working with a director, Antonello tends to attend all the rehearsals. He is interested in learning a piece and then confronting with the director so that the music is as important as the text.

Conversely, he has never felt constrained by revivals. He conducted a revival of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's venerable production (dating back to the 1970s) of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at Vienna State Opera and whilst the production is rather old-fashioned, he feels that Ponnelle was a genius and captured the spirit of the piece so that it is rather like going into a museum and seeing a masterwork. Nowadays we would not do a production like that, but Ponnelle's production is so well made. And Antonello frankly comments that the only constriction on his performance is if the director is bad, then there will be six weeks of not being able to work together during rehearsals!

Claudio Abbado with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Aix-en-Provence 1998
Claudio Abbado with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Aix-en-Provence 1998 (Photo Mahler Chamber Orchestra)

Another interesting point he makes is that usually, revivals will be of good productions, the reasons why they are revived. And whilst everyone talks about the work during rehearsals, it when you are conducting an opera in the opera house that is the moment when opera happens. He has the privilege of doing that, and he likens it to driving a car; he has dramaturgical power himself, in the moment, he can do things such as lengthening pauses, affecting the flow of the music.

Antonello has such strong views on directing and working with directors that I wondered whether he had ever considered directing opera himself, but that answer is a firm no. You have to be trained as a director, and you learn by doing. Conducting is similar, your first have to learn a lot of things such as musicology, structure, instruments, and then you learn by doing. He feels that he still has so much to learn about conducting that it would be stupid to do anything else, and he will die learning, it is an unfinished process.

Whilst Antonello spent so long as a violinist, friends of his parents say that he wanted to conduct as a child, and he has a book about conductors which an uncle gave him when young, complete with a dedication suggesting that young Antonello would follow in their footsteps, thus suggesting that the idea of being a conductor was there quite early. But conducting came directly out of his career as a concert-master, as he came to hate his instrument finding it to be a limitation with the music. He never felt good enough for his violin, the music in him was limited by his hands. And later on in our conversation, when talking about the recording process, Antonello comments that his was a generation that grew up on recordings created for a CD where total perfection was aimed at, so that in live performance this was never achievable.

Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro - Robert Bartneck, Regula Mühlemann, Andrè Schuen in the revival conducted by Antonello Manacorda at Wiener Staatsoper (Photo Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)
Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro - Robert Bartneck, Regula Mühlemann, Andrè Schuen in the revival conducted by Antonello Manacorda at Wiener Staatsoper (Photo Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)

When he understood about the limitations of his instrument, he jumped into conducting, though many people did not understand as he had good positions as a violinist, but he felt that it was a liberation to get rid of the violin. Now he has no instrument at home, neither violin nor piano, and when he opens a score he simply listens, he does not study the music on an instrument. He does listen to recordings of a work, but only later on in the process. Though he admits that if he has to learn something quickly he might listen to a recording, but he still thinks that this is a bad idea. When listening to a recording, no matter how distinguished the conductor, he finds it is not quite right because his interpretation is different. Though at the end of the learning process it is interesting to listen to recordings and see what others thought.

He does recordings with his orchestras because it is part of the music business, and it is a different way to go deeper into a piece. In concert, the music is alive in the minute whereas in a recording it is alive forever. He admits that this is a bit scary, but it brings a different angle. Fundamentally, though, he feels that recordings are a bad thing and comments that when Cds first came out, everybody recorded everything. A recording can make things perfect, and whilst he was learning the violin it was simply not possible to reproduce this perfection. The perfection of recordings can be dangerous for the audience too, they listen at home to something which seems perfect yet is unachievable live, and this can make people narrow-minded.

Antonello thinks that it is important to do both opera and symphonic music, to run the careers side by side, and he cites the example of the late Bernard Haitink, with whom Antonello did a lot of concert-master work. One of his musical highlights was performing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Haitink. And Antonello quotes Haitink in saying that opera can be amazing, but there are so many factors that can go wrong. Realistically, you can expect it to be amazing just two or three times in your life, and then there is nothing better. When conducting opera, you try to have one of those amazing moments, but symphonic music, with fewer complex factors in the performance, can be somewhat different.

Antonello Manacorda & Kammerakademie Potsdam (Photo Beate Waetzel)
Antonello Manacorda & Kammerakademie Potsdam (Photo Beate Waetzel)

He does not regard himself as specifically an opera conductor, he is a musician and is interested in the music. He has been music director of Kammerakademie Potsdam (KAP) since 2010, and from the first moment that he conducted them, they spoke the same language. He felt that KAP was an orchestra in the same spirit as the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and he was lucky that KAP was looking for a music director.

For Antonello, music-making is a journey rather than a single event. When he works with an orchestra he does not simply do it to do good performances, he wants them to explore together and to leave a better place (when he does leave). He likes to build things, and so rather than being a guest here, there and everywhere he prefers to build relationships with the place and with the people. He is happy to be back at the Royal Opera has and to continue building the relationship here.He has been with KAP for 10 years, though it does not feel like it, more like two years. With KAP, he and the orchestra try to be open-minded and be historically informed about every composer they are playing. Antonello and KAP have made highly regarded recording cycles of complete Schubert symphonies [Amazon] and complete Mendelssohn symphonies [Amazon]. For each composer there is research, work on how did Schubert, for instance, want the symphonies to sound. Going on this journey, trying to understand and to explore, is what interests the orchestra whether the repertoire is early, classical, romantic or modern.

Meiningen Court Orchestra with Hans von Bülow conducting, 1882
Meiningen Court Orchestra with Hans von Bülow conducting, 1882
Antonello was a modern violinist who learned from conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt that every music, every composer has a different, particular sound. Recently Antonello and KAP did a project on the Brahms symphonies, not for performance but simply for the journey. They researched the Meiningen Court Orchestra, with whom Brahms performed the music (and there are photographs of the orchestra from the period), and here the conversation linked to another conductor Antonello admires, Sir Charles Mackerras whose series of recordings of Brahms symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra were highly influential.

Antonello finds doing complete cycles of symphonies both interesting and useful. He and KAP have recently recorded Mozart's final three symphonies [Amazon], and they are currently working on Beethoven. When discussing such symphonic cycles, he uses the analogy of Marcel Proust's great novel-sequence, À la recherche du temps perdu, you can read just a single novel such as Du côté de chez Swann but it is different if you read the whole cycle. And for Antonello, it is the same with Schubert and Mendelssohn, if you perform all the symphonies you see how they relate to each other, you get to know the composer. His Schubert cycle with KAP took five or six years, and he regards having such time as a privilege and a luxury. 

He finds life nowadays often so superficial and fast, at another point in the conversation he admits to being uninterested social media saying he wants listeners not followers. What is precious is time; if anyone asked him what they could give him as a present, the answer would be 'time'. He would love time to travel, relax, read and study; he hates jet lag and would love to have the time to travel by boat! So it is a luxury to be able to take the time to do a composer.

Antonello Manacorda & Kammerakademie Potsdam (Photo Beate Waetzel)
Antonello Manacorda & Kammerakademie Potsdam (Photo Beate Waetzel)

Another maxim that he quotes is 'Better later than early', citing the example of Wagner's Ring Cycle. He has never conducted the Ring and at the moment thinks he may never be able to, but it is better to leave it later than start it too early. He learned this from his first agent who when the younger Antonello was in a hurry to do something would tell him, we have time for that. He learned the wisdom of not trying to do everything now. The other point is that, as a conductor, Antonello is quite young. He is currently 51 and only started conducting when he was 30 and took years out to study conducting properly (with the Finnish pedagogue Jorma Panula). So he describes himself as a young conductor in a middle-aged man's body, adding that he is very glad not to be 25. He still feels the pressure, but his shoulders are broader now; a conductor's job needs so much strength, psychology, knowledge, humanity and diplomacy. A conductor requires a very broad skill set, and it is literally a very heavy job; he comments that he has a physiotherapist in every city that he conducts in. There is a lot of responsibility, to the players and the singers, in performance he is the only person between them and the audience, and he has to help. Here he quotes another important maxim, 'Don't disturb, don't get in the way, just help'. This is what he got from working with Abbado and with Haitink, they were there for the orchestra, to help.

For Antonello, making music and the arts in general are the boldest thing ever, yet you need compromises to make events happen and he tries to avoid as many compromises as possible. When he conducts, he and the orchestra are making music in the moment for someone listening. And Antonello needs someone listening, he found COVID difficult, the idea of performing on-line with no knowledge of the audience or its reaction.

When Antonello started as concert master in the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester) for Claudio Abbado, the young players had senior mentors. Antonello's was a violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic, whom he describes as such a Zen person, calm and balanced, and the man would tell them that the music is just there to help, that everything is inside the music. And he thinks particularly of Haitink when thinking about this, with Haitink the music came out in simplicity with no fuss and no show. Working with Abbado, and with Pierre Boulez was similar. You don't need to pretend, you need to be confident and prepared, to learn a lot, but everything is in the music. He regards himself as a servant. With an opera like La Traviata, his role is to understand what Verdi wanted, and it is his privilege to bring it to life. But whilst you are serving the score, you also need an ego to stand there in front of so many people.

Antonello Manacorda (Photo Nikolaj Lund)
Antonello Manacorda (Photo Nikolaj Lund)

Looking ahead, he has just found the courage to say yes to conducting Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in a new production in 2024, so there is another journey ahead.

Verdi: La Traviata - in repertoire from 27 October to 17 November 2021, see Royal Opera House website.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro Overture, Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3, Brahms: Symphony No. 2 - Jae-Hyuck Cho (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Antonello Manacorda - 23 November 2021, Cadogan Hall, see Royal Philharmonic Orchestra website

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