Interview: Sir Colin Davis
A wide-ranging conversation with a gentleman of the
By Joel Kasow
MILAN - Operanet spoke with Sir Colin Davis, on the morning
after the first La Scala performance of Les Troyens since 1982.
The revival offered a leitmotif for our conversation which continually
returned to Berlioz.
Operanet: How many times have you conducted
Sir Colin Davis: It's difficult
to say, but it must be at least a dozen or more times.
Only a dozen?
CD: I was a very young man when I first
did it with the Chelsea Opera Group, and then later at Covent Garden, and
then I didn't touch it for twenty years. I did it in concert with the
London Symphony Orchestra less than three years ago, but this is the first
time in the theater since I was at Covent Garden. I must say that the
piece is stupendous. It's the most stupendous idea. The music touches me
Operanet: Is there a piece of his
you don't like?
CD: There are things that are not
quite so impressive, but every composer has his schwache stunden.
Operanet: We noticed that you did not
include the scene with Sinon.
CD: I don't know that
piece, and of course it only exists in piano score and was orchestrated by
Hugh MacDonald. Berlioz himself rejected it and therefore I don't think
there's justification to include it. I think the succession of scenes in
La Prise de Troie is so extraordinary, with such drive. The only
obstacle in this production is having to lower the curtain at one point.
And in the second act we had to actually insert a fermata in the
scene with Hector's Ghost because you can't play a tremolo for
Operanet: The layout of the
orchestra in the pit is unusual. Is this your doing?
It was forced upon me - I didn't know anything about it. When they first
did this production they took out two rows of seats to get all the
orchestra and half the chorus into the pit.
Why was half the chorus in the pit anyway?
Mr. Ronconi's production uses all those lifts, he couldn't incorporate the
entire chorus so the solution was that half of them should sit in the pit.
When I came I was told there would be no problem because they would put
the orchestra under the stage. Nobody seems to have considered that if you
keep an orchestra like cattle under a stage, they are not going to like
it, so they of course refused. The seats had already been sold so there we
Operanet: It does wonders for musical
accuracy with the chorus not on stage.
CD: But it does
actually change the sound.
Operanet: The axes of your career, one might say, are
Mozart, Berlioz ...
CD: Tippett, Stravinsky, Wagner,
Brahms, Sibelius ...
Operanet: You're the
CD: Vaughn Williams, come on. We
might leave out Tchaikovsky.
CD: I do, but Tchaikowsky is
overplayed, like Mahler.
you're starting to record the Mahler now.
CD: Only the
things that I really love.
not being forced to do a complete cycle?
going to do that to me. Recently I've been involved in a Brucknerfest
in London. That was a wonderful voyage of discovery. I had done only a
couple of major pieces in Munich, the F minor Mass, the Seventh Symphony,
but I had to learn four new symphonies, which took a long time. I really
enjoyed discovering those pieces.
Are you glad to be back in London, with the London Symphony Orchestra?
CD: There's a great satisfaction in coming full
circle. When I left London I was spoiled. I had had three major jobs and
it was time to go.
Operanet: Is there
anything you still haven't done that you'd like to get your hands on?
You've done all the Wagner operas I think.
CD: All but
one, Parsifal, which I'm learning for the new recording.
Operanet: Are you then going to start recording
all the other works?
CD: I doubt it, considering the
financial state of the record companies.
You must be a happy man, with two record companies employing your services
- is there any division between Philips and BMG as to which of them
CD: No, if one doesn't want to record
something the other one can.
You've just rerecorded the Berlioz Roméo et Juliette ...
CD: With the Vienna Philharmonic.
Are they a good Berlioz orchestra?
CD: Well, they're a
good orchestra, like La Scala.
long a rehearsal period did you have here?
three weeks [interspersed with strike threats]. It's a special style, a
very vertical style, sudden, vital, fast, staccato. But the septet is
still one of the great moments.
were struck again last night during the love duet, that once again the
initial phrase is broken in two; we're not sure if that's the intention,
looking at the score, but then again the limits of the human voice must be
kept in mind.
CD: If you try to do that phrase in one
breath you run the risk of distorting the music because you want to get to
the end of the phrase. We had a long discussion and I always said that a
breath never distorts anything and you articulate the music in another
way, and the stunt of doing it in one breath which is occasionally
indulged in often results in something unmusical.
You've already done Peter Grimes, Turn of the Screw
and Midsummer Night's Dream of Britten. Do you have more plans
in this area?
CD: We have the War Requiem in
which Philips seem to be interested, with the London Symphony.
Operanet: Very good. Everyone seems to be trying to come
close to the first recording, with Britten himself.
That's bad. I'm a heretic in this respect. I suppose people could say that
I'm just a leftover romantic, but I feel more free to do with the composer
what I want instead of following the metronome markings exactly. It's
almost like there's a Stasi examining the metronome markings and reports
Operanet: Do you feel that the
old music movement has anything to teach you?
CD: When I was young, everybody was doing that anyway. There was
Thurston Dart, George Malcolm, Nadia Boulanger, Tony Baines, Arnold
Goldsborough, Dolmetsch, etc. It was common knowledge. Everybody read
Quantz and Leopold Mozart. It was very interesting. Now suddenly it's
become holy writ. But if you try to tell me that the B Minor Mass sounds
good with a chorus of single voices, I don't believe it. The Gloria is a
great public statement, it's as though the whole heavens suddenly burst
into song. Don't tell me that isn't what he had in his head. He didn't
have the material, just a rotten bunch of school kids. Just think of
Mozart's enthusiasm when he had forty first violins in Paris. The princes
couldn't afford huge orchestras, only a few fiddles. We're interested in
the sound they heard in their minds and not what they actually heard.
Operanet: We tend to forget that, despite
your specialties, you're the man who conducts everything - except
CD: I have conducted Tchaikowsky, Romeo
and Juliet, a selection of dance music and I remember greatly
enjoying the Fourth Symphony. It's wonderful. There are masterpieces like
Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty. Stravinsky said he
learned everything from Tchaikowsky, and learned it also from Berlioz, how
to make an orchestra sound. Tchaikowsky is a whiz. If somebody said that I
had to do all the Tchaikowsky symphonies, I'd say, "How fantastic,
now I can really get down to it".
You're now redoing the Sibelius symphonies.
he still needs advocacy, in Germany especially, in France, in Italy. He
speaks to me very loudly ...
you please give us the key, so that we might begin to understand?
CD: (talmudically) Well as I said to someone else who asked
why he liked Sibelius, "Look in the mirror".
Are there any pieces which you will never conduct or conduct again?
CD: Well, I have to admit I have blind spots when it comes
to Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. I find the mixture of late romanticism and
neoclassicsm very difficult to manage - Stravinsky goes the whole hog
while Prokofiev has one toe ...
How about Shostakovich?
CD: I've done some
Shostakovich. I enjoy it up to a point, then this tradition - if that's
what it is, or do they hide behind it - of a sort of circus music. And
that comes from the ballet, from Petrouchka, with the greatest
circus music, but these relentless scherzi, relentlessly banal. I know he
means it, but it's very difficult. Both my daughters play the cello and
they both practice the first concerto [humming the first few measures] -
it's just for the sake of it. The Tenth Symphony, there comes a point in
the scherzo where there's not enough music. But the slow movement of the
Fifth Symphony, that always touches me, one of the best things he ever
wrote, and that was supposed to be in response to being ticked off by the
authorities, but I think he really meant it. People flocked to the
Shostakovich Festival in London recently.
Have you ever conducted an opera in which what was happening onstage was
so awful that you were doing it with your eyes closed?
Yes, many times, but I'm not going to name names.
Nor would we dream of asking you to do so. How can you justify this to
CD: It's very difficult to escape from it.
You're going to work with someone, you've seen a design, which can be
quite different when it occupies the stage. By then you're committed, you
can't just clear off and leave the others to get on with it by themselves.
It's not professional. You've got a responsibility towards the orchestra
and singers, and you've got to go down with the ship.
We sometimes think that three or four times a year a conductor should
simply stand up and say, "That's it, you've gone too far!".
CD: We do, and it has resulted in the most terrible
quarrels, which you know nothing about, I hope. Muti's walkout in Salzburg
made headlines. I've had problems because it became some kind of fashion
that the producer had supreme power over his production; the musicians are
very much to blame as the conductor often comes later when he's not in a
position to say anything. When I've been involved in a production from the
beginning, if I didn't agree there would be the most awful scenes. It's
also a desperate attempt to do something different. Whether it's entirely
justified, you know as well as I do.
You've done a fair share of Verdi in your time. Is he less on your mind at
CD: No, I adore Verdi. Falstaff
is another Mozart opera. I adore the Requiem. It's got nothing
to do with the operas. It's shot through and through with the fear of God,
not the Virgin Mary but Jehovah who executes those he loves the most.
Operanet: Would you today take on running an
CD: I don't want to take on running
anything. I'm the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and
one of the conditions under which I accepted the position was that I
should have no power. They organize everything, hire the musicians, do all
the work and I perform.
Operanet: And you
get first choice as to repertory. What more could you ask for? How much
opera are you doing these days?
CD: I'm going home to
do Entführung, with other operas under discussion. I guess
I shall be doing more. I've got one more production in Munich, a new Ariadne,
but then I don't think I shall be doing much outside England as it takes
up a lot of time.
Operanet: Are you a "hands-on"
conductor who likes to be there from the start of rehearsals?
CD: I don't like to miss too much, no.
You must play the piano?
CD: Badly, not worth
Operanet: Of course, you were a
clarinettist. That explains why you love the Andromache scene.
CD: It's one of the most wonderful ideas anyone ever had. If you
really get down to that opera, the music and the text and the action and
the visual element are all unified, just as the orchestra does every
gesture, even just two horns, has to do with what's happening onstage.
That's why it's so difficult, like Mozart. I'm dead after a performance of
Nozze di Figaro. It's exhausting. You must pay attention because
if you don't you're going to miss something.
Would you say that Les Troyens is more exhausting to conduct
than Parsifal or Götterdämmerung?
CD: Wagner was mentioned last night. There are far more
musical events in Berlioz because there isn't this expansion of normal
time. There are wonderful moments but "time" as in the Septet
... and of course the texture of Les Troyens isn't as overlaid.
Also, Götterdämmerung is a fairly negative piece, by
the time all this treachery is coming to fruition, all those wonderful
melodies are being subjected to such torture. This isn't to say that it
isn't a masterpiece, but it's another flavor. You can say that Troyens
also ends negatively, but it doesn't make that impression, because of its
epic nature it's principally about history. I think the only way to end
the opera is suddenly. After all, Enée is gone, Didon is gone, the
only thing left is this ghastly vision.
here to read Joel Kasow's review of the La Scala production of Les
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