8 NOVEMBER 2008, Page 52

How Boris got under his skin

Henrietta Bredin talks to Edward Gardner, English National Opera’s music director

There is a ridiculously tiny, narrow room carved out of the foyer of the London Coliseum, known as the Snuggery. I think it was originally intended as somewhere for King Edward VII to retire to for a touch of silken dalliance or simply to use the lavishly ornate mahogany facilities. At any rate it’s a handy place in which to settle for a conversation with English National Opera’s music director, Edward Gardner, who is fresh — and he does look it — from a rehearsal with the chorus for a new production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, opening on Monday.

This is a challenging opera for any company to perform and the first thing to be settled is the choice of version. Gardner and director Tim Albery are going for the original, seven-scene version, which was rejected by the Russian committee of Imperial Theatres in 1870, members of which were, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opinion, nonplussed by the ‘freshness and originality’ of Mussorgsky’s music.

‘It was originally Tim’s idea to do this version, and if I ever had any doubts at all I came round to it very quickly. I love everything about the original — it’s the most instinctive version by a mile. The orchestration is lean and stark and you have to work hard to colour every orchestral phrase, but it has astonishing rawness and power. And what excites me enormously about doing this version is that we can do it straight through without an interval. There really is no natural place for one. What Tim and I are after — did you see Michael Grandage’s production of Schiller’s Don Carlos? — well, something like that. Almost like a film, with blackouts at the end of scenes. The whole thing keeps rolling on and on with an inexorable momentum. Fate is absolutely relentless, and if we can capture that, both musically and dramatically, it just won’t be possible to stop.’ It is also an historically resonant choice as the British première of this version was given by the Vic-Wells Opera (which ultimately became ENO) in 1935, in English.

‘I wonder how they tracked down the material for that. David Lloyd-Jones worked for years on producing the definitive edition, and he had terrible trouble getting hold of all the material he needed. His translation is terrific. He’s made it tough and literal in a way that so many translations of Pushkin [author of the play on which the opera is based] com pletely fail to do. And his input has been completely invaluable. He knows the piece so well and and he’s wonderfully generous about sharing his knowledge and giving little bits of brilliantly pragmatic advice.’ This appreciation of others’ contributions is an immensely engaging aspect of Gardner’s character. He relishes the collaborative process of opera, working with directors who really stimulate him. From Richard Jones, director of the recent double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci, he looked for help to reach the level of heightened drama, almost hysteria, that both pieces demand. And he pays tribute to Tim Albery’s exceptionally supple intelligence and his sureness of intent. ‘I wish I was as sure about one thing as he is about everything, every day. He never vacillates. I love that to and fro you can get with good directors — and often it’s the ones who aren’t musicians who have the best instincts for it. Deborah Warner is amazing at giving notes about how the energy of the music affects the pace of the drama. Good directors draw 500 per cent more out of me than I can manage on my own. It has to be a true collaboration — that’s why I do it in the first place. If there’s no connection between the pit and the stage there’s no point. Opera without that connection is the worst art form in the world. You might as well stay at home and watch TV.’ I should imagine that it’s fairly rare for Gardner to stay at home and watch TV. He’s an extremely hard worker, spending hours, months, learning scores and preparing to conduct works which, as he is still in his mid-30s, he is often coming to for the first time. He also has a refreshing openness to listening to music interpreted by other conductors.

‘If you’d asked me two years ago if I listened to recordings I’d have said I didn’t but working on Rosenkavalier made me change my mind. Richard Strauss died in 1949 so some of those early 1950s recordings are incredibly close in time to their composition and you can get a feel, not just for the style of playing but also for the style of the whole epoch. With Cav and Pag I had a sort of obsession with the idea that the way we think of them now is governed by the German recordings of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, which have no Italian component at all. So I listened to very old Italian recordings. I had to get as close as possible to the real thing so that I could understand it, open myself up enough to do it. By the time rehearsals started, both operas had completely taken over my life but this one, Boris, has got under my skin in the most extraordinary way. If I work on it late at night I don’t sleep. There’s something about it ... actually it was the same when I conducted Eugene Onegin. That’s another piece I’m dying to do here.’ In addition to learning new works and expanding his own conducting repertory, Gardner has responsibility for nurturing the careers of other performers — conductors, singers and orchestral players.

‘It’s like a huge jigsaw,’ he says. ‘I’m always talking with colleagues, thinking of the shape and balance of performances, what particular singers should be doing in five years time, when should Iain Paterson sing his first big Wagner role here, when are we going to do a big 19th-century piece with Sarah Connolly, who should conduct what. And there are key people outside the organisation I talk to as well, which helps me maintain a perspective. Mark Elder for example, and Tony Pappano at the Royal Opera House.’ Gardner’s eyes light up with glee when he describes the enormous church bells he’s hired for Boris — ‘They sound absolutely unbelievable; the whole place will shake’ — and with unfeigned enthusiasm when he talks about the company’s latest education venture, bringing students from the Royal College of Music in to play alongside musicians in the ENO orchestra for major rehearsals so that they get a real insight into playing for opera performances.

‘There’s so much ground to cover and I try to be as culturally, and nationally, diverse as possible. Ultimately, what I want is to be a good conductor, not a good British conductor. But, right now, ENO is home. I’m happy here — this is where I want to be.’ ❑