Sir Mark Elder’s professional debut was auspicious for a good many reasons.
In the summer of 1968 he was still an undergraduate student at Cambridge, but his appearance at Glyndebourne as a non-singing sheriff in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena did much to set his future conducting career in motion.
“It’s a little generous to say I played anything, but it was a great experience for me because it allowed me to watch an opera being prepared and it allowed me to meet people who have been friends and colleagues ever since.” One of those was Peter Jonas who, as general director, together with David Pountney as director, and Elder as music director, led English National Opera through its halcyon years in the 1980s. It would also prove the start of a long and fruitful relationship with Glyndebourne Elder is returning there next summer to conduct a new production of Billy Budd
But as well as valuable contacts, that Glyndebourne summer gave him exposure to Donizetti. The fifties and sixties saw a revival of interest in the composer and although Elder is now known as much for his work with German and English repertoire, he has always demonstrated a deep interest in nineteenth-century Italian opera. Frequently he has set out to polish forgotten or overlooked bel canto gems, and we meet during rehearsals for Donizetti’s little-known melodramma semiserio, Linda di Chamounix, that will open Royal Opera’s 2009-2010 season in concert this coming week.
Like Dom Sbastien, which Elder conducted at the start of the Royal Opera’s 2005-2006 season, Linda di Chamounix has languished behind more famous operas within Donizetti’s oeuvre, but this wasn’t always the case. For the first 50 years following its premiere in Vienna in 1842, the work enjoyed huge popularity. As well as a number of striking arias the score boasts some distinctive characteristics, notably a repeated hurdy-gurdy theme, and an attraction of this particular project comes with Elder’s decision to include a passage during the Act II mad scene that has not been heard since the very first performance.
Its more recent obscurity is perhaps explained by its quaint narrative. The story concerns Linda, the daughter of an impoverished Savoyard family, who joins the young village men for their annual migration to Paris in an attempt to halt the advances of a blackmailing Marquis and marry her true love Carlo, the Marquis’ wealthy nephew disguised as a lowly artist. The concern throughout is the preservation of Linda’s innocence. “I think the narrative has a lot of strength, I think the tricky element is this convention of the pure virgin,” Elder explains, “and her refusal to even kiss her fianc now seems stupid because she’s denying herself the commitment.”
Attention in the run-up to the opening night has inevitably focussed on two fast-rising stars Cuban-American soprano Eglise Gutirrez as Linda and American tenor Stephen Costello as Carlo and renowned baritone Alessandro Corbelli who plays the buffo character Marquis de Boisfleury, but Elder regards the six main roles as equally important: “They give this opera its particular colour, and the reason I enjoy it so much is that it’s a very human piece, and the way these six people interact is more human, and more earthy, than is often the case with more historical subjects.”
“The style of Donizetti is vulnerable, the music can seem absolutely effervescent, and moving, and exciting, and touching, and funny, but it has to be prepared, the souffl has to rise.” This question of style is one that Elder returns to frequently. “I was disappointed by the Italian operas I saw at Covent Garden as a student,” he says, “and some years later I realised that the intensity, which is so much easier to feel as a northern European in the works of Strauss and Wagner, is dependent on the performers and their ability to control the style so that nothing is exaggerated and nothing is too academic.”
As well as opening the Royal Opera’s season, Elder is preparing to celebrate 10 years as music director of Manchester’s Hall Orchestra. Widely credited with saving this long-lived institution the oldest professional symphony orchestra in the UK from the brink of financial and artistic collapse, Elder was knighted last year for his services to music. Over the last decade, he has not only re-established their international reputation but has worked tirelessly with his colleagues on community schemes. Last year the orchestra launched its own Children’s Choir, and Elder speaks enthusiastically about his work in schools around the country.
Such achievements must have seemed a long way off when he accepted the post and I ask about his early ambitions for the orchestra. “The nineties were not a very happy time for the Hall,” he says, tactfully declining to mention the shortcomings of his predecessor Kent Nagano. “The task of revitalising it was an enormous challenge and that journey had to start with the very first rehearsals, to make them have confidence in their own artistry. My responsibility since then has been to support them, to encourage them, to be their champion, to cajole them, to inspire them.”
Elder explains that what he has most enjoyed is the opportunity to expand the orchestra’s and his own personal repertoire. Their triumphant concert performance of Wagner’s Gtterdmmerung over two evenings last May confirmed the orchestra’s capabilities and served as a timely reminder, if it were needed, of Elder’s consummate skills as a Wagnerian. Alongside his work with the Hall, Elder has continued to conduct in opera houses around the world, including knock-out performances of Strauss’ Elektra and Bellini’s I Capuletti e i Montecchi at the Royal Opera House last season.
In the past Elder has spoken of his desire to direct another opera company and he confirms that he would still be interested “if the right occasion presents itself.” It was with opera that he cut his teeth and it clearly remains his first love. “It’s very hard to do opera well but if everything conspires, everybody’s healthy, everybody’s rehearsed together, and everybody is well cast, and the production respects the essential nature of the piece, then you can have nights to remember forever.”
Linda di Chamounix will receive two concert performances at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on Monday 7 and Monday 14 September 2009. Tickets are available at 020 7304 4000 or online at www.roh.org.uk