Monday 8 February 2010

Interview with Sir John Tomlinson, Royal Opera House, 8 February 2010

Fresh from a morning rehearsal of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, playing the part of the General, and an interview with the BBC, Sir John Tomlinson kindly took time out to speak to me in his Covent Garden dressing room about The Gambler and other aspects of his career. Almost universally considered the greatest Wotan of his generation, it was perhaps inevitable and certainly welcome that the conversation would turn to Wagner, taking in Bluebeard and Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau along the way. I began by saying how delighted I was that The Gambler, Prokofiev’s first completed opera, save for some juvenilia, was coming to the Royal Opera House, the only other time I had seen it being in Berlin a couple of years ago.

JT: Oh yes, under Barenboim.

MB: That’s right, with an almost exclusively Russian cast.

JT: And in Russian, of course.

MB: So I imagine it will sound quite different on this occasion.

JT: Yes, they made a decision to sing it in English this time, because it’s a very wordy piece. It’s a work that is very conversational, with lots of text, and they think it’s important that everyone on stage and in the audience understands every word that’s being said, in the interests of being good theatre. Richard Jones [the director] was, I think, the man who wanted it in English. So it seems to be going pretty well, and you get more of a theatrical feeling this way in the vernacular.

MB: And particularly with a cast that is largely non-Russian, I can imagine that this might help their communication to the audience.

JT: Yes. I’ve actually sung a lot in Russian: Boris Godunov, Pimen, and Khovanshchina. But for this piece, I think there’s a very good case for doing it in the vernacular, because it’s a very fast-moving piece with all these motor rhythms [cue a brief vocal demonstration]. And the Russian language really comes into its own when you have those great sustained passages [cue a brief excerpt from Boris].

MB: Yes, you need to hear it in those works in which almost every other words is Slava [Glory], the Boris Coronation Scene and so on. If you didn’t know what the word meant before, you soon would…

JT: Whereas here, I don’t think the language has time to colour the piece, in a way.

MB: And at this time, Prokofiev’s style is to a certain extent more cosmopolitan.

JT: Well, I’m actually quite surprised by the amount of Russianness in the score: a very impressive score, the orchestration, for example.

MB: Yes, it can be quite stunning; it makes me think of the early piano concertos.

JT: Very virtuoso, almost depicting a gambling addiction. There is incredible energy…

MB: … which can’t really be done slowly.

JT: There’s gambling, there’s love – obsessive love relationships – and high-flying society, spending all the money.

MB: And just thinking about Prokofiev’s style at this time, the vocal writing is very declamatory, isn’t it? That was certainly his stated aim. Does that then present any issues, given that you are performing it in translation, or does English actually lend itself quite well to this?

JT: Yes, I think it works well. And of course, it was first done in French. I never have actually sung this piece in Russian. I did it twenty-seven years ago at the Coliseum, for ENO, in English, in a David Pountney production. And so, whilst I’ve done the opera before, it’s a reasonably long time ago.

MB: Yes, a decent break. I was reading beforehand what Prokofiev had to say when he was writing the music, when it was first going to be performed for the abortive Mariinsky premiere, interrupted by the Revolution, amongst other things, and he is very contemptuous of pretty much every aspect of operatic convention. What he perhaps sends up in The Love for Three Oranges he seems to want to fight against here. Does that come across in the work?

JT: Well, yes, it’s a very theatrical work: there’s no grand opera in it at all. There’s no aria or anything approaching an aria.

MB: You couldn’t really have a disc of highlights. In fact, his Four Portraits and Denouement from the work had to be assembled in an odd way: ripping up pages from the score and ‘dealing’ them, since there were no numbers to extract conventionally.

JT: No, I don’t think you could take excerpts. My big scene is like a mad scene really, without the flute obbligato [as in Lucia di Lammermoor]…

MB: ... or the glass harmonica, as seems to be the new big thing.

JT: That’s right. But you need a lot of voice for this, it’s a bit role in that sense; it’s a big score, with a lot of decibels. So you need a voice with a lot of muscle in it. And you need very clear words and very pure vowel sounds. You need energy too: vocal energy, vocal muscle. It’s written for quite a big part; it’s not a walk in the park.

MB: And it’s a huge cast too.

JT: Well, there’s only really actually half a dozen main characters, but then there’s a million smaller parts.

MB: Having looked down the cast list, they all seem to be taken by different people too, which must make putting the opera on pretty expensive.

JT: It probably does.

MB: It’s certainly not often staged, is it?

JT: It’s a very good piece too. Written by Prokofiev and based on this great book by Dostoyevsky. But it’s an odd piece, a bit of an oddball; it’s unique.

MB: It doesn’t really fit into any of our ready-made opera categories.

JT: There’s something of Pelléas et Mélisande, sometimes, that I hear, and also of course some Russian music, Mussorgsky and so on.

MB: Unavoidable.

JT: And I also hear some Bartók, some of Bluebeard’s Castle.

MB: Which you’ve sung quite often?

JT: Many times, yes.

MB: In Hungarian and in English.

JT: In Hungarian, yes. Oh, and of course, I did do a recording in English. I’ve done more recordings of Bluebeard than any other piece. One with the Berlin Philharmonic and Bernard Haitink, one with [the] Munich [Philharmonic] and James Levine, one for Chandos in English, basically the Opera North set-up, and another from the Proms, with [Jukka-Pekka] Saraste conducting. It’s such a wonderful piece. And I think one of the reasons it’s recorded so much is because it lasts about the length of a CD.

MB: And also, it seems to me, it loses so little by being recorded, by being listened to at home. If anything, the imagination is better at producing it than anything one could hope to materialise on stage. The opening of those doors is almost bound to be a disappointment in the theatre, unless one tries something extremely inventive, not at all obvious.

JT: It’s almost not a real opera; it’s half-way there, a bit like La Damnation de Faust. Whereas this [The Gambler] needs the theatre.

MB: Just to realise what’s going on; it all happens so quickly.

JT: It needs a great director.

MB: And actually, although this is a wholly different piece, though written not so long before, the situation is not wholly unlike that of Rosenkavalier. I remember when, as a teenager, I first listened to the work on CD, I thought it wonderful, but I didn’t really have a sense of what it might be like in the theatre; for one thing, the dialogue passes so quickly. I needed to see it in the theatre before I could really appreciate Karajan and Schwarzkopf.

JT: Yes, I can understand that. Some friends who listened today have likened the General to Baron Ochs. It’s similar, I suppose, in one sense that Ochs is the one character in my normal repertoire – you know, Wotan, Gurnemanz, Hagen – which is not huge in dramatic terms. Ochs is a wonderful acting part.

MB: I saw you in Munich in the role, a couple of years ago [see here].

JT: With Felicity Lott, possibly, was it?

MB: I don’t think it was [racking brains]. Oh yes, I remember, it was Angela Denoke, whom I saw a few minutes before coming in here. She’s playing Polina, isn’t she?

JT: Yes, she is. I think it might well have been her in Munich.

MB: And, of course, in that venerable Otto Schenk production, the one Carlos Kleiber conducted.

JT: With Jürgen Rose’s designs. So in a way, it’s the same sort of character to play, the same sort of world as Ochs’s, I suppose. But it’s different, too. Ochs loves life; he loves women; he loves having lots of women. The General is besotted with Blanche; he loves Blanche; he adores her. And he’s not a multiple ladies’ man. He’s been married a couple of times and is now completely enamoured of Blanche. And that’s what makes him go mad in the end: the lack of money. He loses all of his money. Blanche then goes on to the next rich man; she very much latches on to him.

MB: Really the demi-mondaine.

JT: Yes, as is the Marquis, who’s lending all the money. And my credit-worthiness depends upon the fact that my mother-in-law is going to die any minute. There’s a comedy element there.

MB: It’s actually a similar world to that of Lulu, particularly the beginning of the third act, with the buying and selling of Jungfrau shares.

JT: And, just to return to Rosenkavalier, there’s the similarity in terms of money. The whole story for Ochs is based on him marrying Sophie, so that he gets lots of money. He needs the money so that he can save Lerchenau, which is mortgaged up to the hilt. So there is that. And also, in the end, Ochs is undone and he’s sent packing. In this, the General’s world falls apart, so there is a similarity there.

MB: In a way, whenever the works are set, this seems a world that comes into its own very much in the twentieth century.

JT: And now, too. It’s wonderful: they’ve changed one world from Rothschild to Goldman Sachs. It’s incredibly topical: banking.
MB: We can’t open a newspaper at the moment without coming across the phrase, ‘casino capitalism’, and here this is, set in a casino.

JT: Another thing, just while I think of it: the animals in the production, this Richard Jones production. The first scene, instead of being in a park, is in a zoo, attached to the hotel. So you have the hotel, and part of the complex, a ‘leisure complex’, you have the zoo too. In a way, there’s an analogy between the people and the animals – and a lot of people are wearing furs. And there are the gamblers: the bear market and the bull market. There’s a strong connection between the behaviour of the animals and the behaviour of the people.

MB: And perhaps a sense that everyone is caged in some way by the dictates of capital?

JT: Yes, exactly, so it’s quite an interesting set up.

MB: And a very witty director.

JT: He’s a wonderful director. We’ve rehearsed for weeks – this is a seven-week rehearsal period – and it’s all been so detailed, even to the level of every brushstroke on the floor at the hotel: it’s almost choreographed. Not too much, not too little; not so much as to upstage anyone, but even so… Great concentration, this requires: it takes a long time.

MB: And you sang in his Ring here, of course.

JT: I did. I had a wonderful time. Of course, it was very controversial.

MB: I wonder whether it would be now. My suspicion is that it would be much less so now, because what audiences are used to has changed enormously over that time.

JT: But then, even in the ’90s, audiences were used to a lot of adventurous things, but perhaps it came a decade too early. If he did it now, who knows?

MB: I was an undergraduate at the time, and I remember coming down to London just for Götterdämmerung; it was actually the first time I had come to Covent Garden. And I thought it was amazing.

JT: Ah, you saw Brünnhilde with a paper bag over her head.

MB: Yes, a very powerful image. And yet I had seen it mocked by press critics, who seemed so extraordinarily reactionary and literalist in their attitudes – not all of them, but quite a few. I thought it was a very powerful way of registering the terrible shame she feels in the second act.

JT: People get really hung up on this business of updating productions. You know, there are good productions and bad productions. There’s good updating and bad updating. There’s good conventional and bad conventional. Perhaps there’s nothing worse than a bad conventional production, which is somehow nothing.

MB: The Zeffirelli sort of thing at the Met, where ‘patrons’ applaud the scenery.

JT: Yes. But this is an updated production and it’s a wonderful production. When I do these fundraising talks – we had one last week – there are always questions about: how do you get on with ‘modern productions’? People have really got a thing about that.

MB: A strange idea, that there is some thing, in inverted commas, called a ‘modern production’.

JT: And they’re not the same. Of course you get bad modern productions, but you get wonderful ones.

MB: And so much, it seems to me, depends on the sense of theatre a director has. He can bend the work to his will, he can penetrate to its heart, he can almost do what he likes, if he has a sense of theatre – and, of course, a sense of music, which, sadly, happens less often. Then he can make it work.

JT: A great director is worth his weight in gold – like a great conductor.

MB: Speaking of which, in the Ring, you had Haitink.

JT: Yes. But there were a lot of problems there too. Haitink and Jones didn’t see eye to eye. Bernard basically closed his eyes and conducted gorgeously. But here, Pappano and Jones are very much of one mind.

MB: They’ve worked together quite often, haven’t they?

JT: Yes, in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, for instance, when I played a particularly gruesome character, eating those mushrooms with rat poison.

MB: And Shostakovich, of course, is very different from Prokofiev, isn’t he? Quite different temperaments.

JT: Yes, same country, but quite different. And when was that written? It was written after this, wasn’t it?

MB: Yes, the 1930s, the height of Stalin’s terror. There was the terrible Pravda editorial after Stalin attended the premiere.

JT: I don’t think he liked the scene with the rat poisoning, as a dictator.

MB: Looking over his shoulder and paranoid to begin with… Just to go back to the Ring, I saw Götterdämmerung here, and then went to the whole cycle at the Albert Hall, which was my first time for a cycle. I was utterly bowled over.

JT: A lot of people were bowled over. All these theatrical awards I won were from a performance not in the theatre.

MB: There’s a wonderful irony to that.

JT: Yes. I won the Evening Standard award, the Royal Philharmonic Society award, various others: all for a performance that was not in the theatre. But of course, it was sort of staged – and, at its best, that can be more intensely theatrical. It can be.

MB: Partly, I suppose, because there’s less to watch: no scenery certainly. So gesture, in a way as Wagner had hoped, becomes so much more telling.

JT: It becomes incredibly crystallised, incredibly economic.

MB: Another thing I remember, though perhaps now it is a side issue, is the end: what was so terribly moving was Haitink then speaking directly to the audience and asking for help. I fired off my letter to the Secretary of State the following morning, not that I imagine it made the slightest bit of difference.

JT: This place was in the doldrums.

MB: Nobody knew what was going to happen, whether it would survive – and there was this truly great musical performance.

JT: It was terribly worrying. One forgets.

MB: And it’s not that long ago.

JT: No, ten years.

MB: But presumably, it must feel like a completely different world.

JT: It does. Yes, as soon as the new place opened, within a couple of years, we were onto a different momentum altogether. But I think Jeremy Isaacs is treated a bit unfairly here. It was an incredibly difficult situation. They had to close, for safety reasons. Where was the money going to come from? How do you raise the money? Planning permission: the local Covent Garden community were up in arms about this development; they were protesting on the street. It was a really difficult situation. Money was such a problem.

MB: And giving money to the Royal Opera House is unlikely ever to be a popular cause, especially given the tabloid press here, and of course a New Labour government.

JT: But they succeeded in getting all that money – and look at this development [pointing out of the window]. It’s just perfect: a real home for the company. Always we seem to come back to Wagner though. Of course, Wagner is a magnificent composer: the music is incredible. Whatever other music I do, coming back to Wagner is like coming home. And I think it suits what in particular I’ve got to give: my voice, probably the way my mind works as well. I think it all fits very well with the North European mythology, the way the whole thing is psychologically constructed. It all feels like a completely natural expression of the human condition in a way.

MB: Never more so than in the character of Wotan, but in the Ring as a whole. Every time I return to it, I find so much more than I had found before. It never ends – unlike the gods. So compared to that, Gurnemanz must seem like a bit of a break for you.

JT: In a way. The thing about him is that he’s a narrator.

MB: He doesn’t actually do anything.

JT: The story would take place without him.

MB: I suppose we wouldn’t really know what the story was, but it would take place.

JT: Exactly, whereas Wotan is absolutely the centre. It’s about Wotan from start to finish. When he loses his eye drinking at the Well of Wisdom, when he makes the spear from the World-Ash Tree: that’s the beginning of the story. And the end, the World-Ash, Valhalla burn: that’s the end of the gods.

MB: And in a way, he’s never more present than in Götterdämmerung. You hear him all the time in the music, even though he is never on stage.

JT: He’s there, just waiting in Valhalla. And everybody talks about him. The Norns talk about him; the Norns talk about the end of the gods. They talk about Wotan at the beginning, the beginning of Wotan, and the end that is to come. Then Waltraute comes on and talks about him, thinking with a smile of Brünnhilde. And at the very end, when the ring goes back to the Rhine, due to what Brünnhilde does, perhaps that smile will come again: a smile of acceptance, of love. It’s his dying moment.
MB: And there is the moment in the Immolation Scene when she seems to come to terms with him, singing ‘Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott’: a benediction, in which she puts the god to rest: a coming to terms from the two of them.

JT: It is. Just about…

MB: There’s the element of doubt, too: has she rid herself of her anger?

JT: She just about understands the predicament that he was in.

MB: She says that she’s not wise, but she sort of understands… Have you ever, then, been in a production in which what Wagner wanted to happen actually does, when one sees the gods in Valhalla as it burns? I’m sure I have never seen that on stage: not that one necessarily should, but I can imagine it could have quite an effect, a cyclical effect even.

JT: No, I haven’t: not the gods, but Valhalla. Though in the [Harry] Kupfer production [at Bayreuth, available on DVD], Wotan comes back in the Funeral March, throwing the spear back into the hole. Now purists object to that, because one of the Norns says that, to create the fire that consumes Valhalla at the end, Wotan plunges the spear into Loge’s breast. But, you know, that’s neither here nor there really: it’s powerful theatre.

MB: Which is what really matters, whilst others miss the forest for the sake of a spear from a single tree.

The Gambler opens on Thursday 11 February at 7.30pm and runs until February 25th. Ticket prices are especially enticing, with even the most expensive seats costing only £50. Further details are available from The Royal Opera's Box Office (Telephone: 020 7304 4000) or online here.