As well as heading up The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Sir Antonio Pappano is the Music Director of Rome's Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. His love for Italian opera is infectious and he spreads that passion via television documentaries and his contributions to Insight evenings at Covent Garden. He’s just conducted Bellini’s Norma for the first time. In October, I caught up with him in Rome, just after one of his Santa Cecilia season opening concert performances of Fidelio.

Sir Antonio Pappano conducting <i>Fidelio</i> in Rome © Riccardo Musacchio & Flavio Ianniello
Sir Antonio Pappano conducting Fidelio in Rome
© Riccardo Musacchio & Flavio Ianniello

Pappano acknowledges that there’s something very special about Beethoven’s only opera although he’s only conducted it once in an opera house. “Fidelio used to be a routine piece in Germany – a repertoire piece. Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Herbert von Karajan or Hans Knappertsbusch would have conducted this two or three times a week… and at least 100 times in their career. Unfortunately, today’s conductors don’t get their hands on it very often. It’s a piece that teaches you everything about how music is put together because the voices are not autonomous – they’re totally part of the orchestra, like another instrument. Every single bar makes you think. And to teach this orchestra how to play it… they’re not an opera orchestra! Even at Covent Garden it doesn’t get done that often.

“As we know, it’s a stage director’s graveyard. Nothing happens unless you have the most charismatic people on the stage. I don’t think you’ve seen many better staged productions of Fidelio than you saw tonight! Simple, clear, everybody was acting, acting with the words and singing – that’s what a performance of this opera needs. Look, if I’m working with a great stage director, there’s no question that the piece gains an immensity and you have the dark and the light that you can better represent on-stage, but otherwise…”

It’s not just Fidelio which suffers in this respect. “I can name you several Italian operas which should be the same! Do you really want to see Trovatore on the stage with that story? Really? It’s some of Verdi’s greatest music yet the story is so preposterous! But Fidelio I don’t find preposterous. I find the character of Leonore magnificent. Beethoven elevates this idea of the “eternal feminine”, which obviously comes from Goethe, but Beethoven and Liszt were consumed with this idea of woman on a pedestal. She risks everything.”

Pappano has been the Music Director of the Santa Cecilia orchestra since 2005 and is in awe of its sound. “If you hear them play Respighi,” he enthuses, “it’s a very colourful, very romantic, almost old-fashioned sound – maybe because I’ve done a lot of Puccini with them. But tonight, I don’t think they sounded like an Italian band at all. They play the melodies, of course, with a certain cantabile gift, but all the great orchestras do that. They can play very transparently and that stems from their Rossini playing. When you hear them play Rossini, there’s nothing like it. They have an ear for clarity. The difference with Beethoven is that it’s bass-driven – you can make it as transparent as you want, but if you don’t have the bass, then it doesn’t sound like Beethoven.

For Fidelio, Pappano had his double basses lined up along the back of the orchestra, like Iván Fischer does with his Budapest Festival Orchestra. “First of all, they get the wall, plus it’s impressive to look at. We were just in the Musikverein and we put them there. You’d think that the cellos would have no contact with the basses, but actually, the basses can see everything that is going on from back there.”

Sir Antonio Pappano © Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics

Pappano has conducted a fair bit of opera with the Santa Cecilians – their Aida won a Gramophone Award this year, among other awards – but how does the orchestra differ from their Covent Garden counterparts? “All Italian musicians have a vocal component in their music-making. What they bring to Verdi is a tremendous sense of theatre. There’s no question that Covent Garden have the reflexes of an opera orchestra. We’re still working on that here but they do pretty well now because we’ve done a lot of vocal recordings. We’ve done things with singers where they’ve had me preaching about the text and about the immediacy of opera and now their reaction times and the drama is something which is much more immediate. Symphony orchestras have a culture of sound that takes them just a little bit more time to react, but meanwhile the scene has gone. And so I’m constantly staying on top of them because otherwise the singers would leave us in the dust! Singers go with the phrasing of the words. Now obviously, only a few of my players speak German, so I’ve had to keep them on a very tight rein… that’s much more natural at Covent Garden – they turn on a dime.”

Pappano brings his Santa Cecilia orchestra to London next spring, part of its European tour. Respighi’s Pines and Fountains of Rome are on the bill. “On my first ever tours, the only thing they’d ever allow us to play was Respighi!” he laughs. “But now we haven’t done it for years on tour and I’m so happy to be doing it again. We’ve performed a lot of big symphonic rep on tours – Mahler 6, Bruckner 8, Sibelius 2, Scheherazade, Rach 2. It’s been a fight to be able to go on tour and not bring traditional Italian stuff… which La Scala still does. They’ve just played the Musikverein – it was all operatic. That would kill me if I had to do that. It doesn’t help them grow. But now to come back to Respighi, I really can’t wait!

“These Respighi tone poems were originally written for the Santa Cecilia Orchestra so they are a very special treasure. The orchestration and its colour-world are sublime and give myriad opportunities to the orchestral soloists to display their art. They work wonderfully well with the public too! I think the Feste Romane is not played often enough but, that said, it is very very difficult to play.

There is one moment in Pines, which Pappano adores. “After the very, very, very quiet clarinet solo, the strings come back in and I just want to die. There’s something so beautiful and so Italian about it. We tend to think of the bombast and the show, but actually it’s the intimate moments which are very special in that piece.”

Pappano spends about three months a year in Rome, enjoying the food – “the restaurant life here is very interesting, a culture of fish as we’re really near the sea” – and the people. “They can be rich, poor, whatever, they’ll invite you to their house and you can eat a plate of spaghetti. It’s the simplest thing, but it’s wonderful.”

Sir Antonio Pappano conducting at Covent Garden © ROH | Clive Barda
Sir Antonio Pappano conducting at Covent Garden
© ROH | Clive Barda

Back in London, Pappano has been Music Director at Covent Garden since 2002. When asked the hardest challenge a Music Director faces, Pappano instantly replies, “Putting on the works of Verdi.” I wonder if that’s due to a dearth of Verdi voices.

“Verdi voices need to have superb techniques and yet they have to be mature. So what happens is you get younger people with really good techniques who are thrown into this stuff too early and then the intensity is too much.”

But staging Verdi convincingly is also problematic. “It is very difficult to capture the spirit of that time because any way you turn it, somehow Verdi forces you to deal with his time and that’s very difficult for today’s stage directors because we don’t have the Jean-Pierre Ponnelles, the Otto Schenks, the John Copleys – those guys who could deal with the operas as they were conceived. Now people grow up with a different culture and they have different points of reference. All that stuff might be in their consciousness, but they’re not interested in it. Psychology and subtext is what they’re interested in, so to create psychology and subtext you need a visual world which is made strange or abstract or updated… and that’s where you get into trouble with Verdi. I’m as game as anyone to work with really talented stage directors, but more often than not, they miss it in Verdi.”

Sir Antonio Pappano © Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics

There are huge demands on singers nowadays which just weren’t on singers in the past. “Now they want someone who’s telegenic, they want somebody who sounds good on recordings – okay, the old-timers sounded good on recordings – but they weren’t all very telegenic and they weren’t all great actors. Now, you have to be the whole thing and you have to rehearse five or six weeks too. The whole business has changed and so it’s very difficult to get that person healthy and able to survive the process of getting to that point in the business where they’re singing at Covent Garden. It’s really tough. I feel for them.”

We reflect that almost every performance now is in some way recorded or analysed on social media in such depth that singers just can’t afford to have a bad night. “Of my eight performances of Norma, six had either taping for film or radio. By the time we got to the cinema broadcast or the radio broadcast, only the last two performances were free of all that. That’s what our business has become. But I tell you, those last two performances, everybody was free and really went for it – incredible.”

Norma was a huge challenge for the House, especially when Anna Netrebko withdrew from the production only weeks after the Royal Opera season was announced. Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva leapt to the rescue. Pappano confides “Sonya was amazing. She saved our bacon in a big way!” Apparently, she needed no persuasion at all to jump in. “We needed the okay from the Met to release her from a group of Bohèmes which was not very difficult because we let her out of our Bohèmes to let her go and do Desdemona there last year. They owed us one!

“Sonya was fearless throughout. She came a long way from opening night – she gave a lot, but tired towards the end, but then, my goodness… for a Norma to sing eight performances and not cancel even one: unheard of!!”

As well as being Yoncheva’s first Norma, it was the first time Pappano had conducted the opera. How did he prepare? “I didn’t listen to the Callas records, because I knew I would get into trouble if I did that (I’d listened to them for years). I also got the new Urtext edition on which the Bartoli recording is based, which has a lot of interesting things in it. Some of it’s absolute rubbish but a lot of it is really very good. You still have to do surgery with it, but there are a lot of things I found fascinating.

“At the end of the day you have to have a feel for singers. You can’t conduct bel canto opera if you don’t know how to guide the singers and how to make the cantabile sound natural. I’ve been doing that my whole life, and yet I very seldom conduct bel canto opera. I did William Tell, The Barber of Seville, Capuleti years ago, and now Norma – but I’m at home with it because I have an understanding with the singers.”

When asked which singer last made him cry, Pappano’s answer is quick and witty: “The last one who didn’t show up to rehearsals!” I suspect Music Directors everywhere will nod sagely.