The passionate and inspirational Hungarian conductor Ádám Fischer – for years an ardent advocate of free speech and creative freedom in his country – continues the great tradition of interpreting the classical repertoire. He is a conductor for whom the score of La Traviata, our end-of-year production, holds no secrets. Who is not familiar with the compelling beauty of this composition which fills us with emotion from the very first notes? The audience expects to be intoxicated and, determined not to disappoint, Ádám Fischer sees it as his inevitable, musical duty to ensure the music reaches fever pitch.
La Traviata is one of Verdi’s most frequently performed operas. Where does the challenge lie for the conductor of this work?
La Traviata is the most intense score in Verdi’s middle period and it always presents a tremendous challenge for a conductor. One should not be put off by the Italian ‘humpapa’ accompaniments in the orchestra. In fact, what I am looking to do here is to show that the orchestra performs the leading role rather than an accompanying role. The musical portrayal of the three vocal leading roles, who are well developed psychologically as conflicting but very human characters, is another wonderful challenge for a conductor. But apart from that, there are two more reasons why for me the opera is interesting today. Firstly, there is the social attitude, which has changed totally since Verdi’s time. We no longer understand why a woman who has known a number of men should be regarded as inferior: in Verdi’s time such a person was shunned like a leper; in my youth people believed that a woman who had suffered so much deserved forgiveness, and these days people don’t even understand what there is to forgive… A society that thinks and behaves in such a Victorian manner that it denounces these women should be condemned, because a society that excludes people is founded on a lie. It is not the individual who is to blame, but society. And then we come on to the second reason Andrea Breth and I believe is important in the opera: the question of how a person reacts when he knows he is going to die. I would like to be able to portray this graphically through the music. That’s why I would sum up my musical goal as follows: the music will always sound as if it is running a temperature of 38.6°C.
Why do you think La Traviata has become so famous?
I speak now as an old-fashioned opera conductor: the operas which have always enjoyed success are those written for the great opera stars. Those operas gave great performers the chance to show off their vocal skills. Verdi knew very well what he was doing with La Traviata and who he was writing it for. I am certainly not trying to claim that only the popular, successful operas are good! That is not the case. We can also interpret less popular works in such a way that the audience finds them convincing! But with La Traviata that problem does not even arise because the work is both good and popular.
You said you wanted to give the orchestra a leading role in La Traviata. How then do you deal with elements like the ‘humpapa’, the simple accompaniment which led Richard Wagner to dub the Verdian orchestra a “big guitar”?
I firmly believe that the ‘humpapa’ should be filled with content! The accompaniment should never sound mechanical. And you certainly shouldn’t regard the work as inferior! To fill the accompaniment with content you must constantly be aware of which emotions are surfacing, and then you set about interpreting those emotions. The singer sings what he says, but the orchestra shows what he or she is thinking and feeling. The orchestra’s job is to underline and serve the emotions of the drama. Whether it is joy or sorrow, I must be able to express every emotion with the orchestra alone. Technique should always remain in the background while the emotion takes precedence with the singers, because otherwise the accompaniment serves no purpose. When I accompany a melancholy passage with a ‘humpapa’ it will sound different from when I accompany a fear-stricken, heavyhearted passage with that same ‘humpapa’… There’s a world of difference between the emotions of the characters and consequently the orchestra will sound different too.
How important was or is Verdi in your career as a conductor?
I conducted a lot of Italian music particularly at the beginning of my career. In Vienna, where I made my debut at the Staatsoper with Verdi’s Otello thirty years ago, I had charge of the Italian repertoire for quite a while because I was successful with it. I also conducted La Traviata at that time. I see myself as an opera conductor – or rather, as a theatre conductor – of the ‘old school’. In that respect I may be indebted to Verdi… With the ‘old school’ it was important to bring together the right cast before deciding to stage a work. I still always think a good performance with the right singers of an unpretentious work like Hänsel und Gretel is preferable to a poor performance of a great repertoire piece like Carmen. That’s why it is not so much what I perform as how I perform it.
I understand from what you have said that you will want to work very closely with the singers?
Yes, of course, I want to build the singers’ full potential into my interpretation! For example, I see cuts as largely dependent on the singers: if a singer doesn’t have a problem with specific passages, of course there is no need to leave them out, but if you notice that a singer moves more comfortably through the work if a certain passage is omitted, then I have no hesitation in dropping it. And if someone has an interesting idea, I take that on board too. My version is not set in stone. Directors often change things as they go along too. As I have said: in that respect I am very old-fashioned.
How are you finding working with Andrea Breth?
We have met regularly and discussed various theories and views, but the main theme that came up for discussion is how someone changes in the face of death, for example when suffering from a fatal illness. The music and technical side of this did not need to be an issue because I want to take full responsibility for solving any technical problems so as to allow Andrea to concentrate fully on the essence of the piece and that way have absolute confidence in it. Like her, I don’t want to decide everything in advance and I want this production to take shape during the rehearsals. So in that respect I am old-fashioned... But don’t misunderstand me: the method may be old-fashioned, but the staging and the ideas will certainly be innovative!
How important is the Zeitgeist when you study a score?
I take the time to study the Zeitgeist and the historical context in some depth. The musical performance practice of the time is also important to me, but so are other factors, like the sociology and the literature of the time. If you compare Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Dame aux camélias with Verdi’s libretto, you see that the opera is constructed in a totally different way dramaturgically from the novel: Dumas is actually more theatrical than Verdi. On the last page of his book Dumas changes everything and puts a whole different light on the story. Dramaturgically that has many possibilities. But I am a conductor, not a director! So I will leave it to Andrea to decide what she wants to do with it. I will be very happy if I manage to reveal the truth behind the words and make the audience feel the fever that runs right through the work. Those are the things I want to achieve in La Traviata.
Recorded by Reinder Pols and Marie Goffette