2006 No 4. Rondo magazine interview:Too much Mozart is frustrating

Simon Keenlyside: Too much Mozart is frustrating

Rondo 4/06 interview

Translated by Ursula Turecek


He is used to looking closer than others. In his role-portraits the British baritone Simon Keenlyside is a perfectionist, a precisionist, an obsessed. And one whose charm you may easily succumb to. As Jörg Königsdorf came to know in Zurich.

This Don Giovanni is at work untiringly on the Zurich Operahouse’s stage: Will-o’-the-wisping, bewitching, charming, contracting the net around his victims, even when Mozart and Da Ponte allow the other team mates of this not so very funny dramma giocoso to take the floor. You hardly can blame Anna, Elvira and Zerlina this evening for having succumbed to Simon Keenlyside’s arts of seduction. To his vigorous baritone wrapped in a caressingly tender timbre but also to the demonic machismo with which the Briton fills Mozart’s darkest operatic hero. “For me Giovanni always was a dark, thoroughly unsound guy. I grew up with the recordings of the great American baritones from the fifties and sixties, but I never knew what to do with the brilliant festivity with which pieces like the champagne-aria were sung then.”

A position that by all means may be considered as typical for Keenlyside. The 46 year old never was interested in merely beautiful singing. Like Bo Skovhus and Dietrich Henschel, colleagues of his “fach” and generation, Keenlyside also wants to fathom characters on stage, presses Mozart’s and Verdi’s, Debussy’s and Britten’s figures hard in search of their mental abysses and hidden sexuality and tries to get behind the words’ and melodies’ outward facade. A meticulous legwork that leaves no detail unconsidered: When he gave a guest performance in the old Ruth Berghaus production of Rossini’s “Barber” in Berlin years ago, you could experience a role portrait with acting that was polished to the last detail – Keenlyside’s colleagues who otherwise sang Figaro in this repertory piece simply ignored a good portion of the stage directions.

No wonder that even an expert in original sound like René Jacobs is working with this singer who is trained in styles: After their “Grammy”-crowned “Figaro” the two of them will be recording “Giovanni” at the end of the year – anyway, he never had been completely satisfied with his recording under Abbado that is now nearly 10 years old, Keenlyside declares candidly.

But sure enough it is just as important to him to broach a fundamental misunderstanding. In Germany he is still considered as Mozart-singer, as Papageno, Giovanni, Count from “Figaro”, the role with which he made his debut at the Hamburg Opera in 1985 [sic]. “Yet it would be rather frustrating for me to sing too much Mozart because I can only use half of my voice with it.”

Still his Pelléas in Salzburg for which he earned the critics’ undivided elation at the Easter Festival seems to have rectified the image of the eternal Papageno and Giovanni to a certain extent and on his new recital-CD Mozart is only one among many. Keenlyside feels drawn mightily by the great 19th century opera instead, by Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Verdi. He presented himself with Verdi-arias at the New Year’s concert of the Berlin Philharmonic some years ago, and parts like Posa in “Don Carlos” or Ambroise Thomas’ “Hamlet” are part of his repertory on stage just as Rossini’s Figaro.

Thus Keenlyside wants to have his CD understood as an explicit homage to his predecessors in the great Italian “fach”: ‘“Come due tizzi accesi’ from Cilea’s rarely played “Arlesienne” for example is my tribute to Tito Gobbi from whose recordings I’ve learned incredibly much. Gobbi’s voice may not have been the greatest ever but it is simply fascinating what riches in colours and nuances he gets out of it over and over again. Even on record every Gobbi-figure is a quite clearly drawn character full of different facets. And the Cilea-aria simply was one of his favourite pieces.” Equally Germont’s aria from “Traviata” could be understood as a tribute to Robert Merrill’s recording of the piece under Toscanini – Tito Gobbi, Keenlyside confesses, was a model for him but by no means the only one.

In view of Keenlyside’s stylistic meticulousness it is little wonder that he considers lieder singing as pivotal in his work. A good third of his performances is devoted to song, to the German classics from Schubert to Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss as well as to the French mélodies by Duparc, Fauré and Poulenc and to the English song cycles by composers like Vaughan Williams, Warlock and Britten that still are badly disregarded on the Continent. To make a song his own, to trace its subtleties and the deeper meaning of the words is like Sudoku, he explains. This is doubtless one of the reasons why Simon Keenlyside concentrates on the languages he speaks fluently himself: English, French, Italian and also the German that he perfected during his time in the ensemble of the Hamburg Opera. “Even then I gave recitals in front of a German audience with German songs – I thought: If your German is good enough for this audience it also is for the rest of the world.”

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