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Antonio Pappano, Con Passione

Lucrèce Maeckelbergh

Pub. Uitgeverij Snoeck, 2006. 224pp. Hardback.

Includes a cover mounted CD of Pappano in performance.

ISBN: 90-5349-527-4 (English edition)




This book presents the story so far about Antonio Pappano, the man and his career.

Lucrèce Maeckelbergh, has followed Pappano’s career over many years: throughout his highly successful tenure at Die Munt in Brussels and at Covent Garden, in addition to his symphonic conductor and pianist guises. That the book may have started as a series of radio interviews between artist and author in Brussels is undeniable, but the breadth and depth of the final publication give a rounder picture than any series of interviews could convey. Pappano’s involvement was, Maeckelbergh says, "warm hearted, […] yet critical", as well it might have been on the part of any artist who is serious about how their art is understood.

The book is cast in five subdivided sections. Part one examines Pappano’s life and the role of music within it. It begins with what I imagine was a monologue delivered by the man himself. The monologue moves at break-neck speed through his early life, key influences, career highlights and select professional partnerships. If, when reading it, one wishes the pace might relent so even the slightest elaboration could be made, it has to be acknowledged that much of Pappano’s own energy and enthusiasm is felt. Thus, in one sentence, when discussing early repertoire, Massenet sits alongside Carlisle Floyd, Bernstein and Sondheim. The reader is then taken through Pappano’s London childhood haunts in the company of director, friend and longstanding collaborator Keith Warner.

The biographical sketch continues with the family move from London to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where his skills as an accompanist were in much demand. Eventually, in the States opportunities arose at the New York City Opera, but the influence of his late father, Pasquale, himself a notable tenor, runs like a leitmotif through Pappano’s early development and even today his understanding of voices. Europe beckoned though through experience at Bayreuth and successive posts in Barcelona (repetiteur at the Liceo) music director of the Oslo opera and La monnaie in Brussels.

The culmination, in many senses of Pappano’s musical apprenticeship is best told across the end of Part I by Daniel Barenboim: all credit to him for suggesting Pappano maintain his piano playing and interest in chamber music. In Part II others who have worked closely with Pappano over a number of years contribute: Peter Wiggins, his manager; Bernard Foccroulle, intendant of La monnaie; Sir Colin Southgate, Royal Opera House Covent Garden; and Willy Decker, director. Amiability, is the main characteristic that comes across, as is obvious professional respect. However, if only some note of criticism, or even mild questioning on occasion, was present too. If the tone verges on the reverential, Pappano’s own contributions counter this and hint at his own ambition in the field of symphonic repertoire with his Rome-based Santa Cecilia orchestra. Along the way we get a clear picture also of Pappano’s love affair with the recording studio.

Pappano’s real love though, we learn, is with the theatre, and it was through working with Inga Nielsen and Robert Hale that he became a conductor. Rarely, probably, have singers encouraged a young repetiteur to conduct, but they obviously identified something in his musical sensibilities that made him right for the opera pit. Again, energy and ruthlessness are qualities that come out, but never – we are told – at the expense of music or drama. Musicians that play under Pappano try to unravel the mystery of what makes a great conductor, yet in my estimation I feel that no one will ever be able to do this. But they do succeed in saying what makes Pappano an interesting ringmaster for their professional lives.

I suspect, however, that the compliments Pappano might set most store by are those in Part IV: from singers. From José van Dam, who reigned as La Monnaie’s baritone in chief during Pappano’s tenure, to Domingo, via Thomas Hampson, Dale Duesing, Roberto Alagna, Barbara Bonney and Susan Chilcott. All attest that he is a singer’s conductor or pianist. As a listener, however, I find it hard to agree with the universal praise his conducting of Wagner in particular receives, but then such things are largely a question of taste.

The final part turns the direction of the volume around as Pappano imparts to Maeckelbergh his thoughts on some of his favourite operas: Ariadne auf Naxos, Wozzeck, Falstaff, Don Giovanni, La Boheme, Lohengrin and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk among them. Interweaved amongst Pappano’s thoughts are those of many of his leading singers for particular productions. Susan Chilcott remains a singer he misses greatly, and her inclusion is touching.

The CD inserted in the back cover has a generous playing time of 77 minutes and provides a fairly rounded musical portrait to accompany Maeckelbergh’s book. Its 21 tracks offer samples from his EMI studio recordings of Massenet’s Werther and Manon, Puccini’s La rondine, La Boheme, Tosca, Suor Angelica and Messa di Gloria, Verdi’s Don Carlos and Il trovatore, Wagner’s Tristan, Boesmans’ Wintermärchen and Wolf’s Ganymed with Bostridge.

The volume is generously illustrated, allowing it to grace the coffee tables of any Covent Garden habitué with ease. That the prose style is laid back and concisely constructed by Maeckelbergh makes it a most untaxing read which can easily be dipped into at will. Overall, the book can be recommended as a solid introduction to a conductor who ultimately engages and sustains one’s interest by the strength of his personality.

Evan Dickerson


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