Sir John Eliot Gardiner may not seem the most obvious choice as a Verdian conductor but Simon Boccanegra, now running at the Royal Opera House, will change many people's preconceptions.
Gardiner describes Monteverdi and Verdi as "the bookends of Italian opera" and himself as a committed Verdian for many years.
Few seeing the performance would question that.
He talks enthusiastically about the Italian composer and this work in particular. "It's an essential score," he says, "and unjustly neglected. It's among Verdi's least flawed works, along with Don Carlo, Otello and Falstaff. I love its darkness and brooding passion." When asked what other Verdis he'd like to tackle, he runs off a list without having to think about it. "Don Carlo of course. I'm totally under its spell," he says, adding that he finds the five act French version the most convincing. "Otello if you have the right tenor, the French version also of Vêpres Siciliennes and I'm very drawn to Un Ballo in Maschera".
There are no specific plans at the moment: "I'm keen but I don't know about Covent Garden; the musical director (Antonio Pappano) is of course a very fine Verdian." Back to the current run of Simon Boccanegra and he's quick to defend the decision to use Ian Judge's production. The choice was, after all, his and he went for the 1997 production, not seen at the Royal Opera House since the Verdi Festival of that year and never before in its 1881 version. This was in preference to the more familiar Elijah Moshinsky one, last revived in 2004. "I was very impressed with the sets and the costumes and above all with Ian Judge's Shakespearian stagecraft," he says. Judge, a veteran of the RSC as well as an experienced opera director, certainly has the credentials to draw out the Shakespearean strengths of the work.
Gardiner sees the staging of any opera he's working on as "hugely important" and has no time for imposed directorial conceits. You get the sense talking to him that the atmosphere would be stormy indeed if a director went head to head with him.
Hardly a week seems to have gone by recently without a press release being sent out by the Royal Opera about another casting change for this Boccanegra (the latest has just announced that Orlin Anastassov, out of the first few performances through illness, won't now return to the production at all). It began back in January with the withdrawal of Nina Stemme, who was to have made her debut as Amelia. The loss of such a big star was a blow to the Royal Opera House but turned out as something of a blessing. "Nina Stemme was a strange choice which I was not happy about," says Gardiner. "She's a wonderful soprano but not a Verdian singer. She came to the same conclusion herself. We are very lucky to now have Anja Harteros in the part."
Harteros has certainly grabbed attention in her Royal Opera debut, with a stunning performance as Amelia, but it wasn't all plain-sailing. "I had two piano rehearsals with her and the next time I saw her was at the dress rehearsal", he says. Such is the frantic life-style of jet-setting musicians. "But she is so good," he adds,"that she fitted in very quickly." Another replacement is Feruccio Furlanetto, who has stood in as Fiesco for the indisposed Anastassov and will now do most of the remaining performances. Gardiner describes him as "luxury casting". He's rehearsing for Philip II in the forthcoming Don Carlo and "wandered into rehearsal one day so we grabbed him." With no rehearsal time, he too slipped seamlessly into the production and Gardiner says it's now as though they had rehearsed together for a full three weeks.
He is full of praise also for Lucio Gallo, who plays the corsair-turned-doge Boccanegra, "an extraordinary singer who takes risks, has great truth of expression and integrity. He captures the humanity of the peacemaking statesman perfectly."
Forthcoming as he is about his current work and future plans, Gardiner is not so easily drawn on his past achievements. The Bach Cantata project of 2000, in which he performed every extant cantata on the appropriate festival day over the course of a year, is in the past and something he tires of talking about. It's not quite finished, though, as he is only halfway through releasing the recordings, something that won't be completed until 2010. In order to do this, he set up his own CD label, Soli Deo Gloria, which packages the releases very distinctively and to the conductor's specifications.
What with his founding the Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and English Baroque Soloists, and now the record label, I ask him if there isn't something of an entrepreneur about him. For the first time in the conversation he chuckles and says "Yes, I suppose there must be". I don't push my luck by asking him if he could see himself on The Apprentice. I suspect he'd have to be in Sir Alan Sugar's chair for that and he has indeed recently set up an apprentice scheme within the Monteverdi Choir to give young singers a chance to develop their skills in a supportive environment. Sir Alan take note!
Again looking ahead, Gardiner sees the future of opera as being maybe beyond the proscenium arch and he admires the work of people like Graham Vick in Birmingham, producing work in unlikely situations. He also talks of the increasing number of concert/semi-staged performances of opera as a stimulating and enlightening development that can enhance the theatricality of the art.
However the future shapes up for opera in this country, Sir John Eliot Gardiner is sure to keep his focus ahead of him, seeking out the next new challenge.