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1996-06, Gramophone, “Taking Off”

Taking Off

lan Blythe, Gramophone, June 1996

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The baritone Simon Keenlyside followed his Schubert recital with a disc of Strauss.

Simon Keenlyside has moved swiftly from promise to achievement in the past few years. He is now in demand in the major opera houses of the world and has a flourishing career in concerts and on the recital platform. When I met him he had just returned from his debut at La Scala, where he had sung Papageno in a new production of Die Zauberflöte conducted by Muti – “a man who really tests you, but once you have his confidence you’re OK” says Keenlyside.

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Reportedly the baritone’s contribution was one of the few successes in a pretty rum evening. The producer, apparently, spoke no German and so could give his singers little guidance so that Keenlyside was left to his own devices, fair enough as he had had such a triumph with the part first with Scottish opera (where he received positive direction from Martin Duncan), then at the Royal Opera. Be that as it may he has been invited back to La Scala for more Papagenos and for Count Almaviva in Figaro. His diary also includes his forthcoming Metropolitan debut – as Belcore in L’elisir d’amore, followed by Olivier in Capriccio, which he has already recorded on video (Decca 6/95), and after that maybe Marcello.

Keenlyside takes all this in his stride. His self-depreciating manner is about as far as you can get from a primo uomo image, yet this slightly built, slim young baritone is already well established as a strong Almaviva and Don Giovanni.

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Cheryl Studer and Simon Keenlyside in the 1995 Production of Le Nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden.

He’s glad to have come to opera slowly, he told me “Some singers such as Bryn [Terfel] come out like a wild beast, ready to run straight away. My voice has taken time to develop its full potential and that can be true even of individual performances. I don’t think that my Covent Garden Almaviva last autumn really came into its own until the third performance. I need time and patience to think myself into a part and develop it. It was also a problem following Tom [Thomas Allen]. What I had to realize was that, wonderful as he is, if I had copied him I would have sunk simply because I wouldn’t have been as good as him in what he was doing.

At the same time he has definite ideas about what roles he considers worthwhile pursuing. He has recently undertaken Schaunard, both on stage and for an EMI recording, and Mercutio on disc (again for EMI) “I enjoyed the experience at the time, but I don’t really want to sing those parts again as they’re not interesting enough. I revel in singing in high lyric lines, and that usually means roles heavier than I have been able to undertake until now – things like Hamlet, Valentin, Onegin and Posa (Don Carlos). I’m also broaching Pelleas, which I’m sure I’ll enjoy. I think I’m ready for all those parts now. I am very anxious not to be pushed into a Mozart slot. It’s all Guglielmos at the moment [he takes the role at, among other places, Glyndebourne this summer]. I’d prefer to continue with Giovanni and Almaviva now.”

Keenlyside is frank about his early days. “Then I concentrated on song because I simply did not have the ability to tackle opera – not enough voice. I had a marvellous teacher in John Cameron, who pushed and bullied me into getting things right in song interpretation. I tended to concentrate on mélodies as much as Lieder because in that field you don’t have the tremendous shadow of Fischer-Dieskau to contend with. If you’re relating a Poulenc setting of an Aragon poem about a death camp, it’s sometimes easier than the Herz and Schmerz of Lieder. Maybe it’s simply a different approach to tragedy. Anyway both present a big challenge, and that’s what I enjoy.”

British song hasn’t been a speciality – although he greatly admires Britten. Indeed I recall seeing and hearing his first stage appearance as Tarquinius in Lucretia at the Britten-Pears School at Snape about a decade ago. Then he did Ned Keene in EMI’s Grimes (7/93)  and sang Budd with Scottish Opera. He’s also had in his schedule five performances of the War Requiem, “I enjoy an emotional response to words and music, that must always come first. But you have to be careful there. When I sang Orestes in WNO’s Gluck’s Iphigénie, I became so involved in his tragic predicament that I actually did harm to my voice. You musn’t get too involved. You must take a step back from a song or a song character.”

As for his new Strauss CD, he is a trifle apprehensive. “I hadn’t calculated what a stress he places on the voice and I’m not sure I allowed enough time to cope with, or hadn’t sufficiently realized, all the stresses and strains of those often heroically inclined songs. But it’s a three-day cameo of what I could achieve then. I can make criticisms here and there as others will but over all I hope it is OK.”

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A large part of the success of his Lieder singing is owing to his regular pianist partner, Malcolm Martineau. “He’s more than supportive. He is awash with ideas, which is greatly stimulating. Now we’re planning a Winterreise and a Ravel disc for EMI. After that we may go for Wolf, who appeals to me a lot – but sales with him are always a bit of a problem. Then with Collins Classics we shall do a Vaughan Williams CD. There’s so much repertory I’m keen to do.”

Where recording is concerned, he finds it hard to contend, with song, in the studio with the absence of adrenalin. “An audience puts you on your mettle. It’s different with operas. Your colleagues are there, the orchestra; there’s a real buzz about. In both, you also have to adjust to the mikes. I’m concerned with getting the proper presence of the voice, something that producers don’t always achieve.”

Hi favourite review was for Figaro in Barbiere in Scotland. In the production he had to juggle. “The review simply said “Simon Keenlyside juggles”. Full stop. That was great.”

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