On the fringe

A new album from Teodor Currentzis, the maverick Greek conductor who once billed himself as the saviour of the classical genre, is one of the freshest recordings in recent years, Feargus O’Sullivan writes.

Teodor Currentzis, the artistic director of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre in Russia, whose new album has been described as ‘exquisite’. Courtesy Sony Classical
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You can’t fault Teodor Currentzis for his ambition. In an interview seven years ago, the 42-year-old Greek conductor stated his intentions as plainly as can be. “I am going to save classical music,” he claimed. “Give me five or 10 years.”

Now the artistic director and conductor at the Perm Opera House and Ballet Theatre in Perm, Russia, Currentzis hasn’t quite lived up to that grandiose billing in his career since, but the man is still definitely one to watch. Physically resembling a survivor from a 1990s indie rock band, Currentzis has an energetic, almost punkish attitude to classical music that makes his recordings crackle with energy.

His new album of Mozart’s opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), for example, is one of the freshest recordings of recent years. Full of musical invention, the piece can be an over-familiar, almost decorous affair in the wrong hands, but Currentzis really shakes it to life, and sets out performance rules that make Figaro sound more like an exquisite chamber piece than a full-blooded opera.

Could he really be the man who can live up to his own vow to make younger people interested in music they more likely associate with their grandparents? If he gets the chance – and he’s making his own chances pretty well so far – then the answer might be yes.

Currentzis isn’t the most obvious candidate to be the great future hope for classical music, at least not internationally. Born in Athens, his career as a conductor has taken place mostly in Russia, where he has developed a reputation for bad-mouthing contemporaries and quarrelling with the power broker of Russian classical music, the Mariinsky Theatre’s Valery Gergiev. After a spell at the opera house of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk – one of the world’s largest, despite its remote location – Currentzis has subsequently arrived in Perm, a persistently obscure city of about one million on the fringes of European Russia. Perm may have a very good reputation within Russia for music, but it’s still a rather far-flung location from which to launch a career. If the classical music world were like Game of Thrones, moving to Perm would be a bit like being sent to man The Wall.

Still, outsiders work best on the outside, and Currentzis seems to have brokered himself a pretty amazing deal in Perm that makes sense of his choice. He has handpicked his orchestra and shaped them, creating a devoted band who get so immersed in their work they not uncommonly sleep over at the theatre. He has also managed to secure a recording deal with Sony that allows him total creative control, as well as longer-than-usual rehearsal time – no mean feat in a period when recordings are sparse and reissues of classic recordings so cheap.

Currentzis’s recording of Le Nozze di Figaro is part of a deal with Sony to put out three Mozart operas. Sony’s enthusiasm may be because of the Perm Opera’s ability to keep costs low (this is speculation on my part) but there’s no doubt that, quality-wise, they’re getting a good bang for their buck. And despite the suggestions of an impossible character filtering through the press, Currentzis has been rewarded with real devotion from his collaborators, who return time and again.

This is all fine, but how does Currentzis’s approach translate into an actual sound? The conductor’s first major album release – a 2008 recording of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas – proved something of a bombshell, a world away from the sometimes airless, historically informed perfectionism of some of his competitors. Some critics hated it, noting how rough and raw it sounded at the edges – there were even complaints that the instruments themselves sounded a little cheap. For others, however, this was part of Currentzis’s charm, of his tendency to favour energy and emotional intensity over glassy perfection. Personally, I absolutely loved the album, which was brisk, direct and freighted with an almost gothic intensity. If it were possible to have a dark alternative rock performance of a baroque opera – and let’s face it, it isn’t really – then Currentzis’s Dido and Aeneas would be it. It moved away from an obsession with authenticity towards a focus on bringing out the work’s dark passions.

Currentzis continues this emotionally direct, back-to-basics approach in his recording of Le Nozze di Figaro. Despite echoes of melancholy and violence rumbling through the libretto, the opera is a piece with exquisite, often rather sunny music. Currentzis strips away some of the gloss that this sweetness often encourages in conductors, creating something rhythmically urgent and punchy.

He has also chosen to return to instruments suitable to the time the opera was written. Granted, this approach has long been so common for baroque music that it’s now almost standard. For the classical period, however, the choice is far less automatic. Brilliant ensembles such as Britain’s authentic performance pioneers Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have been changing this, encouraging others to cast off performance style derived from the later Romantic period. Currentzis’s choice of instruments still comes as a de-familiarising surprise. A lute and a hurdy-gurdy both turn up, while the string section sounds slightly thinner and more percussive, giving the piece a chamber-music feel that’s intimate and gutsy. More strikingly still, there is piano accompaniment throughout. For listeners used to a lusher sound, this might give the recording a whiff of the rehearsal room. For me, it makes the production sound more direct, less concerned with displaying virtuosity than keeping the action dynamic and alive.

Still, it’s obviously the singing that really matters in opera. Here the recording is as fresh as ever. Mozart has never suited the heavy dramatic voices you’d expect from, say, Wagner’s booming Rhine maidens, but the recording goes further than normal in encouraging its soloists – and female singers in particular – to really strip-away operatic vibrato to find something fleet and pure-sounding. The female singing, in particular, has a light, delicate feel to it, closer to the baroque chamber concert than the echoing spaces of the vast romantic opera house.

The German soprano Simone Kermes, playing the role of Rosina, is a particular revelation, definitely a name that will become better known. Even on her loudest, most protracted notes, Kermes allows herself just the lightest frill of vocal tremor. Her voice, nonetheless, has an emotional heft that pushes her singing beyond the merely pretty. In her key aria Dove Sono I Bei Momenti? (Where Are the Beautiful Moments?), she memorably dramatises her character’s regret – that of a woman whose once-adoring husband has abandoned her to shallow philandering – wondering exactly to where the magic of her earlier life has disappeared. It’s one of the opera’s ironies that this elegy to her life’s disappearing beauty is set to music that is itself of ravishing charm, as if the characters are unaware of their own voices. Kermes fills the aria with emotion without resorting to mannerism – even the song’s climax isn’t especially loud – an impressive task for someone whose voice is so pretty.

It’s too early to call the album a landmark recording – Currentzis isn’t the first conductor to order singers to trim off vibrato and put the wind up his string section. Still, there is definitely something exciting here. To make an analogy with film, it’s like a move away from lavishly produced costume drama – delightful, but distracted by its own decorative perfection – to an independent production: leaner, tougher and with a greater emotional punch. The conductor has already recorded his next instalment in his Mozart series – Così Fan Tutte – in January, and the drive on display here should do brilliantly to bring out the darker side of that musically charming, thematically embittered bauble of an opera. Currentzis may be out on the classical world’s fringes, but it seems to suit him very well.