Così fan tutte - James Gaffigan

The American conductor James Gaffigan has been looking forward to returning to Glyndebourne ever since he conducted Verdi’s Falstaff last year for Glyndebourne on Tour. Even now, the excitement in his voice is unmistakable: “It was my first ever visit to Glyndebourne, and I had a ball. In my experience, there has been nothing like it. It’s gorgeous, the perfect size for an opera house in terms of the acoustics and the intimacy of the theatre, for everything from Mozart to Strauss. It’s one of the few places in the world where there is time to get things done. Everything is at your fingertips; and then to have a break and walk outside and see the sheep grazing: it’s quite unreal.”

Gaffigan is in the unusual position of taking over performances of Così fan tutte in the middle of the run. For many conductors that would be less than ideal, but not in this instance: the conductor who will hand over the baton is Sir Charles Mackerras. “He’s the Mozart conductor I respect above all others,” Gaffigan says. “He works very hard at every single detail, including the singers’ornamentation, and he sticks firmly to his ideals. I respect that. I adore his work, it’s never over done, never flashy: he does justice to the composer, and I think that’s something that all young conductors can look up to. I’m happy to take over from him, although I imagine that there will be some things that I’ll decide to do differently. Singers are usually happy to move in a different direction halfway through a run, if you can persuade them that it makes sense, and that it’s possible. One of the wonderful things about opera is that every night is different; a certain singer may want to go a little faster or slower, depending on where the voice sits at that moment, and that’s exciting for a conductor.”

And, we might add, for an audience. It’s in those minute variations that a great performance breathes. If any ensemble has the ability to allow Mozart to breathe, it’s the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Indeed, James Gaffigan’s introduction to the OAE was by way of Mozart: “The first time I heard the OAE play was on Simon Rattle’s recording of Così . I completely fell in love with the timbre the players produced. I’m not a period-instrument specialist, I can’t pretend to know every aspect of ornamentation, note values, bow strokes and so on, but I know the sound that I want. I’m a former bassoonist, and the sound of the period bassoon is completely different from what I was used to. It’s so delicate. The same goes for the wooden flute: it blends, it’s so much more natural. I’m sure that the OAE will, indeed, enlighten me, make me aware of new colours, new sounds in Mozart’s orchestra. As far as I’m concerned, Così achieves the perfect balance of the divine and the absurd. That’s what makes it such a wonderful opera.”

Words: Nick Kimberley