100 percent isn’t enough, you have to give 150 percent.

Sir Antonio Pappano, our Festival conductor for 2024, speaks here about the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, the passionate sound of Italy and his favourite »guilty pleasure«.

The 2024 Salzburg Easter Festival is entitled “the lure of the South”. What does this invitation to Salzburg mean to you?

Antonio Pappano: I’ve been working with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome for the past 18 years. And now we’ve reached this highpoint: an invitation to the Salzburg Easter Festival with a focus on Italy. We’re bringing with us Italian music with all its passion – a music that perfectly describes the spirit, the core, of what makes us Italian. I am very proud of this! We will be performing the opera »La Gioconda« by Amilcare Ponchielli, which has never been seen before at the Easter Festival – and we have a fantastic cast for it.

What makes »La Gioconda« stand out for you?

Antonio Pappano: This opera encapsulates everything that is characteristic of Italian opera: there’s melodrama, conflict, love and hatred: strong emotions and an incredible spirit. Then there’s a big role for the chorus, and there are expressive passages and lyrical vocal lines. This work touches me deeply, and I’m really happy that we’ve been invited to perform it at the Easter Festival because there’s a real connection to Italy here. Our whole Santa Cecilia family will be coming to Salzburg – the Orchestra and the Chorus together – to show what we mean by »Italian music«. And I promise that we’ll get to work with much passion and love.

This work stands on the cusp of the verismo movement and is rarely performed today – why did you choose it instead of one of the more popular operas?

Antonio Pappano: We’ve got two words for that in English: Guilty pleasure! It’s a surfeit of voices and melodies that somehow seems almost too much. But if you ponder why people want to see an Italian opera, then you have to admit it’s because its melodies are so convincing! I have thus far only ever conducted »La Gioconda« in the concert hall, but I really want to see it staged, even though it’s a major undertaking. It needs a large chorus, the individual acts are monumental, and the work’s overall structure is immense. But I’m keen to take up this challenge.

Oliver Mears will be directing this new production. You know each other from working together over many years at the Royal Opera House in London. What is it that attracts you to his work as a director?

Antonio Pappano: Every good director will get properly to grips with the libretto, working with the words, so that the text becomes something essential, not merely decorative. That’s the main thing for me as a man of the theatre. Opera comprises both text and music, and Oliver Mears understands that. He knows that engaging with the text is a must to me, which is why I’m delighted to be able to work with him. We have already done a wonderful »Rigoletto« together, which is a very heavy, weighty piece with a special spirit.
You have to approach »La Gioconda« with this degree of seriousness. It would be easy to celebrate this work as a kind of festival for the singers and just to rely on your star cast. But that wouldn’t be enough. There’s a story here, with characters who are psychologically very interesting, and all that has to come out in our production.

Antonio Pappano und der Chor und das Orchester der Accademia di Santa Cecilia © Fabio Lovino/contrasto

How would you describe the music of Amilcare Ponchielli?

Antonio Pappano: In technical terms, the music isn’t easy. Its music is restless and very difficult to play, and as the conductor you have to have an incredible sense of theatricality, otherwise the whole thing just won’t work at all. There are many wonderful melodies, some of which are repeated like a leitmotif, but the spirit of the whole has to be “over the top”. A hundred percent isn’t enough, you have to give 150 percent! And then you have to find six top-class singers who can sing it, who love this opera, and who want to be part of a real production of it – not just stand there and sing it. It’s very difficult, and I think this is why »La Gioconda« is not performed so often.

Anna Netrebko will be singing the title role – in her debut as the Gioconda …

Antonio Pappano: Anna has a big heart and incredible theatrical instincts. These are all absolutely necessary to portray this highly emotional character. And of course, her voice is wonderful. Technically she is utterly secure, and in recent years her voice has matured in the middle and lower registers, which makes her ideal for the Gioconda.

Jonas Kaufmann will be singing the role of Enzo Grimaldo at her side.

Antonio Pappano: There has rarely been another singer who is so interested in such a broad repertoire of works. Jonas has given his debut in many roles with me. I conducted his first Don José, his first Andrea Chénier, his first De Grieux in »Manon Lescaut« and his first Otello. And our stage production of »La Gioconda« here in Salzburg will be yet another debut for him. I think that Jonas simply possesses a different kind of intelligence and musicality – he has unbelievable possibilities for varying the colour of his voice. The speech rhythms of his Italian are also correct – and that’s very rare for a German, I have to say! (laughs)