Semyon Bychkov enjoys long-term relationships with the world’s most renowned opera houses, including the Royal Opera House, London, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, La Scala, Milan, Teatro Real, Madrid and the opera houses of Vienna, Dresden and Paris.
One of the longest of these associations is with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. ‘The very first time I came there was for a new production of Elektra. While I was waiting at the security desk to be shown to my dressing room, they asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee.
When the porter is nice, somehow you have a feeling it will be the same throughout the house. And that has proved exactly the case at Covent Garden. They are magnificent people to work with, making clear their expectation of quality in a very quiet way, with no speech-making. For those of us who are not British it is actually very endearing.’
Elektra was followed by Boris Godunov, Queen of Spades, Lohengrin, Don Carlo, Tannhäuser and La bohème. Boris Godunov was also a success for Bychkov at the Met, where he subsequently returned twice for Otello. Another house that extended the hand of friendship is Paris. ‘The day I finished the run of Un Ballo in Maschera, the orchestra asked me to send them a dedicated photo to put on their wall. This is a very rare honour! Bychkov returned to conduct Tristan und Isolde in Paris, and on tour in Japan and Russia.
Bychkov has also had conspicuous success with another of the world’s most demanding opera audiences: the Wiener Staatsoper. ‘This was one of the most thrilling chapters in my life. After Elektra and Tristan there, I conducted a new production of Daphne, which was a discovery for everybody, because it hadn’t been performed there since Böhm conducted a few performances 30 years ago.
I kept being asked ‘What’s so interesting about Daphne?’ The questions and scepticism stopped the moment they heard the music. The atmosphere in that house is so electric that you need the fire brigade standing by because you never know when the flames will appear. It’s a hot public. It’s a hot acoustic, which helps of course. People really want to be there.’
After the revelation of virtually unknown Daphne came a new production of Lohengrin.
In both operatic and orchestral repertoire, Semyon Bychkov has worked extensively in Italy. He conducted both Tosca and Elektra at La Scala and appears every season in the orchestral series.
‘My relationship with Italy started in Florence. I was invited to conduct the Maggio Musicale orchestra, and it was such a warm first contact that they asked me to become their Principal Guest Conductor, a position I held for 6 years from 1992.
This was another opportunity to get under the skin of a particular style of music, to know the repertoire as a resident rather than a tourist. I was even bold enough to conduct La bohème in my second season in Florence, being too naive to realise the risk I was taking. Only after the successful first night was I told I’d been lucky to come out of it alive!
Italians identify with the melody and text, the basis of opera, but an interesting phenomenon has been happening in the last 15 years: young Italian musicians are studying abroad. They are very aware of the variety of musical expression dictated by the music itself and they understand instinctively that they can’t play Brahms the way they would Puccini.
If I am to learn a foreign language, my aim is to try and speak it as much as possible with theinflection of the natives. When you make music, you try to do the same. Inevitably there will be a slight accent – I can always tell if it is a Russian orchestra playing, or German, or French, or Italian. That’s part of the charm, and I absolutely treasure it. No matter how much you try to unify Europe, however much smaller the world is becoming because of improved communications and shared cultures, in the final analysis no one can change national character. That is something you inherit when you are born: It comes with your mother’s milk.’