Carlos Kleiber

Controversial operatic conductor of originality and passion

Carlos Kleiber was one of the finest operatic conductors of the second half of the 20th century.

Carlos Kleiber, conductor: born Berlin 3 July 1930; married (one son, one daughter); died 13 July 2004.

Carlos Kleiber was one of the finest operatic conductors of the second half of the 20th century.

Unlike his father, the Viennese-born conductor Erich Kleiber, whose wide musical sympathies ranged from Haydn and Mozart to Krenek and Milhaud, Carlos had a very limited repertory, which basically contained one Wagner opera, two Verdi, one Johann Strauss, two Richard Strauss, one Puccini and one Berg, all of them popular works. His career was controversial, partly because of the huge number of orchestral rehearsals that he demanded, and partly because of his habit of cancelling performances at very short notice. However, his musical gifts were such that few opera-lovers complained.

Adjectives such as incandescent, passionate, stimulating and shattering were heaped on his performances, which could turn the most hackneyed score into something entirely new, both in detail and in its overall conception.

Carlos Kleiber was born in 1930 in Berlin, where his father was General Music Director of the State Opera. In 1934 Erich resigned, and he and his family left Germany. Their base became Buenos Aires for the duration of the Second World War. Carlos began his musical studies there in 1950, though his father did not want him to take up a musical career. But, after a short interlude studying chemistry in Zurich, Carlos went back to music.

His first job in 1953 was at the Theater am Gärtnerplatz in Munich, followed by a spell at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf/Duisberg. In 1964 he went to the Zurich Opera for two years, after which he became a freelance. He conducted Wozzeck when the Württemberg State Opera from Stuttgart visited the 1966 Edinburgh Festival.

Erich Kleiber had conducted the premiere of Wozzeck in Berlin in 1925, and also the first British performance at Covent Garden in 1952. Carlos shared his father's love of Berg's opera and conducted it several times in Stuttgart as well as in Munich at the Bavarian State Opera, to which he was a frequent visitor from 1968. He also conducted Der Rosenkavalier in Munich, usually at the summer festival. He made his début at the Vienna State Opera in 1973 conducting Tristan und Isolde and the following year conducted Wagner's opera at Bayreuth. To hear Carlos Kleiber conduct Tristan was to realise that those adjectives incandescent and passionate were indeed applicable to his performance.

Kleiber made his début at Covent Garden in 1974 with Der Rosenkavalier. There was no sentimentality in his reading, but plenty of genuine feeling, while he managed to makes the waltz tunes sound utterly Viennese, but without schmaltz. Two years later he conducted Der Rosenkavalier at La Scala, Milan, with a similar great success. He was given the honour of opening the 1976/77 season at La Scala conducting a new production of Otello, directed and designed by Franco Zeffirelli, with Placido Domingo in the title role. Kleiber's storm music at the opening of Verdi's opera was possibly the loudest ever heard, but the love duet for Otello and Desdemona at the end of the first act was a miracle of delicacy and tenderness.

He returned to Covent Garden for Elektra in 1977, and the adjective this time was shattering. The same year he made his San Francisco début with Otello and conducted Verdi's opera in Munich. In 1978 he returned to La Scala for Tristan und Isolde and in Vienna he conducted a new production of Carmen. Bizet's opera was not really on Kleiber's "short list", but on this occasion it was very successful. As always with extremely well-known scores, he made the music sound new and original.

The same transformation was achieved at La Scala in 1979, when Kleiber conducted La Bohème, with Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo. The roistering of the Bohemians in Act I was exceptionally loud, but, after the arrival of Mimi, delicacy and tenderness (as in Otello) took over.

Kleiber conducted La Bohème at Covent Garden the same year. He insisted on 14 orchestral rehearsals, so that a revival of Der Rosenkavalier (with another conductor) had to be cancelled. But the resulting freshness and beauty that the orchestra brought to Puccini made those rehearsals worthwhile. He was back at Covent Garden in 1980 for Otello with Domingo, but he withdrew completely from the new production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann which he should have conducted.

After performances of La Bohème with Mirella Freni and Pavarotti in Munich, in 1985 he conducted a new production by Zeffirelli of La traviata in Florence, repeating Verdi's opera in Munich the same year. A sparkling New Year's Eve performance of Die Fledermaus conducted by Kleiber in Munich was relayed on BBC Television on New Year's Day 1987.

In January 1988 Kleiber made his very belated début at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, conducting La Bohème with Pavarotti and Freni, which was greeted with cheers and a standing ovation. He returned the following year for La traviata and in 1990 for Otello and Der Rosenkavalier. The same year he made a final visit to London for Otello with Domingo.

Kleiber recorded most of the operas in his basic repertoire, as well as Weber's Der Freischutz. Even on disc his totally personal style of conducting comes across.

Elizabeth Forbes

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