訃告：Sir Edward Downes（1924~2009）
Sir Edward Downes
Sir Edward Downes, who died with his wife Joan on July 10 aged 85, was regarded as the pre-eminent British conductor of Verdi, though he enjoyed an almost equal standing with the Russian repertoire, particularly Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
Verdi was his great passion. He was not only a superb interpreter of his work, he also rescued several lesser known operas, such as Stiffelio and I Masnadieri, from obscurity, helping to prepare scholarly new editions and introducing the music to modern audiences. The idea of staging all 28 of Verdi's operas at the Royal Opera House in the run-up to the 2001 centenary of the composer's death was Downes's, and he admitted that one of his few regrets was that he had only managed to conduct 25 of them – a sentiment that characterised both his enthusiasm for the composer and his capacity for work.
Though Downes had a lower public profile than many of his colleagues, he was revered by orchestras (he was also, for many years, principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic), and was never afraid to stand up for his principles. He was one of the few conductors prepared to speak out against the vogue for sensationalism in operatic productions.
In 1996 he famously withdrew from Tim Albery's staging of Nabucco, in which the Israelite women were dressed as Victorian prostitutes in ball gowns and the men as early 20th-century middle-European Jews, declaring he was "out of sympathy" with the production. So, as it turned out, were audiences.
Edward Thomas Downes, always known as Ted, was born in Birmingham on June 17 1924. He began learning the piano and violin when he was five and sang as a boy chorister at King Edward School. Though forced to leave school aged 15 through lack of money, he won a scholarship to read English and Music at Birmingham University, where he began playing the cor anglais.
During postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Music, he played in the first performances of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes at Sadler's Wells in 1945 and in The Sleeping Beauty at the re-opening of Covent Garden in 1946. He then got a job as a lecturer at Aberdeen University where he conducted his first opera, The Marriage of Figaro, before winning a two-year Carnegie scholarship to study with Hermann Scherchen in Zurich.
Downes began his professional career with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and in 1952 landed a job at Covent Garden as a repetiteur; his first job was prompting Maria Callas in Norma. The music director Rafael Kubelik gave him his first breaks by allowing him to stand in at short notice when other conductors cancelled. He made his conducting debut in 1953 in a revival of La Bohème.
Downes's lifelong love affair with Verdi's operas began later the same year when Kubelik called him in at a day's notice to conduct a performance of Otello. "I'd never conducted any Verdi, and certainly not Otello, though I knew it because I'd coached the singers," Downes recalled. "So that was the first Verdi I ever did, with no rehearsal whatever. And I immediately felt on home ground. I seemed to understand Verdi as a person. He was a peasant. He had one foot in heaven and one on the earth. And this is why he appeals to all classes of people."
At the same time, though, Downes was acquiring a reputation with the Russian repertoire. This began when Kubelik wanted to do Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov in English with Boris Christoff in the title role, but Christoff refused to come unless he could sing the part in Russian. Kubelik told Downes that he would have to learn the language to teach the chorus and the smaller parts. The warm critical reception encouraged the company to embark on a series of major premieres, for which Downes translated the texts and prepared the performers. These included such works as Mussorgsky's Khovanschina and Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova.
When Downes himself conducted the premiere of Katerina Ismailova in 1963, he had the opportunity of working closely with the composer. The experience led him to question the popular view that everything Shostakovich wrote had a dissident subtext. Shostakovich, he recalled, had "complained bitterly to me about people trying to put political agendas into his music. He said they were more interested in what was written about his music than in the music itself".
Downes's determination to emphasise the integrity of Shostakovich's musical vision led him to focus on the grand design rather than milk every ironic nuance for hidden political meaning. As a result he established a reputation as one of the world's most powerfully persuasive interpreters of the composer's works.
At the same time he championed the works of Prokofiev, conducting the British premiere of War and Peace in a concert performance at Leeds Town Hall in 1967, and orchestrating and conducting the world premiere of the composer's one-act opera Maddalena in 1979.
Downes remained a company member at Covent Garden for 17 years and returned annually as a guest conductor before assuming the post of Associate Music Director in 1991. In 1967 he became the first English conductor to conduct a Ring cycle since Sir Thomas Beecham. He also championed the works of modern English composers, premiering, among other works, Humphrey Searle's Hamlet (1969), Richard Rodney Bennett's Victory (1970), Peter Maxwell-Davies's Taverner (1972) and John Tavener's Thérèse (1979).
Elsewhere, Downes became the Australian Opera's musical director in 1970 and conducted the first performance in the new Sydney Opera House (of War and Peace). He was, for many years, chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, and he enjoyed a long relationship with the BBC Philharmonic, serving as its chief guest conductor, Principal Conductor, and finally as Conductor Emeritus.
Downes might have considered the political meaning in Shostakovich to be overplayed, but as an "old-fashioned socialist idealist" he never made any secret of his own radical sympathies. When resurrecting the score for I Masnadieri in 2002, he remarked on the topicality of a story of a hero who joins a gang of bandits and sticks by them even though horrified by their deeds: "You have to ask why these people are behaving this way," Downes observed. "Not all terrorists are evil Iagos."
Certainly Downes, content and easy-going, was never one to behave badly, unlike others in the often highly-strung world of classical music. When asked where the key to Sir Georg Solti's success lay, Downes replied: "He was a bastard – a marvellous man and a great conductor, but a complete bastard when he needed to be. That sort of ruthlessness just wasn't in my nature."
In the later stages of his career, Downes found himself afflicted by failing eyesight and by increasing deafness, as a result of which he was forced to withdraw from the opera and concert scene. In 2005 he celebrated his 53rd – and last – season at Covent Garden, conducting ten performances of Rigoletto.
Edward Downes was appointed CBE in 1986 and knighted in 1991.
According to their children, he and his wife Joan, a former ballet dancer and choreographer, took the decision to travel to the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic in Zurich to end their lives together after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They are survived by their son and daughter, Caractacus and Boudicca, named, characteristically, after the two great ancient Britons who fought the might of Rome.