Three days into stage rehearsals, and just over a week to opening night, English National Opera’s Music Director Edward Gardner talked to me about the company’s new Bartok/Stravinsky double-bill.

Young and charismatic, Gardner has been credited with having turned the ENO’s fortunes round in the two and half years he’s been in the post. It’s been an impressive recovery and while, of course, it’s hardly a one-man revolution, the conductor has certainly been pivotal in stabilising the company.

He tells me that he and John Berry, the Artistic Director, are a great team, maybe not agreeing on every decision but striving in the same direction to build a secure future and one based on innovation and audience expansion.

He seems to share Berry’s passion for reaching out to new audiences, with adventurous programming that has seen more hits than misses in the last couple of years. He’s intrigued to hear that Whatsonstage will be taking a group of 125 theatregoers, some opera virgins, to the performance of Turandot he’ll be conducting on 5 November. I promise to report back on how it goes down.

Opera meets Ballet

The collaboration between ENO and Fabulous Beasts Dance Theatre for Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and The Rite of Spring is the latest attempt to appeal to a wider profile.

I suggest that there’s a danger of the Stravinsky (an appealing proposition for dance audiences) filling the house, while the less popular Bartok (always a difficult sell) plays to empty seats. Obviously, the two are being sold as one but will the enthusiastic ballet fans stay in the pub for the first half? “I really haven’t considered the possibility of that happening,” he tells me, “why would anyone do that?” It’s a typical response from the relentlessly positive Gardner. It’ll be interesting to see if the unusual programme will succeed in crossing over the, maybe not so wide, opera/ballet divide.

I ask Gardner how they arrived at this particular twinning. “I never want to see Bluebeard doubled with Erwartung again,” he says (London’s most recent production, Willy Decker’s at Covent Garden, put the Bartok and Schoenberg together, and it’s not an uncommon packaging these days). “I don’t see the connection between the two pieces or how the styles complement each other. We considered other possibilities - Gianni Schicchi, for instance, but I didn’t want to put a “sorbet” up against the Bartok.”

“I also felt that Bluebeard is enough opera for an evening, so we looked to dance. I did think about The Miraculous Mandarin (amongst other Bartok ballets) but that didn’t quite fit either. The idea of a work by Michael Keegan-Dolan (director of the Fabulous Beasts dance company) had been floating around for some time and the two projects sort of attached themselves to each other. When The Rite of Spring came up as an idea, the thought of these two iconic 20th century works together just worked. The different depths of energy was immediately appealing. I think it will show each piece in relief to the other.”

The Soldier’s Tale (“that requires too intimate a space”) and Les Noces had also been rejected as companion pieces. With the last production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Coliseum presented alongside Oedipus Rex, Stravinsky does seem to provide plenty of possibilities, but they seem to have hit on a particularly attractive proposition this time.

Daniel Kramer

He’s teamed up again with the young American director Daniel Kramer (at 31 even younger than the boyish 35 year old Gardner). They collaborated together on last year’s astounding production of Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy at the Young Vic and Gardner is thrilled to be working with him again. I ask what we can expect this time.

“Giles Cadle is designing again,” he says, “and there will be similarities with the Birtwistle. Daniel is quite brilliant. His point to point work with actors, making everyone’s intentions clear, is extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like it. He generates great trust from the performers. It’s a quite modern take on Bluebeard but without any imposition at all. It’s looking great and I think people will find it quite horrifying.”

We talk about the challenges of combining opera and dance. “I have to admit I don’t know a great deal about ballet,” Gardner says, “I’ve only done one before - The Seven Deadly Sins in Paris - and I’m learning a lot; it’s a very different relationship with the stage but Michael Keegan-Dolan is great to work with.”

A string of hits

Gardner came into the Coliseum on a real high in May 2007, with a superb performance of Britten’s Death in Venice, immediately followed by an acclaimed revival of La Clemenza di Tito. They immediately established him as a talent to be reckoned with and an indication that ENO had good times ahead, in the wake of a particularly tricky period for the company.

I asked him if he had chosen the notoriously difficult Britten score just to be flash but he says not. He wasn’t the originally-slated conductor for it but it turned out a fortunate accident, and he had the ring of glowing praise in his ears from the off. While further triumphs have included the sensational Peter Grimes earlier this year, not everything has been on such an exalted level - although largely popular among audiences, productions like Carmen and Aida (both conducted by Gardner) were less well-received critically.

His latest production, Turandot (running until mid December) has also had very mixed reactions, although he inevitably talks highly of the director Rupert Goold, another youthful whizz-kid, like Kramer from the world of theatre. I asked him why he hadn’t used the Berio ending to Puccini’s unfinished opera, opting instead for the familiar but oft-derided Alfano completion. “I love Berio’s music but this just doesn’t work dramatically. It’s fine as a concert piece but it’s really static. It’s ethereal but just can’t work on stage. If we’d been able to, we’d have ended it where Puccini left off.” This topic, much discussed amongst the creative team, had a crucial effect on how the production turned out.

“I have everything I want here”

Gardner finds himself now in a very comfortable position (in the best sense), with no intentions of moving on any time soon. “I have everything I want here,” he says, “first-rate orchestra and chorus, the best directors and an environment I can really work in.”

He can’t reveal what’s actually in the pipeline but mentions that he’d love to do Elektra and Wozzeck at some point in the future. He’s also keen to do a “later” Strauss, something from the late quartet of Verdi works (surely Otello, long absent from ENO’s repertoire, is the most likely) and, eventually, some Wagner.

I can’t quite gauge if he has a particular Wagner in mind and he gives me mixed signals about it. He says he’s not ready for The Ring but that he wouldn’t (as one would expect) give it to anyone else, while indicating that discussions about future seasons have included the possibility of reviving the recent production (by Phyllida Lloyd) or even generating a new one. Before taking that huge step (“The Ring is not for a young man”), he’s likely to do another Wagner but when I throw names of works at him I’m met by a brick wall of discretion.

Whatever, he and Berry are working on, it’s sure to include some surprises and, if Edward Gardner proves true to the form he’s shown so far, there are some truly thrilling times at the Coliseum ahead. In the meantime, anyone, opera or ballet-lover, would be a fool not to take in both parts of the double bill when it opens on 6 November.

For full details and to book for Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and The Rite of Spring click here