Friday 11 September 2015

The passions are the same, making French baroque music work today - An encounter with Christophe Rousset

Christophe Rousset & Les Talens Lyriques - copyright Jacques Verrees
Christophe Rousset & Les Talens Lyriques - copyright Jacques Verrees
It seemed rather appropriate that my meeting with Christophe Rousset be at the International Rameau Summer School, and that our interview took place with the sounds of Rameau floating in the background. Christophe was in London to give some master-classes at the summer school, as well as to promote his latest two recordings, a DVD of Rameau's Les Indes Galantes (on Alpha Classics) based on Laura Scozzi's stage production which was filmed live in Bordeaux, and a CD of Rameau's opera Zais (on Aparte), both with Les Talens Lyriques.

Christophe Rousset founded the vocal and instrumental ensemble Les Talens Lyriques in 1991, and since then has balanced a career which combines that of solo harpsichord work, directing Les Talens Lyriques, conducting other ensembles and doing research into French baroque music.

Laura Scozzi's production Rameau's Les Indes Galante - copyright Patrice Nin
Laura Scozzi's production Rameau's Les Indes Galante
copyright Patrice Nin
Laura Scozzi's production of Les Indes Galantes was performed in Bordeaux and Toulouse, but when Christophe brought the performers to the UK we had to make do with a concert performance. Which means we missed out on a very lively and in some ways daring production. The production opens in the Garden of Eden and the subsequent acts each show how going away from the Eden leads to some sort of hell. That the dancers were nude for the Eden scenes caused some comment (notably in the UK), but Christophe felt that rather than being shocking, the scene was innocent and charming. And for him, the whole production was a strong, if not bitter look at the modern world from women's point of view with Laura Scozzi being particularly concerned about the rights of women.

'this worked well with Rameau's music',
as Christophe sees the libretto as being rather weak

For the Turkish act, passports are being organised for immigrants, a scene which has become even more relevant since the production premiered. Christophe says that this worked well with Rameau's music, especially as he sees the libretto as being rather weak and simply a frame for the divertissements (the issue of Rameau's librettos was a subject to which we would return in our interview). The Peru act was set around the drug system, highlighting the position of women in a macho world, whilst the Persian act was of course set in modern Iran with issues of women being veiled and finally the American act looked at the environmental disasters caused by man.

There have been productions where 'you know it will be crap from the beginning'

Rameau's Zoroastre at Drottningholm
Rameau's Zoroastre at Drottningholm
Christophe takes a relaxed view of production styles, but feels that having a strong idea is always good. As far as he is concerned, the stage director creates something whilst he and the musicians need to interpret the composer's music, so that they have to be humble and make sure their view of the piece harmonises with the stage. He feels that it is best to respect the way the director works, then help. But if the director comes to the musical rehearsals (as some, but not all, do), then greater dialogue is possible. He has had a wide experience of different production styles in French baroque opera and frankly admits that there have been productions where 'you know it will be crap from the beginning', whilst with others 'you know you could help, but are surprised at the end' that it works well.

He has nothing against modern productions at all. Whilst in the performance of the music, he is trying to be as authentic as possible, he does not see the need to be the same on stage and in fact says that 17th century reconstructions are not necessarily interesting. When I ask him what for him are the productions which worked well he highlights his work at Drottningholm Theatre (where the theatre and stage machinery survive from the 18th century), on Handel's Tamerlano and Alcina and Rameau's Zoroastre director Pierre Audi used a combination of modern staging with wonderful 17th century style costumes. Christophe comments that passions depicted in the operas are always the same, and there are many ways to make pieces work on stage. Another production he highlights is Cherubini's Medee in Brussels (directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski) where the production was very modern and referenced Amy Winehouse. Christophe felt the direct had a very interesting way of using the fact that Medee comes from an Oriental world into a Greek world which fitted the drama well.

Passions depicted in the operas are always the same,
and there are many ways to make pieces work on stage

Nadja Michael as Medee, ©Maarten Vanden Abeele
Nadja Michael as Medee,
©Maarten Vanden Abeele
I returned to his comment about Rameau's librettos being weak. As far as Christophe is concerned the libretto to Rameau's comic opera Platee is fantastic with nothing pompous or too rigid about it and that the piece is still the most modern piece by Rameau. But even during the 18th century Rameau was criticised for paying rather too much respect to the form of Lully's tragedie lyrique. So the librettos of his operas can be weak, but you have to accept that. Chrisophe allows that there are good dramatic situations and he has nothing but praise for the way Rameau make the drama happen in the music.

He makes the comment that Rameau works better in places like the UK, where the audience cannot understand how poor the poetry of the libretto is. A case in point is Zais which he and Les Talens Lyriques have recently released on CD. You can certainly find the libretto weak; as with Zoroastre  it revolves Magic Flute-like around a form of Masonic initiation all placed in a pastoral framework. But the music is gorgeous and the overture is very surprising, with its evocation of Chaos, the rising sun, storms and so many things. Christophe also highlights a beautiful lament for the character Zelidie, but I sense that he could also continue to discourse on the other beauties of the score. (Listening to an advance copy of the recording after our interview, I was very taken with the beauty and imagination of the music).

Rameau works better when the audience cannot understand
how poor the poetry of the libretto is

Mariame Clement's production of Rameau's Castor et Pollux in Vienna
Mariame Clement's production of
Rameau's Castor et Polluxin Vienna
That said, he feels that Zais would be difficult to put on stage (his recording was based on concert performances), though it might work if someone were telling a different story such has happened with Laura Scozzi's production if Les Indes Galantes. And with most Rameau operas there is the problem of what to do with the divertissements and dance episodes. These can be costly to bring off, and some directors take the cheaper option of putting the chorus in the pit. But it is not just money, there is also the question of what is happening dramatically. French/Iranian director Mariame Clement found good solution in her production of Rameau's Castor et Pollux in Vienna (where there was no budget for dancers) in which the dance episodes were performed by children who acted out the back story of the plot. This made things clear, but used the beautiful music as the key to the different situations.

For Christophe the music is the thing in Rameau's operas, whereas he feels that Lully's texts are much better. Also, as Lully invented the form of the tragedie lyrique he can be more inventive and allow himself to break his own rules. So in Lully's operas you not only have strong dramatic situations but good texts and plots. He highlights Persee with its combination of tragic and heroic, with situations like Perseus rescuing Andromeda. But of course, such dramas need a good staging and spectacular stage machinery, though Christophe feels that nowadays video offers a good alternative.

Christophe calls Lully's music 'incredible'

Christophe calls Lully's music 'incredible' but says that you have to understand that there is 60 years difference between Lully's operas and Rameaus so that inevitably they will not sound the same. And of course Lully was a huge influence on Handel, Purcell and the French school. But Rameau did not change the essential nature of the tragedie lyrique and it would have to wait for Gluck to come to Baris and break the form.

Christophe has just performed Lully's Armide in Nancy directed by David Hermann and was surprised at how much the audience loved it. Christophe thinks Lully's operas really work on stage in the theatre and the Nancy production used a mixture of modern and 17th century images using them to delineate when the action moved from one world to another. The drama was easy to understand and all of the dances were gorgeous (rather than pompous). This production used a lot of video to make the enchanting scenes work well.

David Hermann's production of Lully's Armide © Opéra national de Lorraine
David Hermann's production of Lully's Armide
© Opéra national de Lorraine
Christophe is gradually doing a complete recording of Lully's operas with Les Talens Lyriques. These recordings are based on concert performances in which Christophe is the stage director and often he finds that the singers come to rehearsals with no idea what to do with the text. But his experience has shown him that all of Lully's operas are good to put on stage.

For both Rameau and Lully, a good production needs to start from a good choreographer and with the recent Les Indes Galantes it helped that Laura Scozzi did both the directing and choreography.

Having no voice himself, but he loves working with singers
and feels that he sings through them

Christopher still balances playing the harpsichord, directing his ensemble and others, and doing research. But he has no grand plan, and says that it 'just happens', so that projects come along which allow him to give space to his different interests. And he likes to have a mix of different activities rather than concentrating on one. He still enjoys directing his ensemble from the harpsichord, and feels that it is important for his ensemble to see that he is still a player, and he likes playing with the recitative. He admits to having no voice himself, but he loves working with singers and feels that he sings through them.

Rameau's Platee - photo Alain Kaiser
Rameau's Platee - photo Alain Kaiser
Opera is one of his passions, as are literature and painting so that for him opera becomes a dream of total art. When working on an opera, it is a fantastic experience to have a good stage director and it can be challenging but enriching. He also wants to ensure that such opportunities continue in the present climate. One of the ways he does this is by going into schools with members of Les Talens Lyriques, trying to interest young people. He finds that many have no clue about music, and even less about baroque music. So they create an orchestra with the young people, and make them play, and the results can be some very moving experiences. Sometimes the young people present concerts or lectures, and have a talk in the continuo in Monteverdi's music by a 13 year old. He feels that it is stimulating for young people to be in contact with art and projects include having young people dancing to his ensemble. And he talks of creating some very touching experiences.

Repertoire from Lully to Saint-Saens and even Verdi.
He enjoys doing these things, but admits that in his head he remains a harpsichord player.

Whilst Christophe is known for his specialism in baroque opera, he has made what he terms 'experiments' in more recent repertoire including conducting Rossini's La Scala di Seta at La Scala (in Damiano Michieletto's production), conducting Beethoven and performing with soprano Veronique Gens in repertoire from Lully to Saint-Saens and even Verdi. He enjoys doing these things, but admits that in his head he remains a harpsichord player. That said he describes conducting Beethoven as fantastic, commenting that to conduct Handel you need a sense of the style and a good relationship with the players, but Beethoven is more complex and can give great satisfaction.

Doing such research is important to him, and he enjoys going to libraries and making discoveries. Whilst there is regret that pieces by Monteverdi and Couperin have disappeared, it is always nice to opening a book and have a piece spreading out before you. Sometimes he realises that a piece will not work, but often he looks a one and feels he wants to do it. And of course, you have to perform the music to make it accessible. His future plans include a tour with mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg performing music written for the great castrato Farinelli. Christophe conducted the music for the film Farinelli and so the concerts with Ann Hallenberg will include well known numbers from the film, alongside more unusual repertoire and he regards this as an opportunity to enlarge the repertoire.

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