Saturday 19 October 2019

He discovered something new in himself in the music: Christophe Rousset on exploring 19th century French opera, and continuing his Lully cycle

Christophe Rousset
Christophe Rousset
The recent recording of Gounod's Faust on Palazzetto Bru Zane represents something of a new departure for Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, who are known for their performances of French Baroque repertoire. 

Whilst Christophe was in London recently, I was lucky enough to be able to meet up with him again to chat about Gounod and exploration of the 19th century repertoire, but also, of course, the French Baroque as Christophe's cycle of recordings of Lully's opera reaches Isis, as well his explorations of rarities such as operas by Salieri and Legrenzi. 

The idea of a recording of Gounod's Faust and exploring the earlier surviving versions of the opera (it had quite a complex genesis, see my review of Christophe's recent recording) came from Palazzetto Bru Zane. But Christophe and Les Talens Lyrique had already explored some of the 19th century repertoire thanks their Tragediennes series with Veronique Gens, discs which explore music written for great women French singers from Rameau to Lully to Gluck to Berlioz to Meyerbeer to Saint-Saens.

So Christophe had already experimented with 19th century aesthetics, but when he was asked about the Faust project, there was the question 'should he do it?'. He opened the score and found his own way through a work he regards as a masterpiece, he did have something to say. So he accepted the challenge, and admits that he enjoyed the experience a lot.

He feels that this enjoyment is apparent in the recording, which is full of enthusiasm and not at all routine. Because they performed so much new music, it was effectively a re-discovery of a new piece. The recent researches on Gounod's opera had found a lot of earlier material, which whilst not essential to the work was still new music by Gounod. Also, they reverted to the use of spoken dialogue rather than the recitative which was introduced after the works first performances. All this meant that the recording presents a different view of the piece, including the comic aspects which are absent from the grand opera version which is familiar,  giving a very different flavour to the work.

This idea of re-creation is something that he likes to do with Les Talens Lyrique, to explore something which is new for the ensemble and the audience. And that is true here, the Faust they recorded is not the opera that everyone knows. In fact, Christophe had expected that theirs would be shorter than the well known version, but so much music has been discovered that their recording presents a longer Faust!

Whilst the recording was based on concert performances which Christophe conducted, I was curious as to whether he would conduct the grand opera version in the theatre. His response was 'absolutely'. He points out that the best moments are the same and the differences between the versions is how these great moments are linked.

Faust is evidently not the end of Christophe's 19th century journey. Whilst his main focus remains the Baroque (notably Lully, Handel and Rameau), he plans to continue the challenge of exploring 19th century music as the opportunity comes. And in fact, he regards such projects as a way of discovering Romantic music.

Gounod: Faust: Veronique Gens, Christophe Rousset, Benjamin Bernheim, Andrew Foster Williams, Les Talens Lyriques, Flemish Radio Choir (Photo ©Palazzetto Bru Zane / Amélie Debray)
Gounod: Faust - Veronique Gens, Christophe Rousset, Benjamin Bernheim, Andrew Foster Williams, Les Talens Lyriques, Flemish Radio Choir (Photo ©Palazzetto Bru Zane / Amélie Debray)
He never regarded himself as a Romantic musician, he grew up with the harpsichord and developed a real taste for music of the Baroque. He points out that when the harpsichord disappears from music, then the music changes. But working on Faust and other 19th century repertoire, he discovered something new in himself in the music, and he loves discovering himself.

Christophe's next 19th century challenge is Donizetti's La Favorite which he will be conducting at Houston Grand Opera in January and February 2020. The work was written in 1840 for the Paris Opera, and is a real French grand opera, needing a huge orchestra and in Houston he has great soloists with Jamie Barton singing the title role, Lawrence Brownlee as Fernand and Jacques Imbrailo as King Alphonse.

But Christophe's explorations of the French Baroque continue too. His recording of Lully's fifth opera Isis (written in 1677) is due to be released next month. This is his seventh Lully opera recorded with Les Talens Lyriques, and Christophe aims to record all 13 of Lully's operas! Isis was performed in concert last Summer and recorded, and they will be doing further performances of the work in Paris, Versailles and Vienna.

Lully: Isis - Christophe Rousset & Les Talens Lyriques in Beaune
Lully: Isis - Christophe Rousset & Les Talens Lyriques in Beaune
Most of Lully's operas were published in the 17th century, so editorially Christophe and his ensemble are not adding anything when the perform the operas. But Christophe finds Lully's music full of imagination, he comments that Lully was always inventing new recipes to surprise his audience. The 'Cold Scene' from Purcell's King Arthur is based on a scene from Lully's Isis, but whereas in Purcell the trembling effect in the strings seems a little (deliberately) freaky, in Lully it is witty. For Christophe, the whole spirit of Isis, even if the general tone is tragic, is amusing. He feels that Lully's music always says things with a smile, even if it not explicitly funny. And, of course, Christophe loves it!

The image of Lully is still of a boring composer, too formal and too static. But Christophe does not think that is what we should really keep in mind. He points out that if they are not done well even the long recitative passages in Monteverdi's operas can be boring. So when working with singers on Lully he always aims to bring feeling and drama into the music, even though when they start working the singers often find the music boring, but by the performance the aim is that they put fire into it. The music of Handel is important to Christophe too. Les Talens Lyriques recently performed Giulio Cesare (Bucharest, Paris and Ambronay) and Agrippina in concert (in Dortmund, Halle and Bucharest) and will be performing Ariodante in Vienna next month in revival of David McVicar's staging at the Vienna State Opera with Stephanie Houtzeel as Ariodante, Chen Reiss as Ginevra and Max Emanuel Cencic as Polinesso.

For his next discovery, Christophe is returning to Antonio Salieri. Christophe and Les Talens Lyriques have already recorded Salieri's three French operas (written for Paris), Tarare, Les Horaces and Les Danaides, and now they are turning to his Italian ones (written for Vienna), though in fact Christophe has already recorded Salieri's Antigone 'decades ago' for DECCA. He and Les Talens Lyriques are turning to Armida (premiered in Vienna in 1771). Salieri was very much a disciple of Gluck, and Armida is a reformed opera, which Christophe describes as pre-Romantic, there is no continuo accompanied recitative instead everything is accompanied by the orchestra. It was a huge success at its premiere, and in fact published in the 18th century. Salieri made a number of versions of the opera, and it was translated into German, and performed in Berlin and elsewhere. Christophe and Les Talens Lyriques plan to perform Armida in concert, and do a recording.

Salieri: Tarare - Christophe Rousset & Les Talens Lyriques at Versailles in 2018
Salieri: Tarare - Christophe Rousset & Les Talens Lyriques at Versailles in 2018
The last of their trio of Salieri's French operas, Tarare, was recorded in 2018. It was written for the Paris Opera in 1787 \(two years before the Revolution) with a libretto by Pierre Beaumarchais (his only opera libretto). Christophe sees the subject matter as revolutionary, the main theme being death to tyrants. We see the figure of nature creating society, and the way royalty and tyrants impose themselves. And there is an epilogue, something unusual in operas of the period, where two characters return and say, see how foolish humans are. Christophe still finds it an amazing piece, and his engaging enthusiasm is catching and makes me want to go back to the recording.

Another recent discovery (performed in Cologne in August 2019) is Giovanni Legrenzi's La divisione del mondo which was written for Venice in 1675 and very much in the tradition of late Cavalli operas. Christophe describes Legrenzi as an interesting missing link between late Cavalli and early Handel (Handel's first Italian opera was Agrippina premiered in Venice in 1709). Legrenzi's opera has a lot of recitative, like Monteverdi, but also some lovely arias with orchestra so that Christophe feels that you can see Bel Canto appearing. It is a very funny piece, written for Carnival, and the spirit of Venice is there as it combines comic and tragic. It was fun to do, and Christophe finds Legrenzi a very interesting composer. He is known for his church music, but his operas are interesting too with a very special harmonic language, and very seducing. Alas, they did not record La divisione del mondo. And there are more Legrenzi operas, Christophe describes them as typically Venetian, the tragic ones always have comic elements whilst the comic ones have tragic elements.

When I ask whether Christophe has a wish list, a list of rare works he would like to do, he smiles and agrees that he does, but will not be sharing it, we must wait till he is able to perform such works to discover them. He has assembled the list over time, when he still had time to do a lot of research. And of course, such works need a lot of researching.

The harpsichord remains important to Christophe, and he continues his career as a solo harpsichordist having just released a disc of Frescobaldi with another recording of French music already in the box. He doesn't know what will come next, perhaps more Frescobaldi? He released a disc of Bach's Well-tempered clavier in 2018 and he plays a lot of Bach in concerts so he may return to Bach in disc. But his image as a harpsichordist is very much bound up with French music, and he enjoys being an ambassador for it.

I was wondering whether the French style of much of his repertoire affects the way he plays Bach? He studied the harpsichord under the great Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, and Leonhardt recognised that his way of playing came from the French school even though Leonhardt was known for his Bach performances. So Leonhardt played Bach with something of a French technique, and though Christophe does not play Bach in a French way, his technique is French.

In 2021/2022 Les Talens Lyriques will be celebrating their 30th birthday. Before then they have their residency at the Wigmore Hall to look forward to, this is now the place in London where they come and perform, though the space limitations mean that they cannot do Lully operas but Christophe points out that there is plenty of other repertoire that they can and do perform.

When he founded the ensemble in 1991 he did not expect to be exploring Gounod's operas, and in fact did not expect to perform Lully and Rameau operas. He simply thought they would perform the motets and the cantatas, and did not imagine large productions with choruses and dances. That the ensemble grew in unexpected ways is nice.

Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques
Moving from the Baroque to later periods has meant Christophe abandoning the harpsichord for the conductor's baton, and he says that conducting and ensemble of 100 people adds a different dimension. It is quite something, and he likes it. Though the first time he conducted was scary, but he 'got used to it'! He finds the repertoire interesting where a conductor is actually needed, such as Beethoven symphonies and later, whereas in earlier periods the conductor can just set the tempo. But French Baroque opera is tricky, it is a fast moving assemblage of choruses, solos and dance, with frequent changes of metre, making it complex for the conductor too.

Full details of Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques' performances from their website.

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