Benvenuto Cellini, a character on a mad quest for perfection, is modelled on the visionary artist of German romanticism. Do you have other Berlioz projects?
Next year I am due to conduct Les Troyens for the first time. The production will be the result of a great deal of preparation and thought. Despite its classical theme, Les Troyens is another ‘revolutionary and romantic’ work; it is immensely stirring and, to me, the high point of a tradition that originated with Rameau and Gluck. Berlioz knew his ancient history and mythology extremely well, and his libretto is based faithfully on Virgil’s Aeneid. He worked incredibly hard on this opera despite ill-health. He had to wait years to see it performed—and then only in a truncated version.
A shortened version of Les Troyens was given at the Théâtre Lyrique during Berlioz’s lifetime. Will you be performing the complete two-part version?
Yes. I am really pleased that the Théâtre du Chatelet has agreed to programme the complete version in a single evening, and it could well be the first time that it has been done this way in Paris. I remember when Les Troyens was performed at the opening of the Opéra Bastille. It was conducted by Chung and directed by Pizzi—a beautiful production, but the first half, La Prise de Troie, seemed a good deal more convincing than the second, Les Troyens à Carthage, which was wonderful in purely musical terms, though.
Earlier this year you conducted the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique at the Théâtre de Poissy in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Are you fond of this score?
The score is full of music of astounding vitality and fantasy. The remarkable thing is that, although Mendelssohn was only eighteen when he wrote the famous Overture, he had already discovered his true calling as a composer. Fifteen years later, in 1843, he added the incidental music in exactly the same spirit as the Overture: all his ideas were derived from the brilliant, imaginative music he’d written when he was so young.
Robert Schumann called this work a “glittering cascade of youth”. The invention of the orchestration and the tonal palate seem to have sprung from an inspired musical imagination that continued to bloom after Mendelssohn had reached maturity. He wrote the work after reading Schlegel’s translation of the Shakespeare play. .A Midsummer Night’s Dream also inspired Weber to write Oberon, which you recently conducted in Paris. Shakespeare was a key figure for romantic artists and writers.
Mendelssohn hit on a way of fusing the language of Shakespeare with his own music. In our concerts, six soloists from the Monteverdi Choir sang and recited excerpts from the Shakespeare play between the numbers, to suggest the narrative outline of the play and to complement the poetry of the music. Using period instruments in this music helps people to hear and savour every detail of the score, and reveals the fresh, transparent quality of the composition. Shakespeare didn’t see ‘nature’ as a happy, carefree place; for him it meant strange creatures, magical practices, and there’s always an incipient sense of danger. The young Mendelssohn understood perfectly that nature can be disturbing, and translated that element into music—the sounds of nocturnal animals, birds and insects, the scent of the night air. But the music goes beyond simple description; it evokes the secrets and mysteries of nature.