What do you think of the conductor Hans Richter’s remark, as quoted by Karl Böhm in his book My Life: “When you get up on the podium, you either know what you’re doing, or you’ll never know it!”?
That reminds me of myself, because I started out as a self-taught conductor; later I studied with Charles Bruck at the Pierre Monteux Conducting School. I learned a lot there, but personal experience is much more valuable. Beating time is easy for a conductor. What’s most important is interpretation—being in the spirit of the work as much as possible, and finding the right tempo. But I want to emphasize that too much respect for the composer can be just as bad as too much disrespect, or a lack of confidence in the score. A conductor should serve the work, and have a natural and intuitive way of directing—this makes the interpretation freer. Fantasy and imagination should give an impression of spontaneity and constantly allow new discoveries to be made in the score. The powers of suggestion and persuasion are even stronger that way.
What kind of relationships do you have with musicians?
Really accomplishing something depends on a very basic understanding between the conductor, the musicians and the singers. This is the main condition for creating a musically unified and homogenous production. The conductor should be immersed in the work and know it inside out in order to maintain cohesion in the orchestra, adjust the sound of the combined vocal lines, and help the singers to realize their full potential. Compared to some of my colleagues, I seem quite calm and easygoing. But that’s only a facade. I’m not just saying this to be polite; I’m actually someone who’s quite turbulent inside. I’ve played in orchestras and know what musicians go through. I try to be close to the musicians I work with, be part of the group, and not seem like a star who’s above it all. I need to trust musicians. I also know that when things aren’t going well, you have to fix them. I can be quite difficult, and when I’ve tried to overcome problems and see there’s no hope of improvement, I can decide to part company with someone. This doesn’t happen often, but just as in other groups there have been crises and scandals. This surprises people because they expect me to be nice and indulgent. But a conductor holds all the reins, and he owes it to himself to be demanding.
You founded the Musiciens du Louvre in 1982, and since 1996 you’ve been associated with the Grenoble Chamber Orchestra. Before widening your musical horizons, you concentrated on an essentially French repertoire from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Grenoble group and I have had some wonderful musical experiences together. The personnel of the orchestra now turns over every four or five years. Musicians come and go and we’ve been able to maintain a certain amount of consistency. Our roots are in Grenoble now. We were able to save a modern orchestra that was in ruins. We ran the risk of keeping eight salaried permanent musicians in the group, and it has really paid off; the orchestra is stable now. We gave baroque instruments to the Grenoble musicians, and they were trained and supported by other musicians who had worked with me for a long time. Les Musiciens du Louvre and the Grenoble Orchestra are an unusual combination among baroque groups. They work well together because of the cohesiveness between the two ensembles. Having a rehearsal hall with marvelous acoustics in Grenoble is a dream come true for me. Our greatest success there is to have built up a faithful and enthusiastic public. We’re all happy to be living in this cocoon—it’s a base that allows us to go anywhere we like.
Were you satisfied with your experience as musical director of the Flanders Opera?
I could have gone on there; we were performing works that were very complementary to productions I do elsewhere. We were mainly performing romantic operas and symphonies, but I didn’t have enough power, and felt there wasn’t enough confidence in me. It’s often true in opera houses that the musical director is just a pawn, someone who beats time and keeps the orchestra going. But what I’m interested in is keeping music going in the orchestra! My passion for the theater is just as strong as my passion for music, and makes me want to direct my own theater with complete freedom, both in terms of the music and the mise en scène. I don’t plan to give up this dream, and I know how to wait. I’m almost as much at home on stage as I am with a score. Drama and music should merge as one in order to be convincing to the public and lead it to the heart of the music.
The dramatic structure of opera fascinates you as much as the musical composition. The two aspects cannot be dissociated. Did you experience this cohesiveness when you directed La Belle Hélène at the Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris last autumn?
I enjoyed Offenbach’s opera buffa immensely. It was a new production with Laurent Pelly, my favorite producer. We had already worked together on Orphée aux Enfers and Rameau’s Platée. We’re a real team. He deals with the music and I deal with the mise en scène—we’re always minding each other’s business! He has such a sense of comedy, a sense of humor that’s not vulgar in any way. An opera producer has to trust the music and turn its theatrical nature to his advantage. And Offenbach is really my cup of tea: what an incredible guy! It’s time people understood—Tales of Hoffmann aside —that he wasn’t a composer who didn’t orchestrate his works, who wrote pianos scores that had to be rewritten and arranged for orchestra. He really was the “Mozart of the Champs Elysées”, as he was known. He wrote for a delicious little orchestra, a handful of chamber musicians. The problem is that he was badly edited, badly served. Orchestral scores full of mistakes were around for years. Bären-reiter, who published Mozart and Glück, have decided to bring out a nearly complete edition with help from a serious musicologist. This will make it easier to see his refined orchestral writing. Offenbach was the musical director at the Comédie française, and there are parodies of Lully’s music in Orphée aux Enfers. In a way he was a baroque composer.
Your eclectic choices have taken you away from the baroque aesthetic. Your curiosity and wish to discover other musical continents have incited you to perform contemporary works in your concerts. Even if 20th century music has been preoccupied with intellectual research and dry technique, don’t you think today’s composers have become aware of the human dimensions music can aspire to?
Today’s research is like a labyrinth of different tendencies and diverging paths... I like several composers; they’ve received both good and bad press: John Adams in the U.S. and Olivier Greif in France. John Adams’ Nativity, which just had its Paris première, is one of the most powerful oratorios the 20th century has produced. And what an orchestra! I recently conducted Olivier Greif’s Cello Concerto at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, and intend to do it again—it’s like an exotic and profound voyage that really touched me and spoke to me.
Your special sensitivity to the human dimension in music probably responds well to Monteverdi’s world. Last summer in Aix-en-Provence you directed L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Monteverdi’s last opera. His writing expresses feelings and—through different kinds of music —reveals connections between music and the poetry of the emotions.
All through his life Monteverdi wanted to get closer to the human dimension. In L’Incoronazione di Poppea he chose a subject from Roman history— Nero’s story—but it wasn’t in order to compose a historic opera. What he wanted was to express passions—joy and sorrow, pleasure and cruelty—in a way that had never been done before. L’Incoronazione di Poppea was written for the San Cassiano theatre in Venice, which is an intimate setting. We had to double certain instruments for the big outdoor theatre in Aix, to thicken the sound. For instance, we used two harps instead of one, two gambas, a lirone, a bass, several keyboards...
This freedom reinforced the momentum of Monteverdi’s style, his color, without reducing the extremely poetic quality of his work, without spoiling his magic. Could we say that the musical and dramatic unity, which reaches a high degree of perfection in L’ Incoronazione di Poppea, was a precursor of operas of the future?
This mysterious work dating from the end of Monteverdi’s life was a sign that opera was changing and would no longer only be for the aristocracy, but for a larger public. The comic scenes, popular songs and love duets—which weren’t all written by Monteverdi— alternate with tragic moments, as in real life. People still have quite conventional ideas about this work, and it’s hard to fight the clichés—for instance that Nero should be a macho emperor, a cardboard figure wearing a laurel wreath and sticking his chest out—but the role wasn’t even written for a tenor! It’s often hard for people to understand that a woman can sing Nero and interpret him as a rascal who has his dreams, flares up, stamps with rage... as Anne-Sofie von Otter does so well.
L’ Incoronazione is a dreadful story. Two depraved moments stand out: when Poppea violently rejects Oho, and when Nero hears “you allow your dear Seneca to manipulate you; it’s not you who governs Rome.”
Poppea is a sort of Lolita who leads people into catastrophe, but never on purpose, simply as a game and through her “animal” interest. The way she speaks with Arnalta, her nurse, also shows her juvenile nature.
You are going to conduct Ariodante at the Opéra Garnier in Paris in a few weeks— you’ll be involved with two things you love: the theatre and Handel. You recorded this work a few years ago for Archiv. Beethoven thought Handel was “the greatest composer who ever lived”.
Handel has been rediscovered in our time. A real recognition of his musical genius—which was admired by composers from Mozart to Schubert to Liszt—is taking place. He explored every musical resource with such dynamism, purpose and vitality that his work fills me with energy myself. He wrote music of great effect, that strikes and moves people immediately, with the simplest means. His work is brilliant and sums up the beauty of the baroque period. Purely technical virtuosity and intellectual elaboration were of no interest to him, and even bored him. He composed in a spontaneous and exalted way; his music is a generous gesture from himself to others. Handel has a confidence in life that we need today. Anne-Sofie von Otter and I will be working together again at the Opéra Garnier, to perform one of the greatest successes in Italian opera. The most striking thing about the work, even more than the story, is the musical language of love, and Handel’s search for musical means to express psychological truths... the thoughts and secret feelings of the characters. The duets are sublime—not only for the emotions they call up, but also for the extremely economical vocal lines that actually show Handel’s great skill in composition and his constantly imaginative mind—the discoveries he made are all the more amazing because they aren’t obvious. In Ariodante, it’s as if the characters write their own music.
Handel loved the voice and the stage. He was a theatre director in London. But he also achieved great intensity in his oratorios. La Resurrezione, an oratorio he composed in Rome at age 23, is quite close to opera. He was already showing himself to be a man of the theatre.
He used the libretto to his advantage, on one hand to dramatize the conflict between the Angel of Light and Lucifer, and on the other hand in the trio made up of Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas and Saint John. The whole score was written with great care. Everything was very precisely done, very elaborate. In using strong contrasts, he created striking and appealing orchestral and vocal color, with new sonorities and combinations of timbres. The score included little-known instruments in Rome at the time—the gamba, the theorbo and the archlute. Every number has its own orchestra! It’s like a stained glass window—a hundred colors for every subject!
The descending melodic line of the first part contrasts with the ascending line of the resurrection.
Everything comes together for a majestic effect and shows the power of the music. It’s important to respect this work’s score—it’s the most varied Handel ever wrote in terms of instrumentation. Adding timpani or trombones, as was done in the past, seems useless to me, and even unreasonable in such a detailed score—the most detailed we have from Handel.
Opera, which evolved through Monteverdi, was brought to France by Italian musicians such as Caccini, Luigi Rossi and Cavalli, who was invited to Paris by Mazarin. But it was Lully who created the first truly French opera with Cadmus et Hermione.
If you want to talk about French opera, I have to admit that I like nothing better than bringing French musical heritage to life before a French audience. I love being at the Paris Opera, in front of two thousand people, showing them what was done two centuries ago. Exploring this forgotten repertoire is enormously exciting to me. But of course I’m not the only one doing it...
From Lully to Rameau, French opera had its own identity derived from court ballet blended with a sung dramatic plot, and based on Venetian opera and classical tragedy. Lully and his librettist Quinault achieved a unique mix of music and declamation. Don’t you think that Rameau —whose Dardanus and Platée you’ve conducted—wrote music in the same brilliant line as Lully? You talk about Rameau’s “musical hurricane” in the liner notes published with your recording of Dardanus on the Archiv label.
Even if Rameau can be thought of as a descendent of Lully, he was a profound innovator in terms of his orchestration and composition, which is full of harmonic innovation. He gave French opera density and complexity that hadn’t been there up to that time. His abilities as an orchestrator and a symphonist are so clear. He wrote in every opera genre: tragédie en musique with Hippolyte et Aricie, opéra-ballet with Les Indes galantes, comédie-lyrique with Platée—in this work he shows he’s capable of an irony and a cruel, lucid humor which have no equivalent anywhere.
Mondonville also thrilled me, when I “discovered” Titon et l’Aurore. He was a French composer who helped the French side to triumph in the War of the Buffons—with one hundred percent Italian music, at least as far as the orchestral writing is concerned. This is the kind of discovery I’d like to make better known in France. Ten years ago I recorded Alycone, a lyric masterpiece by Marin Marais, and I would very much like to stage it. The work still isn’t sufficiently well known.
In order to perform this repertory, you had not only to train musicians and singers, but also expose artists to baroque aesthetics. What role has the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles—with which you’ve been associated—played in this?
At the beginning there was a handful of young singers, who came for two-week workshops three or four times a year. We didn’t have the financial means to take our research further. I think we helped people discover their aptitude for this music by teaching them the basics of baroque style, but there are certain things you can only learn through performance. I took part in the Rameau, Campra, Lully, Charpentier and Brossards workshops. After that, the repertory wasn’t my own, but I hope to return. I was invited to conduct Desmarest’s Didon, but at the time I didn’t care for the libretto. I would have prefered his Iphigénie. I hope to persuade the Centre to do workshops on Marin Marais and even Grétry.
How do you account for the interest in baroque music today?
It would be interesting to see in-depth sociological studies on this evolution in taste, and this has actually begun. My opinion is that we’re living in a time of memory. People are interested in everything, and are learning in particular to use the past to shed light on the future. Just look at how successful exhibitions of ancient art are. As for baroque music, it’s a modern phenomenon. But this music was also played quite a bit in the early twentieth century, and even before that Debussy, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and especially Brahms tried to keep the music of 18th century composers alive. The popularization of certain forgotten instruments, like the harpsichord by Wanda Landowska, helped in the revival of this period.
You spontaneously say that you like everything. I’d like to ask you about Gluck, one of the many composers whose works you have conducted. Do you think he revived French tragédie lyrique as it had been conceived from Lully to Rameau?
That’s an interesting topic. Gluck has been the bête noire of people who love baroque music for a long time. He’s a sort of magpie who borrowed styles from everyone. His aesthetic and his music are so simple, even sometimes so naive, that—and this is what he is criticized for—with such natural and simple means, he attained a certain dramatic and theatrical strength. We’ve talked about respecting works, but in this case you have to be a bit aggressive and shake up the music for it to work. He was a bit of a bumpkin, quite Teutonic, but at the same time like a chameleon—like many composers at that time. They adapted to the style and taste of the countries where they lived. Gluck was a genius of a chameleon. When you listen to the Italian operas of his first period, you hear elegant music, heroic music with touches of genius, but the works are never sublime. In Orfeo and Alceste, Italian works Gluck wrote in Vienna, he recreates the universe of the French tragédie lyrique. He comprehended the mysteries of this genre, which was still popular in his time.
Declamation based on the speech of actors who interpreted Racine and la Champmeslé—recitation which was amplified through vocal music—was the real triumph of Lully and his librettist Quinault. Was Gluck aware of this music when he was composing his own operas?
We know he had librettos of French operas in his library, and that aesthetes like his own librettist, Calza-bigi, placed French classicism higher than Italian bel canto. It was in this spirit that he reset Lully and Quinault’s Armide. Gluck was incredibly successful in resetting a libretto written 92 years earlier. He’s an important composer because he swept away the erudite work of Rameau—which is exactly what people reproach him for. He created marvellous declamation, a torrent of music; he managed to concentrate emotion with very simple means. It’s true that his music gives a “galant” impression. If Orphée’s air “J’ai perdu mon Euridice” isn’t sung passionately, it comes off as terribly naive and insipid. Gluck needs to be brought right up to romanticism. Wagner liked him and often conducted his works. On the other hand, he adapted his writing to Parisian singers who had broken with the style of Rameau, Lully and Campra. His favorite singer, Rosalie Levasseur, who was interpreting dramatic roles in baroque operas 15 years before Gluck arrived in Paris... well, he trained her in the declamatory style and made her into the premier Gluck singer, an authentic “French soprano”. It’s this type of voice that fits his music, not the sort of enormous mezzo or Wagnerian soprano that was imposed on him for so long.
You’ve conducted Idomeneo and Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and you’ll be doing Le nozze di Figaro at the Aix-en-Provence festival next summer. Will it be your first experience with this work?
No, in fact, I conducted Figaro for the first time in Toronto, in English, before I did Idomeneo at the Bastille Opera in 1996. I fell in love with the score of Idomeneo, which foretells a new style for Mozart, one he never looked back from. Idomeneo is based on opera seria, but transforms the genre by giving an unusual role to the chorus, which shows his admiration for the French tragédie lyrique we just mentioned. This score can be considered as part of the Gluck trend, but there again, Mozart went beyond it in his work on the orchestration. The orchestra is truly like one of the characters: it strengthens the dramatic unity and expresses a very personal lyricism. Mozart showed himself to be both a subtle psychologist and a man of the theater, all in a very original musical way.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail is considered to be one of the five high points of Mozart the dramatist; Figaro is the second of these. Does the exotic use of “Turkish music” mask the tragic situation?
Die Entführung at the Salzburg Festival was a real adventure. Gérard Mortier, the Festival director, was looking for an unusual conductor. You had to be, to accept to be part of a team with a producer who had no experience with opera, who gave the mise en scène an Oriental-Palestinian flavor, and who added Arabian music which was then mixed up with Mozart’s music! My taste for fantasy allowed me to confront an audience that is used to highly traditional staging of Mozart’s operas. Some said it was sacrilegious. But I don’t feel the work’s serious and humane sides were crushed beneath the weight of these Oriental influences. There are passages of dazzling virtuosity—Osmin’s and Constanze’s airs, for example. It’s a masterpiece from beginning to end.
This humanism reaches tragic heights in Figaro. Opera buffa is more conducive to joking, but in this case the music is used to express deep feelings.
Mozart translated the emotions that underlie human relations—the longing and agony that animate people—into music. I’m really looking forward to Aix. I’ve been very spoiled with Mozart from the beginning; I’ve directed extraordinary works. It would be hard now to do earlier works like La finta semplice or Ascanio in Alba, even though the scores are quite interesting.
To conclude our interview, how would you define your ambiguous rapport with music?
Ambiguous? Yes, that’s the word! It’s hard to simultaneously respect the text, be free in one’s interpretation and precise in its execution and also remain... ambiguous. Especially in the theater. Music of the theater is ambiguous. I hope I don’t betray it.