Would you tell us about the Thésée which you will perform soon at the festival of Ambronay before going on tour in seven European cities? What is the most difficult element to re-create when deciding to produce a tragédie lyrique of Lully?
Surely more than anything else, the recitative and the declamation of the text are very difficult to interpret. Everything depends upon the singers. They must simultaneously say, sing and act. They must be at once singers and persuasive actors. They must have to master the elements of declamation, accentuation, dance steps, rhythms and musical phrases. Our approach to Thésée required the formation of a team of seventeen young singers of different nationalities in order to transform them into accomplished singers and actors—a real challenge. This is the main reason why the project evolved within the framework of the European Academy of Ambronay. It is for that purpose that I called upon the appropriately experienced people who helped, who assisted and who oriented them. I recall Patricia Ranum and particularly Emmanuelle Haim worked out the major projects with me; Emmanuelle is an excellent coach. Her analyses are essential in solving the problem of expresive declamation. So far as the music itself is concerned, it must be pointed out that musical ornament has an entirely different role from the one we understand today. Trills, voice placement, subtle dissonances all work together toward the accentuation of the text, to its dramatic comprehension. For instance, in the case of Thésée, just as it is true for all the other tragédies lyriques of Lully, the principal objective is not bel canto virtuosity as found in Italian opera. What is essential in the framework of the declamation of French recitative, the very core, is the sense of theater possessed by each performer, his acting capacity and ability to articulate the vocal lines. Why choose Thésée? For its intrinsic musical value and for its dramatic concision. Moreover, it is one of the rare Baroque works where Thésée appears as a young man. The character depicted by the Lully/Quinault team is quite different from Rameau’s conception in Hippolyte et Aricie, where he is a mature and solitary figure.
Tell us about Lully’s orchestra.
The orchestra is easier to reconstitute. In Lully’s case, it is made up of strings, winds and sometimes brass. The strings, or the grand chœur written for five parts is distinct from the petit chœur, which is the continuo made up of a handful of players, following the formula inherited from the continuo operas of post-Monteverdian composers, Cesti and Cavalli. The continuo is a supple formula which minimizes the role of the orchestra, thus favoring the lute, the theorbo and the harpsichord. It therefore permits variation of color of the recitatives, which sometimes seem of excessive length.