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The Italian conductor Evelino Pidò, who last season directed its symphonic orchestra in a concert version of Rossini’s Otello, is back at La Monnaie in Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. This ardent Shakespearean tragedy about the conflicts that arise when love and desire topsy-turvy the established order inspired the composer to awesome heights of musical inventiveness and creativity and made this work the pinnacle of his career.
So, after Rossini’s Otello, here you are once again heading the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Why did you choose to direct this particular work by Gounod?
Firstly, just because I'm Italian doesn't mean I have to direct only Italian works! It's true I mainly direct the Italian repertoire, which I don't of course limit to the bel canto repertoire. For instance, before coming to Brussels I directed Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo at the Staatsoper in Vienna. I have directed works by Verdi, Puccini, Cherubini, Spontini, as well as French composers and Mozart, at many other venues. Recently, it was at the Opéra Bastille with Le Nozze di Figaro. Last year, I directed Massenet's Manon at the Opéra de Paris on the occasion of the centenary of the composer's death. As an Italian that was a real honour for me. I also directed Gounod's Faust at Covent Garden, with an extraordinary cast bringing together Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu and Dmitri Hvrorostovsky. Having never directed Roméo et Juliette, it was something I felt I really wanted to do. The project proposed by Peter de Caluwe was very tempting and the cast an excellent one so I said: « O.K. let's do it! »
This work of Gounod's is going to be performed in concert at the Palais des Beaux-Arts. What appeals to you about directing an opera in a concert version?
A work like Roméo et Juliette lends itself very well to a concert rendition. This opera about the most famous tragic love story depicts the two worlds of rival families and their social and political struggle set against a young couple who are madly in love yet so caught up in the feuding that their destiny is bound to end in tragedy. I think it could be even more moving in a concert version. Gounod took twenty years to complete this score after its creation in 1867. He did make a number of changes for the successive performances in London, at the Opéra Comique and the Opéra de Paris. It was quite a challenge, for him and his librettists, to turn this Shakespeare play into an opera!
Indeed, Roméo et Juliette has been of interest to many composers... Berlioz, Bellini, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev… to mention but a few. What's so original about Gounod's take on it?
I think that Gounod succeeded in maintaining a terrific sense of drama without betraying Shakespeare's theatrical vision. He also did something unique at that time by placing four love duos within one and the same setting. He focused almost exclusively on the amorous passion of the protagonists. Gounod was himself imbued with such feelings, which probably explains why the families' rivalry came to be 'second stage', so to speak, and why he developed the situations from there. Hence the dramatic crescendo throughout that audiences find so enthralling... Verdi, too, was remarkable at this with Shakespeare's material in Macbeth and Otello. For me, Gounod respected the playwright's structure and thinking through his librettists. He then built on that momentum, that impulse, to create very beautiful melodies.
What are the specific aspects of this work that intertwine tragedy and that 'lightness of being' associated with youth and awakening love?
Gounod put a lot of thought into this work and, I believe, perhaps also the best of himself... Feelings of love are omnipresent – and there are many gems in great musical composition! Yet there is also the tragic dimension where the cruelty of rivalry is all too apparent. This is an important aspect that Gounod deals with superbly in his music and how it is mirrored by the chorus with, on the one side, the two deeply impassioned protagonists and, on the other side, the raging violence of political and social turmoil...
Does this work, for you, clearly reflect 19th century romanticism?
And how! Don't forget it was conceived as a lyrical opera before some changes were made, particularly for the Opéra de Paris, with the inclusion of a ballet to suit the Parisian norm of that time. Oh yes, I think Roméo et Juliette is a work most befitting of the conventions of musical romanticism.
In the history of La Monnaie, Brussels' audiences do not often get to hear this work of Gounod's. Why would you say it has been so rarely performed?
Well, in Italy, which is after all the homeland of opera and musical melodrama, few and far between are performances of Roméo et Juliette. This has nothing to do with the casting of the main characters, as the highly demanding and delicate roles are assigned to only the two leading protagonists: Romeo and Juliet. It's different in Faust, an opera calling for four absolutely incredible protagonists - more like Italian verism operas, or Verdi's Il Trovatore and Il Ballo in maschera, for which four or five big character voices have to be found. It's really odd in the case of Roméo et Juliette... perhaps because Gounod is not regarded with the esteem he deserves as a great opera composer. He was especially renowned as a very good organist and composer of church music. That's a shame because, from a dramatic and musical viewpoint, in terms of inventiveness and melody-writing for example, Roméo et Juliette is a real masterpiece. So, this will be a wonderful opportunity for Brussels' audiences to discover it! What is more, we'll be performing the score in its entirety and including secondary roles - now nearly forgotten - like those of Manuela, Pepita and Angelo. We'll only be taking out the ballet that Gounod added as a finale in Act III for the 1888 Paris performance.
Interview by Marie Goffette