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With Les Huguenots, Marc Minkowski brought back to life a major yet forgotten work by Meyerbeer. This production – created with Olivier Py – was awarded the title of ‘best opera production of the year’ by the German magazine Opernwelt. The French conductor has returned one year later to lead La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra in another considerable challenge alongside Russian stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov: Verdi and his formidable Il Trovatore. Far from the baroque repertoire which made him known, he now explores composers with his sense of drama and his sensibility. The violent passion which he will conduct will be expressed in all of its dimensions.
You are a particularly curious orchestra conductor and never cease to surprise us with your choice of works. Why have you decided to devote yourself to Verdi?
Why not? I have imagined many Verdi projects which never led to anything, including a Falstaff which was not staged due to financial reasons. So we shall see if the curse of Azucena and her mother will come true or not in this production! I did not want to hurry either – like with Bach, recording Mozart or conducting Wagner. There is no point trying to change destiny or to move too quickly.
And why did you wish to explore Verdi via Il Trovatore?
When Peter de Caluwe made this proposal, I accepted it instantly because it is a true masterpiece. It is perhaps the most exciting and terrifying work by Verdi, as great conductors have tackled it and have left their mark, such as Karajan and Giulini, to mention just two. And finally, for me it is quite logical, since I am familiar with Donizetti and his French grand opera La Favorite, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and Robert le diable, and of course Wagner with his Der fliegende Holländer and Die Feen. All of these works are turning points which lead naturally to Il Trovatore. I did, however, record the Chanson du voile in the French version of Don Carlos with Magdalena Kožená many years ago and I performed a few excerpts from La Traviata at the Vlaamse Opera. It is therefore not completely new, but it is the first time that I will be able to devote myself to an entire work by Verdi.
How are you preparing yourself for conducting this score? Are you doing any research in particular?
There are not millions of choices. I was recently able to acquire a very beautiful critical edition made in Chicago in collaboration with Ricordi, which explains many things. I think that we must disregard tradition a little in order to really play what is in the score. It sounds simple, but it is something which tends to disappear when you play a masterpiece like this one. And I listen to a lot of CDs. It is perhaps one of Verdi’s most recorded operas, with different approaches. In my opinion, this score is in between theatre and bel canto. I shall therefore immerse myself in the atmosphere which Dmitri Tcherniakov is going to convey, because he wants to do something very dark, very sombre. Of course there is also a French version of Le Trouvère which is interesting to study, but this really is not a French opera! It is obvious to me that Donizetti’s La Favorite and Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers and Don Carlos are true French operas which lose an enormous amount in their Italian form, yet in this case I think the opposite is true. There is nothing more Latin than Il Trovatore, which is based on a Spanish play. It is the pinnacle of Italian opera and its music is full of Italy.
Tell us about the original features of this opera…
What struck me in particular while preparing this work were the successive scenes in which the singers are terribly isolated, forming an arch and creating incredible dramatic tension. I have the impression that Il Trovatore is a special case among Verdi’s works. It is very Shakespearean: a stream of characters tell their story, their curse and their love so simply. This surprising way of starting without an overture is in keeping with this, as though a curtain has been opened and we are instantly thrown into a story which is already under way. It is quite spectacular. This is what must be brought out in the music: the mix of darkness, seriousness and sparkle at the same time.
Originally, Verdi and his librettist Cammarano wanted to give the gypsy Azucena special importance, and even thought of naming the opera after her. Is the vocal writing for this character different from that of the other main roles?
It is true that Verdi himself said that if he had been a prima donna, he would have liked to sing the role of Azucena and not that of Leonora! It is a true mezzo-soprano role in all its splendour. This voice was used in a different way by composers, and Meyerbeer had started to shape the true dramatic mezzo-soprano a little with Pauline Viardot for Fidès. And Pauline Viardot continued in this direction when she seized Gluck’s Orfeo reworked by Berlioz. But never before Verdi and – I believe – before this specific work, had the term mezzo-soprano been so well defined, with a sombre and long voice which is neither alto nor dramatic soprano, and whose tessitura is really based on this middle point, creating an obscure character who is at times fragile and at times in revolt. A true lioness! There was indeed a lot of ‘after’ and perhaps not a lot of ‘before’…
Verdi attached a lot of importance to the choice of his performers, probably because the vocal writing for the four main roles is especially demanding. How do you see the work with the singers?
We came up with the cast with Peter de Caluwe and Dmitri Tcherniakov, made up of singers who are masters of the art of bel canto. For this work, it is essential to consider the dramatic aspect and the extremely strong individual personalities. It is for these qualities in particular that Marina Poplavskaya – whom I heard in Otello in Salzburg a few years ago – was chosen. Her voice combines lyricism and purity, as well as intensity and drama. She is an immediate tragic actor. This is also true for Sylvie Brunet, whom I have worked with often in roles such as Carmen, Gounod’s Mireille and the short role of the mother in The Tales of Hoffman, which she literally transcends. She was a dramatic soprano at first, and with the evolution of her voice has become a true powerfully dramatic mezzo, sounding at once wounded and vindictive. The other singers also have very precise qualities which allow them to achieve infinite theatricality, without going overboard.
After La Cenerentola, Don Quichotte and Les Huguenots, it will be the fourth time that you conduct an opera in Brussels. You know La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra well. What sort of relationship do you have?
We work in quite a close atmosphere. The rehearsals are long, especially when there are double castings – which was the case for Les Huguenots – and sometimes make things a little slow, but when the production is well under way there is a lot of simplicity. The musicians have true expertise, experience and musicality. When there are things to work on, progress is made. La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra is a dedicated orchestra whose curiosity is easy to rouse.
Interview by Marie Goffette