An Interview with Christophe Rousset
Actus Humanus, a festival of early music in Gdańsk, Poland, ended on December 17. I was there for the final concert, which featured the harpsichordist Christophe Rousset, the soprano Ann Hallenberg, and the period band Les Talens Lyriques. The repertoire was vocal and instrumental music inspired by the Academy Award-winning film on the life of the famous castrato “Farinelli.” Les Talens Lyriques had provided the soundtrack in 1994 and reprised the repertoire that night. (Full disclosure: the festival paid for my flights and hotel to attend, so I didn’t review the concert itself.)
The performance took place in a large cathedral, backlit in purples and blues, and was packed both with regular attendees and media. A film crew operated a camera on a large crane. At times, it even seemed to interact with the music, hovering over the audience like some kind of large metallic snake refusing to be charmed.
I met Rousset the next morning for breakfast. He wore a beige turtleneck and a silver bracelet, and talked with me about forgotten Italians, the Rolling Stones, and emergency harpsichord repairs.
VAN: In Gdańsk, you performed music by Riccardo Broschi, Nicola Porpora, Johann Adolph Hasse, and Leonardo Leo. I hadn’t heard of any of them.
Christophe Rousset: Broschi was Farinelli’s brother. He composed mostly to show off his brother’s abilities. To me he’s not a great composer; it’s just interesting to show how he presented his brother’s voice.
My favorites from the concert are Porpora and Leo, two major composers of the Neapolitan School. Leo stayed in Naples during his life, but he was widely known—Handel conducted his pieces in London. He made music evolve towards pre-classical writing. Sometimes you hear Leo and think, “It sounds like young Mozart!” But it was written in the 1730s and ‘40s.
And while Handel went bankrupt with his theater, Porpora’s theater was successful. He was also one of Haydn’s teachers. Basically, the orchestra of the Mannheim School, of Haydn and Mozart, comes from Naples, which is very interesting.
Why play a composer like Broschi if he isn’t great?
First of all because it’s in the film “Farinelli” [laughs]. The film is really important to the history of Les Talens Lyriques. The program was developed for our 20th anniversary as an ensemble; now we’re 26, but we still tour with the program quite a lot.
Broschi’s “Son qual nave ch’agitata” and “Ombra fedele anch’io” were very important to the movie, so we wanted to do them. Also, the high virtuosity is fun for Ann Hallenberg. She’s a crazy singer, and she likes doing impossible coloraturas. The challenge excites her.
Is she singing in the same range as Farinelli would have, or is she transposing up?
No, that’s absolutely the right range.
He was able to sing that high?
Obviously, because the music was written for him. We even have some ornaments written by him for some of the arias, and you wonder how a singer could possibly realize them. We didn’t perform them because we couldn’t figure out how a human being could do something like that. He would put trills on these very, very fast coloraturas. And it’s already enough to have such speed. Obviously it was something really abnormal.
You were William Christie’s assistant for seven years. Was it because of him that you decided to start conducting?
Yes, he really pushed me. He offered me to conduct chamber music programs with singers, then madrigals, then the choir, then the orchestra, and finally an opera production. At that point I discovered I really liked conducting [laughs]. I love opera—it’s my cup of tea.
Which baroque composers do you think aren’t being played enough?
Leo was a genius: he helped the language evolve, had a gift for melody, and was very sensitive to vocal lines. Like Mozart if you will, but much earlier. He was about the same level as Handel—except Handel is performed everywhere and is very famous, but nobody knows about Leo.
Why do you think that is?
Probably because he didn’t travel. Also, Handel wrote so many things in English that remain in the repertoire in England. Nobody stopped playing him, while Leo was completely forgotten; it’s not easy to to take him back into the light. Plus the Italian repertoire is so huge, from Monteverdi to Puccini and Berio.
Your biography mentions that you play “beautiful” harpsichords. What is a beautiful harpsichord to you? Does it have to be a period instrument?
It’s a plus, but not a necessity. You know, the harpsichord was like a time machine for me since I was a child. A way of diving into a forgotten world in the past, the baroque period. Now we have really great copies, modern models with the right spirit of the instrument: intimate, deep, nutty…it’s difficult to find the adjectives.
If you compare the harpsichords now to the ones we had in the 1960s—they were these tanks with tons of pedals and a very nasal sound.
Do you travel with your harpsichord?
It’s difficult, because it’s fragile. Otherwise I have to try out the harpsichord a day before. The instrument has to be well-regulated. If it’s not—even if it’s a good model or maker—then it’s a real challenge to play on it.
What do you do in that case?
If I can’t get a substitution, I try to regulate it myself, in order to make it playable. Tuning is easy; the quills, which pluck the string, are the key element. If they’re uneven, if one is too hard or too soft, that affects the sensation on the keyboard. You have to get your knife and try to fix all the quills.
When you’re working with modern orchestras, how do you get them to play in good period style?
You have to find a way of making them accept you, making them want to please you. I show them how much better it sounds when it goes in the direction I’ve been demonstrating. That’s my way.
It’s also good to play yourself. When I conducted “Le Nozze di Figaro” at Covent Garden, I played the recitatives. It’s a very good signal for the musicians that you are among them. You’re not just a vertical authority. You’re a musician, and you try to make music together. You’re in the band. That helps.
In a survey for Playbill in 2009, you were asked to name your three favorite non-classical musicians and/or recordings. You answered, “I’ll have to get back to you on this one.” Does that mean you don’t listen to any modern pop music?
No. It comes from a trauma in my youth. I always had a bad relationship with my older brother. He was always listening to pop music, and I was always listening to classical music. The opposition was clear. There was no bridge between those two worlds [laughs].
What music was he listening to then?
Well, Rolling Stones, Queens [sic] and things like that. I couldn’t bear it. I thought it was just noise; I didn’t like it at all. I’m not fond of jazz either, it’s not my cup of tea. To me this music is mostly in two. One, two, one, two, one two. Binary. I don’t feel it. Something is lacking: the texture, the language, is not consistent for me. It doesn’t satisfy me. I prefer silence.
What about contemporary classical music, say Ligeti’s “Continuum” for harpsichord?
I appreciate it, but I don’t play it myself. I feel no affinity for it. You know, when I choose repertoire, I have to feel deeply that I can help the repertoire by performing it. For years I thought, “After 1800 I can’t help.” Now I have conducted some Rossini, Berlioz, some arias by Verdi, things like that. I actually felt very comfortable in that repertoire, and Les Talens Lyriques and I will perform and record Gounod’s “Faust,” which is not baroque at all.
But for years, I thought I can’t help [with later repertoire]. Now I think I can help. But contemporary classical…I don’t feel comfortable with it. But I like going to concerts and listening to it. I’ve ordered a piece from Pascal Dusapin. He’s sensitive to the harpsichord. He came to my place, and I played for him, and he sat in front of the harpsichord just to try to understand how it works. Dusapin knows about baroque music, it inspires him.
Besides Dusapin, how “far” into music history would you be willing to go?
It’s very tempting to do a [Debussy] “Pelléas et Mélisande” someday. When you do Gounod, Massenet, or Berlioz, there is a French spirit which is consistent. There’s something I know in the repertoire that I feel comfortable with. It’s not like diving straight into Wagner.
Though I must say: I would love to conduct Wagner some day. I think it’s conducted much too heavily. It can’t have been like that. At Bayreuth, you can’t hear much of the orchestra, because it’s far away; the text is clear and the singers don’t have to shout. In regular opera houses, the orchestra always sounds too heavy, too loud, and it’s too slow. It doesn’t feel right to my ears. I guess I could do something to help. ¶