Armide opens tomorrow at L’Opéra Comique in Paris. The opera house has been restored to its former glory – how does it feel to be performing in such a space?
It’s a place which holds many fond memories for me. I have worked here often and I had my first conducting experience at L’Opéra Comique in 1991. In my opinion it’s one of the most beautiful performance spaces in Paris for the type of repertory we do – which is period opera. Le Palais Garnier is a little too large for us whereas the Salle Favard has the perfect dimensions and acoustic for the period music we play. It’s very inspiring. The recent renovation of the opera house has been mostly decorative, paintings, magnificent marble and mosaics, all of this beautiful but it doesn’t change the music we play.
You have become known for conducting, putting on little-known opera. What attracts you to the enterprise?
Yes- it’s my calling card. People call me up when there is an unusual project to put together. They know it’s what I like to do for the very reason that I have complete freedom to give it my own interpretation. I’m the only one at the helm musically. I am able to follow my own vision and to take my musicians, the cast of singers along with me. That doesn’t mean that I avoid known masterpieces like The Magic Flute. I’m soon to conduct Cosi fan Tutte at the Châtelet (Theatre). I have also made recordings with my ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques of Rameau and Lully – because if you put on period repertoire, it’s worth recording. Les Talens Lyriques make up the orchestra for Armide too.
I’ve read somewhere that Gluck considered Armide his best opera
I’m not sure about that – but he certainly regarded the opera as his biggest challenge. A different version of Armide had already been popular in 1686, composed by Lully. The composer Rameau was called upon to update it in the 18th centry but he didn’t want to be compared to Lully. Gluck took on the challenge and brought a new style to the 17th century opera.
I’ve never seen Armide
The last time it was played in France was in 1905. But it has been performed in Amsterdam quite recently.
In Armide the overriding theme is the religious crusades and the love of a princess of Damascus for an enemy knight.
Our director Lilo Baur was adverse to bringing out the religious theme and has concentrated on the passion – the theme of impossible love – two people whose cultures are too different. The interesting thing in the opera is that the knight Renaud is in love with Armide because a spell has been put on him, whereas Armide loves Renaud, who is supposed to be her enemy, sincerely. These factors create strong drama. It’s essentially a love story and a story of abandonment. In Act 5 we really identify with Armide’s suffering. It’s so well acted by singer Véronique Gens and the music is so emotional that we are captivated.
I was going to ask you, what are the top five arias in Armide?
That’s the most fascinating thing about Gluck – he’s not like Mozart who looks for arias. At the beginning of Gluck’s career – he did a lot of conventional opera in Italy – with lots of arias and coloratura. When he started reforming opera later, and that is what he is known for, he simplified the vocals – he came to something syllabic. – you can’t say you come out of the opera humming one tune. There are however many musical and vocal high points as you will discover. When Renauld sings for the first time in the enchanted forest Act 1 and when Armide realises she’s in love Act 3.
Is the music more important for Gluck than the voice?
Certainly. However what he demands from the singers is acting skills. He wants the singers to recognise the power of language, the text and the emotion. Gluck is said to have demanded that a singer express suffering as if someone had cut off his leg. The voice transmits the texts – it’s not an end in itself.
And the music?
Well the music is ‘simplified’ so to speak so that the audience is closer to the drama. In reality the music is rather complex. The mechanics are complex. It’s like that with French opera – you also have the dancers, the chorus – it’s complicated. There are lots of atmospheres to create – much use is made of contrasts. Gluck got rid of the harpsichord and the dry recitatives and everything is orchestrated. It’s a complication for the conductor. I’m always moving and alert.
What about Véronique Gens (Armide)?
She’s a fantastic interpreter of Gluck. She’s a real ‘performer’. It’ll be the first time she is singing Armide.
Finally you’re coming to London – to the Wigmore in 2023
Yes we’re coming twice. First in February with my ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, and mezzo-soprano singer Amboisine Bré and later in April performing works by the Bach dynasty.
‘Armide’ remaining performances 7, 9, 11, 15 November 8.00pm and 13 November at 3.00pm
Armide tickets online: Opéra Comique Booking: https://bit.ly/3zRoC5X
Christophe Rousset is coming with the Talens Lyriques to the Wigmore Hall on 5th February 2023 on a programme of Handel with mezzo-soprano Amboisine Bré and on the 9th May with a programme of Bach (Bach Dynasty)