Maestro, this is wonderful—your first non-18th-century opera in Seattle!
I know, can you believe it!?
Do you conduct a lot of 20th century operas?
Yes, I’ve done several world premieres—I’m doing a new opera this fall at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, a multimedia performance piece, Biennale. I studied with a big Liszt pianist, Jorge Bolet, so I’ve also done lots of Romantic nineteenth century music. The opera I’ve conducted the most is actually Carmen! I actually came to Baroque music backwards—my first love was not Baroque music. But, as the Buddha says, “Those who do not go smiling toward their fate are dragged!”
Alan Alabastro, photo
So Baroque music has been your fate, to some extent, and not just in Seattle, where you’ve done these wonderful Gluck and Handel operas for us, and Messiah for the Symphony...
Yes, my first job out of conservatory was with the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston. And I knew very little of that repertoire, so for me it was a learning process.
I would think that if you live mostly in a Baroque musical world, with its strict formal patterns, this shapeless 20th century prose thing which is La Voix Humaine must be...a bit bewildering.
Oh, you said it. But I also find it reminscent of Monteverdi and Cavalli. It has sections of free or semi-free recitative mixed with these incredibly beautiful and lyric, but relatively brief, outbursts of melody. And that’s the nature of early Baroque opera. It’s very much like Rameau. It’s interesting, in Italian Baroque opera the recitatives are set, however hapharzardly, or with elaborate rhythmic configuarions, in common time. And with a genius like Handel they’re often breathtaking. But in French opera of the same period, in the eighteenth century, composers like Rameau and Lully wrote their recitatives in ever-changing meters, to reflect the prose and the stress of the text. And that’s exactly what Poulenc does.
Alan Alabastro, photo
It seems like the subject of this opera, the donna abbandonata, was popular in the Baroque. Didn’t they all write operas or monodramas about Arianna, deserted by Theseus, or Dido abandoned by Aeneas?
Oh, very much. We were talking in rehearsal the other day—Bernard [Uzan, the director] asked, “Why is it called La Voix Humaine?” Which really got me thinking, and I looked it up, and it turns out “La voix humaine” was a phrase coined by Lamartine in the nineteenth century in a poem in which he said, basically, the human voice is the greatest vehicle for expressing the torment of the soul. Cocteau then came to that expression via the Dada-ists, who used that concept, after World War 1, to express a new kind of soul’s anguish, in the aftermath of this awful new war.
And you think that concept, the power of the voice to express that existential torment, would have resonated with Monteverdi or Cavalli?
Yes, they all understood the expressive potential of the voice, Monteverdi even tried to categorize it: how different tessituras, different rhythmic patterns reflect different emotional states. And it’s all here. [pats score of La Voix Humaine.]
Now, bringing the discussion from the seventeenth century all the way to the twenty-first: is La Voix Humaine a gay opera?
Because I was discussing this question with Nuccia Focile the other day, and she suggested that her character could very easily be a man!
Well, yes. There’s been a lot of speculation about that, and Cocteau when he wrote the original play was in his personal life going through a difficult time with Jean Marais, his longtime partner. So...probably, yes. It turns out that Cocteau had volunteered to make a recording of the play himself in the ‘30s, but it was considered inappropriate for a man to be saying these lines!
Collection Pierre sur le Ciel
But more than that, it’s the universal human soul. The feelings in this opera could be about anyone. Maybe it had its kernal in a gay incubator, with Cocteau and Marais...but a student once asked Denise Duval, the first soprano to sing the opera, this question, and she said, “No, no, no, no, no, he wrote it about me! I was having a horrible time with a break-up, so Poulenc wrote it about me!” Did you know that the impulse for Poulenc to write the opera came from Maria Callas?
No, I didn’t know that!
Yes, Poulenc dedicated the score to his publisher, Dugardin, who was a close personal friend. Poulenc and Dugardin were at La Scala for the world premiere of Dialogues des Carmelites, in 1957, and they went to another performance with Callas and Di Stefano, the very famous performance where she stepped forward in front of him to take a solo bow, and the story goes that Dugardin turned to Poulenc and said, “You know, what you really need to do is to write a one-person opera, for her!” And Poulenc said, “No, no, not for her, but for Denise Duval.”
And who was Poulenc breaking up with at the time?
Oh, I don’t know, he had several friends. But to the question, more seriously, there are several places in the text where, if you speak French, there’s a double entendre...when she says, “People wouldn’t understand our relationship...now that we’re breaking up, they’ll drag us through the sewers.”
What do you think these two operas have to do with each other?
There’s obviously a betrayed, lonely, sad lady at the core of both operas. But for me what has been wonderful is to find in Suor Angelica Puccini at his most French. He uses many techniques of the impressionists: parallelism; planing, which is these beautiful chords all in a row; orchestration reminsicent of Debussy, etc. I find that in terms of the composition the pieces are tied together in a very interesting way. They use similar harmonic languages and similar orchestral effects. And that hadn’t occurred to me when we began talking about this double bill.
Alan Alabastro, photo
So how will you and the orchestra shift gears, from the Poulenc to the Puccini, during the performances?
I told the orchestra, “French music is Chanel, a Chanel suit. Simple lines, everything restrained. Italian music is Versace. Beautiful, exotic colors, lack of restraint, more portamenti.” So, although they’re made from the same vegetables, these are two very different stews.
Have you conducted these operas before?
The last time I conducted Suor Angelica, actually, I was in college! And—this was also long, long ago—I used to play for Miss Massachusetts, who would put this negligée and a telephone in the trunk of her car, and we’d drive to these clubs all over the east coast, and perform a 25-minute version of La Voix Humaine with me at the piano! So yes, I’ve had a longtime relationship with these two wonderful operas.
Excellent, we look forward to hearing what you do with them now!