How many of the roles on this album have you sung on stage, and how many might figure in your future?
So far I’ve sung Micaëla, Antonia in Les contes d’Hoffmann, Marguerite, Juliette, Leïla in Les pêcheurs de perles and Thaïs. The one role here which I sadly don’t think will happen on stage now is Manon: the opportunity just didn’t come my way, and I feel I’ve really missed the boat for it! I’d still love to sing it, and you can approach it as a full lyric soprano, but two years from now I don’t think it the Gavotte would be the most comfortable thing for me: that’s very much a coloratura showpiece, and it’s the reason why some lighter voices sing the role. And Leïla (which I’ve done twice, in Zurich and Chicago) is gone for sure; but what definitely stays in my repertoire is Thaïs, which is a big, beautiful and very challenging role. I made my debut as Thaïs in Salzburg in 2016, in a concert version with Plácido [Domingo]; it was a huge success, and it left me with so many beautiful memories. I have a few engagements for it in the diary.
I won’t do Micaëla again, but if I was offered Carmen further down the line then I wouldn’t refuse! People consider it a mezzo role, but that doesn’t really concern me: I think I have a good middle register, and that’s developing all the time as I sing fuller lyric roles. In the nineteenth century there really was no distinction between mezzo and soprano, as with the Rossini roles that were written for Isabelle Colbran which I sang on my previous album. For Carmen it’s more important to have the right colours and character, which is very free-wheeling, very wild. There are low notes, yes, but no more so than in a lot of other soprano roles, and it would be an interesting experience for sure! I’d like to do Le Cid, Louise, Hérodiade…and of course Esclarmonde, but no-one ever stages it! Maybe even Pélleas et Mélisande – why not?!
What special challenges does the French language pose for a non-native singer?
This is an interesting question, because when I was a student I found the idea of singing in French horrifying! There are so many nasal sounds, and it’s quite disconcerting at first because they partially put the voice in a different place. Back then I worked a lot with Frederic Jouannais who is a pianist in Nantes, and I’ve had some amazing coaches including Florence Daguerre de Hureaux, Jocelyne Dienst-Bladin and of course the producer of Elle – a great pianist and a great friend – Mathieu Pordoy. These were the people who helped to find the right attitude and the right approach to the sound, style and expression of this amazing music. It took me a while to be truly confident with the language, but now I really love it. Sung French is very different from spoken French, so it’s not only a question of correct understanding: it’s a kind of vocal harmonisation, where you accentuate specific consonants to attribute specific expression to the character. When I start learning a new role in French I find it’s especially crucial to speak it through and get an idea of where the phrasing is going; which consonants to bring out, which kind of ‘Ah!’ to use, choices like that. And in Carmen there is an additional challenge of moving between spoken and sung French. You need to speak loud enough to be heard but still sound natural; that’s a challenge I haven’t yet faced, as all the roles I’ve done in French have had sung recitatives.
What I love about French music is the extremely strong connection with the text: take something like Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, where the characters are so close to what Shakespeare created, and you always feel that these precise words have been chosen for a very specific reason. In Rossini the text is still important but it’s more about the line, whereas in French opera the text is absolutely crucial to both you and the orchestra.
I know from our previous conversations that you’re someone who enjoys delving into the literary and historical background of your characters: what sources did you look at whilst you were preparing these roles?
The obvious starting-points were Goethe’s Faust and Antoine François Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut, and then it was interesting to look at how the character of Manon is mirrored in Dumas’s La dame aux camélias (which was also the source for La traviata): in fact Armand gives Marguerite a copy of Prévost’s book near the beginning of the novel. Thaïs was a real historical figure, and I read a fantastic study of her life in Russian. For Les pêcheurs des perles there is no real literary source, but I realised that it was written at a time when it was very à la mode to have a priestess who’s in love –Norma, Les pêcheurs des perles, Lakmé, it’s all more or less the same kind of story.
Do you think that translates into a certain fixation on the ‘fallen woman’ in nineteenth-century French opera?
The women on the album are very different from one another, and each of them have a lot of contrasting elements even within their own personalities. Take Manon: she is young and charming, but also very shrewd and narcissistic. As Armando Duval says to Marguerite in La dame aux camélias, it’s the story of a woman who couldn’t choose between love for herself and her beauty and love for a man – it’s only at the end that she realises how good he is and how little she appreciated it.
Thaïs is completely different because she’s not only a courtesan, she’s also a kind of priestess in the Temple of Venus – a little like Norma. She’s with a man because she was paid to be; she’s always surrounded by actors, and at the beginning of the opera is used to this entourage of the artistic world and the freedom that she has within it. She’s never really attached herself to anyone: she’s what Violetta was before getting to know Alfredo Germont. But like Violetta she’s also exhausted by this lifestyle, as we hear in her first solo recitative where she exclaims ‘I’m so tired: the men are so brutal and the women are so weak!’ She’s afraid of getting old because that’s the end of her! Athanaël is only able to bring her to God (though in reality he’s in love with her) and get her purified from her previous life because she’s tired of that life anyway. I do think, though, that Massenet is quite clear that his conviction that real love is the love between a man and a woman. As Thaïs says to Athanaël:
‘Qui te fait si sévère/ Et pourquoi démens-tu la flamme de tes yeux? Quelle triste folie te fait manquer à ton destin? Homme fait pour aimer, quelle erreur est la tienne!’
‘What makes you so severe And why do you remove the flame from your eyes? What sad madness makes you miss your destiny? Man was made to love, what a mistake yours is!’
We see the same dynamic in the Saint Sulpice scene in Manon when Des Grieux, who is already a priest, declares ‘L’amour est dans tes yeux’: the love between a man and a woman is sacred in a certain sense. Leïla in Les pêcheurs des perles becomes a priestess herself, because she was in love with Nadir but she had to flee and promises never to kiss another man. But when she sees him again she cannot refuse, because again the love between a woman and a man is more important and sacred than the ritual.
Does Carmen occupy a different space altogether – dramatically as well as vocally?
Leïla’s final duet with Zurga actually puts me in mind of the end of Carmen: Zurga is full of revenge because he loves Leïla as Nadir loves her, but she doesn’t feel the same. But Carmen’s true love is freedom – freedom in who she loves, where she goes, where she throws the flower. And it’s interesting that she chooses what she sees as a ‘pure’ man in José. He’s not like the other men all around her: he’s engaged to Micaëla, he’s devoted to his mother, so she likes his purity and she’s a great provocatrice! People often speak of Carmen as a femme fatale, but she’s almost like a man in terms of character. This woman isn’t beautiful: she’s wild and aggressive and different to all the other women, and that wildness is the driving-force behind her attractiveness. Men want to possess her and they can’t, and it’s that exact same dynamic that sparks her initial attraction to José.
You mentioned earlier that the moment may have passed for you to sing Manon on stage: how do the other ingénue roles here sit in your voice?
I think the crucial thing is how much they develop throughout the operas. Juliet, Manon and Marguerite start out as very young girls, and the writing is typical of the French characterisation of youth: at the beginning Juliet is like a flower coming into bloom and she sings very high, right up to a D (the original key of the aria is D, not C). But like Carmen, she has this tremendous life-force and she loves being exactly the way she is: we see it in that first aria where she repeats ‘Laissez-moi!’ (‘Leave me be!’) and ‘Je veux vivre’ (‘I want to live’). And she’s the first to confess (though not directly) that she loves Roméo: her words are ‘Tell me that you love me and I’ll believe you’. It’s really incredible how strong she is, and from that first moment there’s a fatalism around her love for Roméo: she says ‘If he’s not going to be mine I would prefer the shroud to be my wedding-dress’. As she becomes a woman and story grows more dramatic, her tessitura gets lower; in the Poison Aria (which is sometimes omitted in performances because a light soprano just cannot sing it) the orchestration is really full soprano territory, and the same is true of the last duet. It’s quite incredible how Gounod develops her character through the vocal writing.
We see the same thing with Marguerite in Faust, because the Jewel Song is the only moment where she has coloratura and where she really laughs: when we first meet her she’s this joyful but pure and prudent girl who’s loving the seduction of the jewels and seeing herself beautiful, and it’s the only point in the opera we see her happy because the rest of it’s really creepy…she falls in love and becomes a woman without marrying Faust, she gets pregnant and feels what it is to be left alone, abandoned with the child, to be despised by everyone, even her brother, then she kills her child and it makes her go mad and end up in jail; the Marguerite in that final trio in the prison is not the same Marguerite that we meet at the beginning – vocally and emotionally they are like two different women. Something similar happens in Les pêcheurs des perles, where Leïla’s first aria is much higher and lighter than ‘Comme autrefois’, which is very lyric and sensual. In fact all of these characters are totally different, and the challenge for me on this album was to show that through the textual intensity and the colours in my voice; with French music that’s a particular joy because the orchestra also supply so many colours which you can tap into, and the end result is something incredibly rich and atmospheric.
How did you settle on a title for the album?
I chose the title Elle because I wanted something that encompasses all of these different aspects of femininity: a woman changes so much over the course of her life, and not only if she has a child (Lia in L’enfant prodigue, who has lost her son, is the only mother we meet on this album). Her vision of the world in middle age and beyond is very different from what it was in youth – and that’s a kind of parallel to the variety to the characters that appear on Elle.