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S&H Interview

François le Roux in conversation with Melanie Eskenazi


On Tuesday April 30th, a remarkable event takes place in Paris; on that date in 1902, exactly one hundred years ago, Debussy’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ received its première, and now in 2002, Marc Minkowski will conduct a commemorative performance in which the role of Golaud will be sung by the leading French baritone Francois Le Roux, whom I recently had the pleasure of interviewing about his career.

Le Roux is, of course, no stranger to this opera; after his debut in the role of Pelléas, critics hailed him as ‘the greatest Pelléas since Jacques Jansen,’ (who died recently) and his experience of the work encompasses many productions and both of the major male roles.

Le Roux describes the key to the opera’s greatness as ‘The unique relationship between text and music, since it is one of the very few operas which really is a play set to music almost in its entirety; Debussy made very few alterations to Maeterlinck’s 1892 play, and his love for French prosody is so evident. It represents a totally new way of approaching the language, based more on a flexible way of talking than a flexible way of singing!’ Does he agree with Debussy’s instruction to the first cast, to ‘Try to forget that you are a singer?’ ‘Yes, but that is always very difficult; when you listen to some of the old recordings you’re always aware that they are singing too much; perhaps the only exception is Singher who was of course French and steeped in that tradition. It’s very hard to bring this work to non – French audiences, except perhaps in England which has always been so Francophile; in Germany it has always been difficult to present the work, and of course I’m not even talking about Italy!’

In common with another noted Pelléas, the British baritone Simon Keenlyside, Le Roux values Debussy’s opera for its unique quality of presenting characters who are not mere archetypes but living people; of the final phrase sung by Arkel of Mélisande ‘She was a little mysterious being, as mysterious as everyone’ he says ‘Here we have what preoccupied both Maeterlinck and Debussy; to bring the mysterious humanity of each character alive, not the stereotype which you find even in good operas.’

Le Roux describes himself as ‘in love with the work rather than the character of Pelléas,’ so when the time came for him to make the move to the role of Golaud, he was able to assume it with confidence; ‘Pierre Médecin, the director of the Opèra – Comique at the time, said that he wanted to do a production based on Golaud, who would be onstage throughout, but only if I would do it! Naturally, I was very happy with this, since Golaud is such a fascinating character who experiences the most obvious evolution in the opera, and with whom the audience are inclined to be sympathetic since the depth of his suffering is so great; I had seen so many singers in the part, but with each one I thought that I would not do it in the same way as him! I felt that I was often seeing a character who was a bit too much of a bluebeard, and why would Melisande go with such a one? I tried to show him as capable of tenderness, and I think this was successful.’

Le Roux declares that he could not go back to Pelléas now, partly because that is a lyric role whereas Golaud is dramatic, ‘and it’s much easier to go from the lyric to the dramatic rather than the other way around.’ He attributes much of the great success of the Opèra – Comique production partly to the construction of the house ‘so intimate, you are so close to the public’ and partly to the conductor, Georges Prêtre. For him,’ Pelléas et Melisande’ is a work which needs the realization that the singer is ‘part of a complete stream of music, not floating but inside it,’ and in this he makes an interesting comparison with Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo.’ ‘Debussy knew so much more than he is given credit for, and I am sure he was well versed in earlier music. In a way, what he does in ‘Pelléas’ is very similar to what Monteverdi does in ‘Orfeo,’ especially in the mixture of popular things and spoken dialogue.’

‘Orfeo’ is indeed one of the many roles which Le Roux has sung with notable success; his repertoire is astonishingly wide, encompassing all the ‘standard’ baritone roles and including even Nick Shadow (in English and French!) a role he particularly loves; ‘I have not done it enough but then there are plenty of wonderful English and American singers to do it; I love that combination of Don Giovanni and Mephistopheles that Shadow is.’ His operatic career seems in many ways to have echoed that of Jean Perier, the creator of the role of Pelléas, since both are noted exponents of such roles as Ramiro in Ravel’s ‘L’Heure espagnole’ and both have created many roles as well as having exceptionally eclectic musical tastes.

Amongst the new operas in which he has created roles are David Lang’s ‘Modern Painters,’ based on the life of Ruskin and directed by Francesca Zambello at Santa Fe, and of course Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘Gawain’ which received its premiere at Covent Garden, a particular source of pride for him; ‘Harry had not written that opera before hearing me; he came to a Wigmore Hall recital of mine and after that he began to write the part just for my voice, with his unique understanding of it; that is so unusual these days, and will stay as one of the big cornerstones of what I’ve done on stage. I have always felt that baritones get the bad deal, but of course here Gawain’s big moment is ‘I am not that hero…’ I was also very proud to be the only non – English speaker on stage, and overall I am very sad that no other opera house has wanted to put this opera on – I have tried my best to promote it but maybe opera houses do not want to be second!’

François is uncommonly equable on the thorny topic of controversial opera productions; his own role in ‘Gawain’ is remembered as not without controversy since it included a nude scene, and he says that whilst ‘provocation is a task’ which he understands, and he regards such avant-garde directors as Peter Sellars as ‘very persuasive,’ he has only felt what he describes as ‘truly at home’ in around one in twelve productions! However, ‘that is actually quite good, given that fashionably controversial productions are almost the norm in France, and that there are now so many newcomers in the staging of opera who don’t know very much about music. I don’t care about displacing a period or costumes, that’s fine, but if the music is being worked against……. but the music is far stronger than we are, and will survive no matter what we do to it.’

Apart from his operatic career, Le Roux is known as one of today’s most prolific and sought – after recitalists, not only because of his beautiful voice and interpretative skills but also because of his innovative and original programming. Although he obviously loves the ‘great standards’ of the repertoire, he feels that he would ‘prefer to do more new and unusual things rather than the more standard such as ‘Winterreise,’ much as I love that – it is well served by others, I think, and that is not true of a lot of other music. Like Graham Johnson, I enjoy different combinations of songs and composers…’ His recitals are often titled ‘Autour de……..’ and reflect his passion for introducing audiences not only to the songs of an individual composer but also to that composer’s circle and background. He says that in France, the ‘Mélodie’ repertoire is always thought of as elitist, and there is such a huge library of song as yet undiscovered by the musical public, so he tries to approach it from the angle of the Poet, as with his remarkably successful series at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

He declares a preference for recital over opera, even though he must surely qualify as one of today’s most assured ‘stage animals.’ ‘The song recital is more personal, more revealing, more naked, but also more fulfilling since you are doing your own programme with just one colleague to whom you are exceptionally close. Yes, stage fright does get worse as expectations rise, but I have never felt so comfortable as I do now; still, I know that if the public is not totally receptive I only have myself to blame! I know, for example, that I could not now sing Pelléas as I did it under Abbado, but my voice is more resonant now to what I am deeply – the gap between my inner and outer voice is smaller than it once was!’

Parallel to his own recital career is his commitment to teaching; apart from giving many master classes throughout the year, he is also Artistic Director of the Academie Francis Poulenc in Tours, and he takes his responsibilities in this area very seriously; ‘In a way it is a bit like having to re-invent a tradition; I have been lucky enough to have worked with many of the ‘old’ singers and conductors and I am keen to give students the benefit of what I have myself had. It’s much more difficult for young singers nowadays; you cannot just go straight to the Wigmore Hall to make your debut, and record companies are not so willing to take risks. So, people like us have to take the risks with students, but these things must be done if one is to keep this kind of music alive. The future of classical song will always be in the hands of an élite but I hope that it will increasingly be an élite of those who really enjoy the relationship between text and music.’

His next recital disc, with Graham Johnson on Hyperion, features the songs of Louis Durey, once a member of ‘Les Six’ and a composer much influenced by Debussy. Francois describes the piano writing as ‘very Ravel, very Debussy,’ and the choice of poets set is very up to date within its time, with people like Apollonaire and Saint John Perse. Durey is, according to Francois, ‘a highly individual voice, and his ‘Bestiaire’ is a great work.’ He hopes that the new recording will show that Durey is deserving of more recognition, and he is planning to programme his music with that of Poulenc and Ravel in forthcoming recitals.

Le Roux has frequently been described as the ‘successor’ to Gérard Souzay; was this, I asked him, as daunting as, say, being a German baritone and constantly being compared to Fischer-Dieskau? ‘I take it as a good thing! My aim is not exactly what his was; he wanted to be the equivalent to Fischer-Dieskau in the French repertoire and also to be highly regarded in German song, but my operatic career is wider than his and one might also say that I am more concerned with music which has been neglected. That’s what I want to be known for, rather than being seen as the icon of a genre.’ Le Roux recognizes parallels between himself and the German baritone Matthias Goerne in these respects; ‘this generation is so much more individual, and I hope that Matthias will do not only Schumann, Wolf and so on but also many more modern things, by composers who have written for him; there are so many good young composers in Germany whose work I would really love to hear him sing!’

François was very definite about his choices of recordings to be selected to introduce his art to those unfamiliar with it; naturally, he chose first of all the recording of ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ with Abbado and Maria Ewing on DG, followed by the Chausson ‘Poème de l’amour et de la Mer,’ of which he declared himself ‘very proud;’ finally, the songs of Debussy were selected, and I added Berlioz’ ‘L’enfance du Christ’ in the wonderful Decca recording with Susan Graham, a fellow recipient of the honour of ‘Chevalier’ of the French National order of Arts and Letters, as a disc which reveals the exceptional qualities of this remarkable baritone’s art.


Melanie Eskenazi

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