Interview: Véronique Gens sings Giunone in Cavalli's La Calisto at Covent Garden

'I find it very hard to play characters I don't like. I need to believe in them in order to sing them well.'

15 September 2008

Véronique GensDuring the press conference to announce the 2008-09 season, it was made clear that this was to be a year for reinvigorating the repertoire. So we're getting unknown Rossini, the first ROH staging of Hansel and Gretel in over half a century, Korngold's Die tote Stadt, and, most curious of all, Cavalli's La Calisto, which opens next week.

Cavalli, it's often said, was the link between the foundations set forth by Monteverdi in the early 1600s and the mid-baroque operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, then Vivaldi and Handel. Unlike Monteverdi, most of whose operas have been lost, many of Cavalli's manuscripts have survived, which makes it all the more perplexing that they aren't performed more often.

All that's about to change, as La Calisto (1652) comes to the Royal Opera House for the first time, in a critically-acclaimed production by David Alden that was first seen in Munich in 2005 and has been revived several times since. It marks Alden's first visit to the ROH, and most of the cast – which includes Sally Matthews in the title role – have been in the production before, while baroque specialist Ivor Bolton also returns to it, having conducted the staging when it was new.

One of the main participants is French soprano Véronique Gens, whose outstanding career in opera houses such as Barcelona, Madrid, Dresden, the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Lyon has all but excluded Covent Garden (apart from a small debut there in 1995) and, as she tells me ruefully, the principal theatres in her native France. So she's clearly delighted to be back at the ROH for a bigger role, Giunone in this La Calisto.

'It's wonderful to be here after so many years. My debut was in King Arthur with Bill Christie, and I wasn't playing a very important part. It's so sad I couldn't come back in the meantime, but I'm returning within two years to do Niobe by Agostino Steffani with Thomas Hengelbrock. It's very beautiful Italian baroque music, and the production comes from Schwetzingen in Germany. I'm singing Niobe!'

Véronique Gens as Giunone in the Munich run of La Calisto (2005): credit: Wilfried HoslGens' role in Calisto is that of Giunone (Juno), Jupiter's wife. 'I love this music,' she says. 'It's true I don't sing it so often now, but it's really wonderful. The production is controversial but very imaginative. The Germans liked it very much – I don't think they know this music as well as you British! – so it has been revived many times already.' Of the conductor, Ivor Bolton, Gens says, 'He gives you energy because he's enjoying the music so much. I don't know any other conductor who's quite like that in the pit.'

Although she's not playing the title role, Gens clearly adores the character of Giunone. 'She's always angry – especially in this production! So much so, in fact, that she's a little bit silly and stupid. At the same time, she's in love with Giove (Jupiter), so I can understand her very well. I was singing Donna Elvira just before I came here, and I find that there are similarities between them – they're both very true, and straight, and Giunone just wants Giove to be back home. She's angry just because she loves him, and the production gives her big dresses to make her important. And although her jealousy makes her look ridiculous, it's not as ridiculous as Giove pretending he's a woman, or as Calisto believing that Giove is a woman!'

Cavalli is not a well-known composer, but Gens stresses his importance in the development of opera. 'The way he writes is different from Monteverdi. There are many recitatives, compared to Monteverdi where you have lots of ensembles. I think there are only two ensembles in the whole of La Calisto; there are some beautiful duets, too, but he uses a very conversational style with lots of talking. Trying to learn all the recitatives is crazy, especially because it's in old Italian. The Italians here are all saying that it's a very strange use of the language, and you don't know where the subject and the object of the sentence is.

'But I've never sung Monteverdi onstage before, and I dream of doing Poppea.'

Nevertheless, Gens has a new recording out on Virgin Classics this month with Emmanuelle Haïm called Lamenti, in which she joins artists such as Joyce DiDonato, Rolando Villazón and Patrizia Ciofi for a selection of seventeenth-century laments and Gens' contribution is Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna. 'Well, it's not a happy recording – everybody's crying!' she laughs. 'But it's full of beautiful music and wonderful voices. It's interesting to hear how so many different singers open their hearts and interpret the crying.' Of the Lamento d'Arianna, Gens comments: 'It's the same thing again: she's been abandoned but is still in love. She cuts herself in pieces. I'm always singing these sorts of characters!'

Véronique GensThis year, Gens will make a dramatic turn in her career and sing her first Eva in Wagner's Die Meistersinger at Barcelona. 'It's a huge challenge – oh my God, yes! I keep on dreaming about it – I'm very scared. My problem is that for many people, I have a baroque label on my forehead. But I think my voice has changed a lot, I'm twenty years older now, and my voice wants something different.

'I've been lucky to have met some people who are willing to trust me with new things; the last example of that was Hengelbrock allowing me to do Alice Ford in Falstaff. Singing Verdi was a dream; it was wonderful for the voice to be able to open up like that.

'I know they appreciate me very much in Barcelona, and we have a good relationship, so they suggested I might sing Eva. I said “Wagner? No, never!” But they made me have a look at the score, and because Eva's treated very specially, with softer orchestration, I can do it. It's not high, it's not low, it's right in the centre, so I know I can do it. But obviously I won't be doing Isolde!'

Eva might remain her only Wagner role, but Gens has her sights set on more Verdi, with Desdemona a dream role. 'I know what I can do and cannot do: the things I'm dreaming of are well within my capacity.' But as she openly admits when I suggest Amelia Grimaldi might be a possibility, 'I don't actually know this repertoire very well. All these years, I've sung Lully and Charpentier, and I have a family and children, so I honestly don't know these operas and I need to look into them more.'

Another step in a new direction for Gens was a recent production of The Merry Widow in French (La veuve joyeuse) at Lyon. 'Ah, this was so nice! Nobody thought I would be able to do it, because I am always singing desperate or angry women. But I think can be very funny if someone shows me how to do it, and it was very liberating for the voice. It's quite high for me, so I wondered how it would go, but it was wonderful. I'm sure I'll never be asked to do it again, though – people think I don't look like a 'veuve joyeuse' and don't dare to take the risk.'

The mention of contemporary music draws a lot less enthusiasm from Gens than she showed for operetta. 'I've tried modern music a few times, but I feel it's not right for me. I just don't understand it. I can sing the notes, even though that in itself is very difficult; I just don't like it.

Véronique Gens'But having said that, I don't like singing Rossini, either. I like hearing other people singing it, but because I'm coming from baroque it doesn't feel right for my temperament. Rossini singers stand there and produce amazing sounds and just do it; I want something more psychological, to find out how and why. It's the way I was taught and it stays forever.'

In less than two years' time, Véronique Gens' diary contains what she hopes will be a career highlight. 'In 2010, I am very lucky to be singing a trilogy of Gluck. During the same year, I will sing Iphigénie en Tauride, Iphigénie en Aulide and Alceste. Gluck is a composer I love; I know he has a very bad reputation, but I hope to show people that his music isn't boring. It's psychologically intense, and those characters are so strong!'

Other than that, Gens would like to return to some of her Mozart roles, especially Idamante in Idomeneo. 'And many people want me to sing Donna Anna; I've been asked to do it a lot of times. But I don't like her – she's a bitch, always lying – so I won't do it. The arias are very beautiful, yes, but I find it very hard to play characters I don't like. I had that problem with Mélisande in Berlin. I didn't like her, and the stage director had to try very hard to change my mind and help me find something good in her. I need to believe in the characters in order to sing them well. Natalie Dessay is always saying that we are not only singers, we are actors, and this is true.'

The music of her native France is also very important to Gens. 'I'm very lucky to be asked to sing things like Les nuits d'étéand Scheherazade very often. I think it's important, because I'm French, to promote these pieces as much as possible, though it's not hard to convince people that this is beautiful music. I do Scheherazade a lot, in particular, though never in France. I've never sung at the Bastille or the Garnier. I sang at the Châtelet fifteen years ago with the King Arthur that we did here, but since then I've not been back there either. Don't ask me why!' Clearly, this upsets her. 'Of course it makes me very sad. But I'm happy I have a lot of work everywhere else. Let's not talk about it!'

So it's back to the topic of French music, of which she is a great advocate. 'I'm giving a recital at the Wigmore Hall on 13 October, right after this run of Calisto ends, and it's all French repertoire. They asked me to do Les nuits d'été, so I'm doing that with piano, as well as some Debussy and Offenbach's Deux Fables de La Fontaine. The Wigmore Hall is fantastic – the acoustic is unbelievable – but it's so scary! You feel that the people in the audience know everything; they have the words to the songs on their lips when you're singing. The recital in October is a matinee concert, so it'll be a little more relaxed than an evening one would be.'

Véronique GensEarlier in the year, Véronique Gens released a second volume of Canteloube songs, completing the Chants d'Auvergne from her earlier disc and adding other selections by the composer. 'It was a very personal project for me, because my grandmother lived on a farm in Auvergne and I used to go there in the holidays as a little girl. The moment I heard Kiri te Kanawa's recording of the Canteloube songs, I knew I had to sing them, but it took me years to get the opportunity. I was told that nobody liked the songs and that it was not very good music, so I had to fight. I wanted to do it with my record company, but they didn't want to do it so I had to find another one, and Naxos said yes.

'The first CD was with the Orchestre de Lille and Casadesus, who loved this music and wanted to do it, and then it was such a big success – the biggest-selling of the year for Naxos – that they commissioned the second recording with Serge Baudo, because Casadesus was unavailable. This music is wonderful: I always say you can smell the cheese and the cows in it!'

I mention how distinctively 'French' Gens sounds on the CD, and she tells me with some vigour, 'I had a coach for hours and hours! I wanted to do it properly. When I was starting to study this music there were many words that I didn't know how to pronounce, so I went to the village where I spent my holidays as a child. I went to the lady at the farm and asked how to say some of the words, and she said that the language is different in each village and that she didn't know how to pronounce them either. So I had to get a coach, who explained how the accent changes in each of the four regions.

'I love this second recording particularly, because the sound quality is so excellent. I'm not sure I like the 'Triptyque' as a composition so much, but hardly everyone has recorded them before, and I love the 'Chants de France'. The orchestration is rich and lavish.'

Gens' regular record company is Virgin Classics, with whom she recorded a disc entitled 'Tragédiennes' a few years ago. The repertoire involved composers such as Rameau, Lully and Gluck, and there are plans for a second installment. 'We recorded some of it in May, but I was ill so we're finishing it in November. The first volume went from Lully to Gluck, and now the second one will go from Gluck to Berlioz.'

Véronique GensThe soprano's childhood wasn't especially conducive to becoming a singer, it seems, but eventually the career path was inevitable. 'In France, we don't have that culture of a musical childhood, which I think is a great pity. My sister was in the choir, and my mother didn't know what to do with me so I had to go as well – I was only four, but I enjoyed it. Gradually, I worked my way up through the age groups, right into my teenage years. But my family were things like lawyers or chemists – nothing to do with music. I used to stand in front of the mirror singing like a big star, just like my daughter does now!

'I had to choose between a lot of different activities, because I enjoyed tennis, too, for instance, but it had to be music. The choir master told me to have some singing lessons, so I went to the local conservatoire; until then, I didn't know what I was doing, even though I kept singing big solos all the time. My teacher was good friends with Bill Christie, who was looking for some young singers for Les Arts Florissants, so I had an audition. Bill liked my voice but said that I was too young and wasn't ready, which upset me. But he invited me to his class at the conservatoire in Paris, and even though the audition was a disaster, he allowed me to enter.

'Then he allowed me to join the choir for Lully's Atys in 1987, which was the first time I earned money for singing. The production went all over the world and was a huge success; over time, I got to climb up the rungs and sing small roles. Every time it was revived, I sang a bigger role. It was an extraordinary time for the ensemble: Marc Minkowski was playing the bassoon, Christophe Rousset was playing the harpsichord, Hugo Reyne was playing the piccolo, Emmanuelle Haim, Jean-Claude Malgoire. We made a recording every two months! It was an incredible period: everyone was there, and they absolutely exploded. I owe much of my success to that experience.'

By Dominic McHugh

Véronique Gens plays Giunone in La Calisto at Covent Garden from 23 September 2008.

Her latest recording is a contribution to Emmanuelle Haim's new CD, Lamenti, which is available now. More details are available at EMI's website.

Pictures: copyright Virgin Classics/M Ribes & A Vo Van Tao

Recent interviews with singers appearing at Covent Garden:
Jose Cura on La fanciulla del West and Turandot
Joyce DiDonato on Don Giovanni and Il barbiere di Siviglia