Critics and audiences have watched in delight over recent years as mezzo-soprano Christine Rice has put in some hugely accomplished performances, joining the front ranks of today's young opera singers by virtue of her compelling stage presence and vocal beauty. Recently, she dazzled in ENO's new production of Handel's Agrippina; Covent Garden audiences will remember her as Siebel in Faust last September and in a range of other roles from Britten's Lucretia to Shostakovich's Sonyetka.
She's back at the House to perform Concepcion in Ravel's one-act opera L'heure espagnole, which is playing alongside Puccini's Gianni Schicchi from 30 March. We meet to discuss her insights into the character and her views on the world of opera. Born, like me, in the North-West, she's typically down to earth in her answers, responding to my first question with 'Oh dear, you're going to ask intelligent questions!'.
But in fact she has no problem in answering the question, which was, what are Ravel's strengths as an opera composer? 'I think it's an amazing piece for someone who did so little opera [he wrote only two] because it's beautifully proportioned - very compact, very intense, very funny. Every possible thing that you do on stage seems to have a musical button - whether emotionally or physically. There are so many illustrative qualities to his orchestral writing. It means that the rehearsals have been quite dense, quite intense, because you can't do a broad wash approach and give it a general feeling of love or tragedy. There are very sharp corners and very clear intentions; each scene is so short that you have to get everything across in the two and a half minutes of that scene. It's been really good fun but it's involved a lot of detailed work.'
L'heure espagnole is the tale of Concepion, the town clockmaker's wife who tries to spice up her boring marriage while her husband is out winding up the municipal clocks. What does Rice make of her? 'She's very understandable, very open. You can sense this frustrating marriage that she's in, which has presumably been a disappointment to her or has been forced upon her because it's a small town and there aren't that many options! She's stuck and she's finding ways to improve her life - and being quite resourceful about it as well. As the day gets worse for her, she ends up in bigger and bigger holes, and she tries to think on her feet each time and turn the situation around. I think she's a very attractive character and I certainly don't have any strong moral objections because I think yes, if you're in the middle of an unhappy marriage that's the sort of thing that does happen - you look for happiness elsewhere.'
The Gianni Schicchi-L'heure espagnole combination is slightly unusual because both are comedies (the Puccini work was originally designed to be performed alongside two much darker pieces for contrast). What does Rice feel are the challenges of performing comedy? 'I think it's to do with the way you have to take everything very seriously. You can't ham it up or brush over things. It needs to have a truth behind it. That's the first stage - then you've got to make that funny. This truth has to settle in a place where you're rather ridiculous. Any comedian will tell you that timing is the major issue, and of course a lot of the timing is already in the score. That's a help, but you have to get it right. The other problem is, you don't know if it's working until the audience comes in. You can be aiming for something that's funny but if you don't get the laugh from the audience, you know it hasn't worked.'
Christine Rice has worked with both conductor Antonio Pappano and director Richard Jones before on several productions, most notably the critically-acclaimed Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. What does she feel are their strengths? 'As a team they are both aiming for the same things, which are theatricality, entertainment and faithfulness to the score. They're interested in real acting performances - that's true of Tony as well, who makes suggestions of what you can do with the music that will help the characterisation. He's always making positive contributions to the staging of the rehearsals. They both have a warmth when you're working with them - they're very generous men, very supportive. They give you lots of detail to work on, but are happy to say 'If that's not helpful, ignore it'. They're very hands-on and they both give a lot of energy. We're having a great time!'
Rice's many appearances at the Royal Opera House have evidently been a great insight - and a thrill. 'Oh it's great - look at the sandwiches they give us!' she laughs, gesturing towards the feast-laden table in front of us. 'It's a really nice house, it's got fantastic facilities, it has the biggest backstage areas you can imagine - and a great canteen! And also the people. Everybody working here is the best that they can be. There's an assumption that you're going to do your job well.' The Harrods of the opera world, I suggest? 'Yes! I have no shame in saying that because I think it really is a fantastic house. I have no quibbles with it at all.' She returns to the Royal Opera in future seasons to sing Giulietta in a revival of Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann, and she has had a role specially written for her in Harrison Birtwistle's new opera, The Minotaur, which will be given its world premiere next year. 'I've been given the vocal score of the first half, and it looks really exciting', she says.
People haven't stopped singing Rice's praises since the opening night of Agrippina at ENO in February. Was it as fun to work on as it was to watch? 'It was a lot of fun. But that was an interesting one because somebody said to me, 'It must be great to do high comedy.' And I thought well, I suppose it is a comedy, but because we'd pieced together this rather dark character I'd thought along those lines: the laughs came from something quite dark because he's quite a monster. It was one of those interesting places to be in because you're doing something quite dark and everyone else is finding it funny'.
What is it about Handel that she finds so attractive? 'Well, the music's gorgeous of course. The great arias stand up to the best of any period of opera. You get the pleasure of real musical high points. I've only done one Handel production that I didn't like - it missed the point for me, which is his understanding of humanity. Even the villains are attractive. Pieces like Theodora are searing - the way he charts each person's emotions is very truthful.'
Rice was absolutely stunning in the Royal Opera's staging of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia a few years ago, finding all kinds of insights into the character and her music. Does she find that singing in English makes it easier to communicate the meaning? 'I was on contract at ENO for a few years, and obviously that was a concentrated time of singing in English. It was a good basis for me because it gave me the chance to communicate directly moment by moment everything the character was singing and thinking and feeling. Then, when I started to sing roles in foreign languages I suddenly realised how much work you have to do to achieve a similar result - particularly in languages where you don't have any basic grammatical knowledge such as Czech and Hungarian. At some point, you have to find out exactly what you're singing about.'
What does she want out of her career? 'I want to do exactly what I'm doing and keep on doing it. At the moment I have no weariness for it, no disillusionment. Some aspects of it are hard, especially being away from my family for long stretches. But I'm enjoying it so much that I just want it to continue, and it's not always the size of the role that makes the difference. I've done some smaller parts that have been better experiences than when I've played the lead roles. I don't dismiss any job based on how big the part is. If you get a poor revival director and a poor conductor and you're playing Carmen, you are going to have eight weeks of misery. If you have a fantastic director and conductor and do a two-line part, you can have a great time.'
Questioned about her proudest achievement to date, Rice says that 'the clichéd answer is your children - if you put me on my deathbed and asked me, it's always going to be them. But career-wise, I absolutely loved doing Irene in Theodora. I know people who left half-way through because they hated the production, but the majority who stayed felt they'd had the experience of a lifetime. The other was Sonyetka in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It was the best show I've ever been in'.