One of the most versatile musicians of today, Christophe Rousset divides his time between such varied activities as conducting, researching new scores to perform and playing the harpsichord. A specialist in music of the baroque, Rousset was born in Avignon and came to prominence in the early 1980s as a harpsichordist. After winning first prize at the seventh International Harpischord Competition at Bruges, he went on to appear with leading period instrument ensembles such as The Academy of Ancient Music and Les Arts Florissants. With the latter group, has acted as assistant to William Christie before going on to found Les Talens Lyriques, which has since become one of the most important ensembles of its type. Rousset has featured in many recordings and was music director of the film Farinelli about the legendary castrato.
This season, Rousset has conducted productions of Handel's Semele in Brussels and Paris, and he will bring the Paris cast to London's Barbican on Thursday for a concert performance. The soloists include Danielle de Niese and Vivica Genaux, and it promises to be a superb occasion. I took the opportunity to catch up with Rousset on the eve of that appearance to ask him about the piece, as well as his plans for the twentieth anniversary of Les Talens Lyriques next season.
We begin with Semele. Rousset has commented on the 'sumptuous beauty' of the score. Does he read this sensuality as a subversion of the oratorio genre (which Handel was forced to associate with the piece), or as a successful attempt to blend aspects of both opera and oratorio? 'Surely if Handel calls Semele an oratorio, it is not in the sense of sacred music,' Rousset explains. 'To my mind, it is less of a subversion but more an attempt to blend opera to the new pattern which he felt compelled to adopt - an oratorio in the sense of a concert version of an opera. In reality, Congreve's libretto was meant to have been an opera. Only the choruses were added. And with the choruses and their large, almost Germanic architectural style, Handel was inspired by his own sacred music. The sensuality of Semele's music is a fact but this sacred music is not more controversial than sacred images in Rome such as Bernini's Ecstasy of Santa Teresa!'
Rousset is renowned for rediscovering lesser-known operas by Handel's contemporaries, so one assumes that the choice of Semele is significant: why choose this (relatively) mainstream work (and twice in one season)? 'Actually it was because I was asked to conduct Semele, both by La Monnaie for the opening of the season in Brussels in September and then by the Theatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris for David McVicar's revival!' he responds. 'Who could resist such a beautiful piece? Even when I am conducting Semele, I have in the back of my mind all the Neapolitan music, which Handel was exposed to while living in Italy – music of those forgotten composers such as Porpora or perhaps even more Leonardo Leo.'
As we know, the performance of baroque-period works forces conductors, singers and musicians to make various decisions about style, ornamentation, gesture and tempo. When approaching a score like Semele, is Rousset's main priority maintaining fidelity to the composer, or does he think his task is to make his decisions based on creating the most effective performance for the circumstances (e.g. venue, singers and audience)? 'My first concern is to understand a score and try to serve it to the best of my abilities, according to my knowledge and experience of Handel's music, the style of the time and according to my intuition,' says Rousset.
'But of course an hugely important ingredient is the singers' own potential and ability, especially when the cast for this super production of Semele (Danielle de Niese, Vivica Genaux, Peter Rose etc) is so omnipotent. Their arias are so virtuosic, so florid that the singer's own ability guides you in settling the tempi for the ornamentation and cadenzas. This version of Semele is based on a staged vision by the director David McVicar. This has been a very fertile, open collaboration and it has been hugely inspirational for me to look at this opera in a new way. But I promise you will recognize my signature!' he assures me.
Next season sees the twentieth anniversary of Les Talens Lyriques. What was his goal when he established the group, and has he achieved what he hoped to? 'My goal in setting up Les Talens Lyriques was to rediscover the forgotten masterpieces of composers who wrote at the same time as Haendel and Mozart or to revisit the classics of composers such as Monteverdi and Cavalli. Les Talens Lyriques have achieved more than I ever hoped for in exploring so much undiscovered music. And having Decca publish CD's like Mondonville, Traetta or Leo, and most recently Louis Couperin and Froberger's keyboard music on the Aparte Label, was a real personal victory.'
He will soon be giving the first performances in modern times of Lully's opera, Bellérophon: given the success of the first performance, why does he think it has fallen into obscurity? 'All of Lully's works have fallen into obscurity! Perhaps the most celebrated is Armide because the story is based on Tasso and the music is magical. The music is of the same magic in Bellérophon but with this work, the drama is even more spectacular, a solid structure and lots of delightful colours. Louis XIV, for whom the opera was composed, loved the work. The opera ran for nine months after its premiere and Louis XIV would interrupt the performance to have his favourite arias repeated. I must say that I personally love every note of Lully's tragedies. They all are splendid, so it is very exciting to be giving the modern premiere of this work first at the Beaune Festival on 24 July and then at the Opéra Royal in Versailles, the palace created by Louis XIV.'
One of Rousset's most famous recordings was the Mitridate with Bartoli, Florez, Dessay and Piau. At the time, did he have a sense that they might become the world-famous artists that they have subsequently become? 'Yes,' he says without hesitation. 'Such talents are not frequent. I discovered Florez singing in La Cenerentola in an Italian provincial theatre and immediately thought that he would become who he is now. Same for Piau when she was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire. Dessay and Bartoli were already famous worldwide: but their fame has grown even more since then!'
Looking back to his childhood, where did Rousset's interest in music come from? 'My love for music comes from my grandmother. She had a piano at home and she used to play herself, so this is how I decided to take up music. My grandmother was also the one who introduced me to opera. It was with her that I had my first experience of opera when I was 10 - Puccini's Tosca. My interest in baroque music came a little later, at the same time as my fascination for the Baroque movement in general – art, architecture, literature. But apart from that, there are no musicians in my family.'
And to what extent does he feel his conservatoire training prepared him for his current activities? 'I learnt everything about the harpsichord in Holland while I was studying with Bob van Asperen,' he answers. 'It was during this period that I acquired a sense of conviction about musical interpretation according to the treatise of this period. It was only when I returned to Paris and started to work as a harpsichordist with William Christie and Les Arts Florissant, that I realised you could perform baroque music just by trusting your emotions and intuition. Now I am trying to combine both approaches but still be faithful to both disciplines.'
As a great musical archaeologist, what other unknown pieces would he like to perform? 'That's a secret!' he laughs. 'I won't tell you, but suffice to say that I would love to do more Traetta and Jomelli. Of all the lost operas, I would love to find one of Monteverdi's lost opera scores – actually not just one, but all of them! For example, it would be amazing to find Monteverdi's Ariana. We are aware of this opera because of the one famous surviving aria. Or alternatively Andromeda.
'I found the original manuscript for Lully's Bellérophon in an antiquarian bookshop. The hand-written manuscript dates back to the premiere in 1679. I later discovered a second edition from 1701. It's fascinating being able to consult the original manuscripts and later editions for how they vary. Maybe one day I will be lucky and find a completely lost work…'
What other ambitions does he have for the future? 'An absolute dream would be to be free to programme any work or opera. At the moment, I am mostly asked to conduct specific projects but it would be amazing to have carte blanche to produce anything. There are so many surprise rabbits I have stored up in my magician's hat. A major ambition is to explore more the music from the nineteenth century. The single aria of Les Troyens by Berlioz, which we recorded with Veronique Gens as part of the second Tragediennes disc on Virgin Classics, has given me a flavour for this repertoire. It's also convinced me that it isn't beyond the reach of a mere harpsichord player. We already have more plans to record more Berlioz and his contemporaries.'
Semele will be performed at the Barbican on Thursday.
Photographs of Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, copyright Pierre Terdjman
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