Hervé Niquet is far less interested in being known as a Baroque music specialist than for his passionate interest in all of French music, especially its vocal and lyrical compositions and nowadays he is as liable to be found directing a symphony orchestra as his own period instrument ensemble Le Concert Spirituel. It may come, for some, as a surprise to find Niquet teaming up with the Brussels Philharmonic to record Debussy but this future release will mark the inauguration of a new adventure for Niquet and Glossa focusing on the music associated with the Prix de Rome competition which drew in scores of leading French composers all the way from 1803 through 1968. And Niquet’s labours will be backed by the new Centre de Musique Romantique Française, which intends to be every bit as active in music post-1790 as the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles has been prior to that time. More surprises abound with Niquet turning to Henry Purcell’s King Arthur (for the first DVD to be issued by Glossa). Less a High English Restoration semi-opera and more a pan-European musical comedy (flecked with truffle slivers of Monty Pythonesque humour, if you will pardon the pan-European metaphor) this production from Montpellier in France remains faithful to Purcell’s music but sees Niquet turning the work into a rollicking entertainment by bringing in the comic talents of Corinne and Gilles Benizio as stage directors (in their own country the duo’s DVDs sell in the hundreds of thousands). It was evident from this interview that whilst for King Arthur the Benizios untapped a latent comic talent in Hervé Niquet (he is seen to sport lederhosen and even a kilt at different times during the production) they left intact his zeal for the broad scope of music he cherishes, be it Marc-Antoine (or Gustave) Charpentier or Desmarest or Debussy.
For your recent production of Purcell’s King Arthur in Montpellier you chose to make an adaptation of the work. What motivated this?
There are two parts to King Arthur, Henry Purcell’s music and the drama contained within John Dryden’s libretto. If you want to respect the intentions simultaneously of both of these in a production you need to invite a troupe of actors as well as an orchestra and singers and put on a performance lasting five hours. William Christie managed to do this in the Châtelet in Paris many years ago (with Graham Vick producing) and it was a big success. But it did last for those five hours and it did cost a lot of money. Alternatively, one could programme just Purcell’s music in concert, but this would amount to a suite, albeit one of attractive pearls. What I wanted to do instead was to try and create a new story around the music. Consequently, I wrote a new plot and invited two comic actors to do the staging and this new King Arthur became an incredible adventure for all of us.
Those comic actors were Corinne and Gilles (alias Shirley et Dino). How did you come to invite them for directing the staging of King Arthur?
The Benizios are the people who have done all the things that I have dreamed of doing in my life but which I have never done – or been allowed to do. They are a comedy duo who remind me of when I was young, watching the newly-started television in black and white in 1965 and seeing clowns and the extravagant and far-fetched actors called fantaisistes take to the screen. Yet more than that Gilles and Corinne Benizio are a piece of living French heritage: their humour is so funny and they have worked in a range of settings – cabaret, circus and French musicals. However, they also know the theatre very well; they are well-versed in works such as by Racine, Corneille and Molière. As actors they have worked with plenty of very good and important stage directors, so they know what they are doing. At the point when I was endeavouring to identify a stage director for King Arthur I happened to see one of their shows – Les Caméléons. My son, who was with me turned to me at the end and said “Dad, you must get the Benizios to do your staging”. You know how a father is proud in front of his son... I told him, “Okay I will go and ask them.” At the backstage door Gilles was just about to jump onto his motorbike and speed off when I stopped him and said, “I am a conductor. I’ve just been to see your show. Do you fancy staging an opera? ” His reply was, thankfully, positive. And it began like that. There is a lot of poetry in the music of Purcell. There are many funny things and Gilles and Corinne are funny, they are good stage directors but they are never vulgar and more they are so poetic. So, for me it was a good way to respect the music, to bring out the poetry, without being vulgar whilst still being funny.
And, of course, you haven’t changed the music of Purcell...
No. We approached the music with respect and made no concession on the level of our performance. We did all the necessary preliminary research, I prepared my own edition of the score and then we carried out a lot of work in an effort to provide suitable orchestrations. Nonetheless, think though, of the people who may see this DVD of King Arthur and who, then, in the next year or so who may go to a concert of King Arthur without our staging. They will be very sad!
Do you think that Messrs. Purcell and Dryden would have approved of your show?
Whenever I am in New York or London I never miss going to a musical because more than just liking going to see a musical I love the atmosphere created by the audience. Everybody is happy before the show starts and then they are happy during the performance and afterwards. It is such an Anglo-Saxon approach: the audiences in those countries are such naturally active audiences to the point that I cannot imagine Dryden and Purcell being inflexible in the approach to productions of their work. Additionally, I would say that the public at large today should not be under the impression that all classical music performances (or recordings) are serious, sombre affairs. It just is not true. One episode on our King Arthur DVD that exemplifies this is when you see how the audience plays along in the performance of the show; the audience is encouraged (by Gilles Benizio...) to make all sort of different animal sounds. You can see that a performance of classical music can be a hilarious experience.
What was the effect on you and your musicians of trying to maintain some sort of order in this extravaganza?
Mine was a very hard job in this show. During the course of it I was very, very afraid because I needed to conduct, I needed to direct the actors, I needed to sing and dance. I even needed to change my trousers... For everybody onstage and in the pit it was a very difficult, hard show. Nothing was left to chance, everything was organized. However hard it was it was also enjoyable, particularly from my personal point of view because I learnt so much from the Benizios. All the antics that I get up to in the show were like a child’s dream coming true for me and I think that many people who I work with normally cannot quite believe that it was me. Even now I look at the DVD and I still cannot believe that it was me there doing all these things. But it makes me laugh. I am also impressed at how good my singers were as actors. This was their first time in this sort of singing and comic acting combination. They were not bad at all – especially João Fernandes in the role of King Arthur himself. Even though my singers practiced a great deal, Gilles and Corinne were surprised at them. The Benizios are used to having a lot of difficulties with professional actors but I would contend that we musicians are better in rhythm than actors.
The element of surprise seems to be an important part of Le Concert Spirituel’s general approach to music-making these days...
We need to perform ‘surprises’ as you call them. We are currently on tour with a programme called “Faste des cathédrales sous Louis XIV: un voyage musical de Paris à Strasbourg” and which includes Pierre Bouteiller’s Requiem, a real diamond of a piece. Also we will be performing a Mass by Henri Frémart – who knows him? – also with just men’s voices. For me this music is a mixture of pleasure and pleasure! But having said that I am less fascinated in discovering forgotten or ignored works and more surprised that audiences and concert organizers are interested in the same pieces all the time. If, for instance, you try and write down the names of all the French composers active between 1650 and 1760 on one sheet of paper, you will quickly find that you need at least ten more sheets. And the truth is that I don’t like to do concert programmes in the normal way. I am interested in having fun around a piece of music or a composer with my ensemble. And it is very satisfying that audiences come to our concerts because they feel that there is a link between them and us. Yes, it is great to do Bach’s Mass in B minor or Mozart’s Requiem because they remain important for the public but, for me, Bouteiller is more important than Mozart because we are twelve singers, six low strings and an organ and we are to fill cathedrals with the sound of this incredible music. What is true also is that I like unknown music because it is so great to walk on the moon for the first time.
Other than with your work with Le Concert Spirituel you have always shown great interest in music beyond the Baroque. Where does this interest spring from?
Artistically I was ‘born’ at the age of 20 in the Opéra de Paris were I came into contact with the lyric repertoire and where I met many artists who had known Milhaud, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Collette, Satie. Further, my teacher had been a student of both Marguerite Long and Maurice Ravel. So, for me there is no division in French music between Lully and Satie or Poulenc: it is exactly the same spirit, the same words, the same rhetoric, the same single reason and the same audience. Recently we were at long last able to open, in Venice the new Centre de Musique Romantique Française (under the patronage of the Fondation Bru) for the research of publication of French music between 1790 and 1930. It now acts as a balancing counterpart to the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles (concerned with French music between 1600 until 1790) and in Venice I have a team of researchers who have the same working methods for Romantic music as occurs in Versailles. In conducting the music of composers such as Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Poulenc and so on, I have the same reflexes as when I play Baroque music – consideration of the history of the music and its manuscript and sources as well as the nature of the orchestral forces required. When I am in front of a symphonic orchestra – such as the Brussels Philharmonic in Debussy, or when I recorded Chabrier or Gounod before – I explain to the orchestral members all the things that I would explain to a baroque orchestra and singers. You can be assured that I talk a lot! But these orchestras are surprised at being able to understand because in so many cases other conductors arrive (and who are well paid) to direct them and do nothing but conduct. So the musicians play and that is all. For me this is sad because the sound that can be produced is completely different when you explain to an orchestra all about the background of a piece.
A new project that you are embarking on involves compositions written by French composers for the Prix de Rome competition. What was the importance of this?
We have a lot of cantatas from the Prix de Rome – more than 300 or 400 – written by composers and all of those who were accepted for the stay in Rome were young and good. The Prix de Rome was a bridge which the French built and where French music was organized and I think, consequently, that it is very important to know where our music was born. If Paris was very important for French music, the stay in Rome gave composers a sense of identity, enabling them also to meet many other people with a completely different frame of artistic mind. Even if, in this treasure trove of compositions, there is music by composers who have since disappeared, much of this is very interesting and very good and full of energy and ideas. Through it we can observe the change in taste of each period between 1830 and 1930. You can also detect, as is the case with Debussy [whose Prix de Rome cantatas form the first release in a new set of recordings to be issued by Glossa] how his musical thinking evolved. His Le Gladiateur of 1883 (which failed to win a prize) is very Germanic in approach, somewhat like Wagner of Massenet but in which you can feel the blood of Debussy coursing through it. One year later his prize-winning cantata for the competition – L’enfant prodigue – is completely different. In one year his music had become definitively Debussy.
How else would you underline the continuity in French music across the centuries?
One example is Andromaque a very important work by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (which we are currently performing and are due to record), a tragédie lyrique first performed in 1781. Its libretto came from the play written by Jean Racine, which is one of the most famous dramas in France – it has been frequently staged every since the 17th century and it continues to be studied in schools and universities today. Grétry had become very famous for his large number of very funny opéra comiques but Andromaque was his the sole tragédie. In it he respected all the rules of the tragédie lyrique that had come down from Lully and Rameau but he applied them to the work of Racine: he never repeats a sentence of Racine (as would be done in Italian operas). After Andromaque for me the next steps in the tragédie lyrique are Les Troyens of Berlioz and then Pelléas et Mélisande of Debussy.
© 2009 Diverdi / Glossa Music Portrait photographs by Eric Bana Stage photograph by Nicole Bergé