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theartsdesk Q&A: Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly

theartsdesk Q&A: Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly

Britain's finest mezzo talks tragedy, comedy and French baroque

Sarah Connolly: exploring beyond the usual mezzo roles of witches, bitches and britches

It may have taken Sarah Connolly a decade or two, a detour to choral singing and a serious flirtation with jazz, but the British mezzo-soprano has most definitely arrived at full-blown National Treasure status. Perhaps it was her career-changing Xerxes in Nicholas Hytner’s 1998 Xerxes for English National Opera that marked the start of her reign, perhaps her 2005 Giulio Cesare for Glyndebourne. But either way a starring appearance at the Last Night of the Proms in 2009, a CBE the following year and a Royal Philharmonic Society Award just last month, all proclaim her the undisputed queen of the UK’s opera scene.

With repertoire ranging across centuries, extending from Handel to Wagner and Turnage, Connolly’s reach has stretched far beyond the traditionally restricted roles of “witches, bitches and britches” usually assigned to mezzos. Seizing back the best heroic Handelian roles from the countertenors, Connolly has also taken unusual control of her career, eschewing the conventional relationship with a record company in favour of masterminding her own independent projects.

Although accustomed to wearing the trousers both on and off stage, this week Connolly will trade those in for a rare return to skirts as the doomed Phèdre in a new production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne. She talks tragedy with theartsdesk, debunks the mystery of French Baroque, and explains just what it would take to get her back into contemporary opera.

ALEXANDRA COGHLAN: French baroque opera is something of a rarity in the UK. How did Hippolyte et Aricie end up on the Glyndebourne schedule?

SARAH CONNOLLY: I think the first suggestion of doing some French baroque came years ago after Simon Rattle had such success with Les Boréades. More recently it was suggested that William Christie do either Hippolyte or Médée, and eventually it was decided that Hippolyte would be the more appealing for an audience and easier to appreciate. Unlike Médée the performance doesn’t depend on one person but is much more collaborative. The music is evenly distributed between the four main characters and it just felt like the right fit for Glyndebourne. Musically it really is the most wonderful opera – it really does “astonish and delight” as the mission statement of the French baroque has it.

And what about the production, can we expect charm and delight from that too?

Paul Brown and Jonathan Kent have devised an extraordinary show encompassing references to the 18th century and earlier as well as a contemporary element. The far less relatable, far less familiar figures of the gods with their intrigues and curses will be in 18th-century costumes, while the mortals who have to get the story across and who have all the recognisably human dilemmas and difficulties are in contemporary costumes. The idea is that the audience will be able to see themselves in the mortal characters. The dilemmas they face are age-old, are problems that we all understand – particularly the central dilemma which is Phèdre’s uncontrollable lust and craving.

Do you find truthful human psychology in Rameau’s Phèdre?

Yes, and particularly in the way that Rameau and Pellegrin have paced the drama. The two of them have worked like Hofmannsthal and Strauss to create this synthesis between words and music that is absolutely fantastic – an instinctive expression of the story. We’re back to the Capriccio question here of which comes first, the music or the words? It’s extraordinary how this piece seems to flow. I’ve really studied the Racine play and while there are slight differences to the way the story is delivered, particularly the famous scene between Hippolyte and Phèdre where she declares her love for him, it really does work as a piece of drama and we’re trying to perform it like a play. Everything is very naturalistic – we’re in contemporary clothes, playing in a contemporary house – saying to the audience that this is normal; this could happen to you.

It must create some interesting friction to play French baroque, which – fairly or not – we always see as more stylized than German or English – in this naturalistic way.

There will definitely be some challenges in the production, and some people will hate it and groan as soon as the curtains go back. But there will be others hopefully who will find it exciting and interesting.

You’re doing Britten’s Phaedra at the Proms later this year. How do the two portrayals of the role compare?

Both are based on Racine’s Phèdre, but I think Britten finds more of a paranoia to his heroine. Her destruction is very real. There also seems to be more of a reference to Racine’s heroine that Pellegrin uses. The musical expression of Rameau’s piece is more diverse; because of the ballet there are more elements to it, and one gets a more general picture of the story rather than the white-hot light of Britten’s 20-minute cantata from which there is no escape. You really are trapped for those few minutes. Britten’s piece really is hard-hitting, one long close-up, whereas there’s lots to entertain in the Rameau which offers the audience plenty of emotional and aesthetic relief.

Phèdre was Rameau’s first stage work even though he was 50 at the time of writing it. Is there any evidence in the music of an artist still learning his craft, still finding his feet?

I don’t think so, no. Musically I can’t fault it. It is extraordinary, there are no longeurs at all, though there is a great responsibility for the dance to be interesting as almost every act ends in a dance sequence.

Do you think with our contemporary ears audiences will still find the same shock value in the music that Rameau’s contemporaries so evidently did?

I do. The sympathy that Rameau engenders with his beautiful, arching arias is so universally touching, especially with Aricie at the end of Act I – it’s like the sun comes out. The Prologue is all quite upbeat but then you get this gorgeous aria that immediately wins you over and shows you who she is. Then it’s all very lovely until Phèdre comes on when we are flung into D minor. It’s a very powerful scene, turns the whole opera upside down. Pellegrin and Rameau really understood the nature of psychological drama, whether operatic or not.

Why do you think audiences in this country haven’t embraced French baroque in quite the way they have the Italian or German traditions?

I think there’s an age-old antipathy towards France and all things French - it’s really that simple! French baroque seems to have had consistently bad press despite John Eliot Gardiner and everyone else who has tried to introduce it to the UK. The music has been perceived as overly complicated and sophisticated, and people have argued that the many fragmented melodies don’t have the same immediate appeal or recognisable identity as Handel’s da capo arias. The approach to drama is also more conversational, more psychologically profound than Handel’s and presents greater challenges. Psychologically the French are streets ahead of the Germans in opera; Racine is their role model and anything less is a disaster, everything has to be of that quality.

Looking through your incredibly diverse back-catalogue of roles, the only linking factor between them seems to be their psychological interest and development. Is it fair to say that this is what interests you?

Yes, particularly latterly. I think when I was learning my craft I certainly went where my heart led me rather than common sense. People tried to throw Rossini at me but I don’t like Rossini’s music and I just couldn’t go there. But generally speaking I do tend to follow what I like, and now that I’m in a position to choose I will choose lyrical repertoire as well as anything interestingly contemporary. And certainly Fricka, Brangäne and Waltraute are wonderful challenges and perfectly possible to sing.

I wouldn’t like to get stuck in one genre, I like to move about, much as I like to do in a song recital. Though in a recital at Aldeburgh recently I did find it rather tricky to move from Roussel to Howells, having done Schumann in between. My brain really was exploding, it was almost too much and I did make a mental note to perhaps make life a little easier for myself next time. But for example I’m learning the Wesendonck songs at the moment while performing Hippolyte, so actually each morning when I’m warming up I sing the first song of that cycle – Der Engel – because the wonderful legato energy and support that you need for it warms the voice up like nothing else! You can’t sing that song without singing properly, so Wagner is just the ticket as a warm-up for Rameau! They are surprisingly happy partners, perhaps because the nature of Phèdre is so dramatic.

You do a lot of tragedy – Dido, Phèdre, Medea – but when we see you do Octavian you are terribly funny. Is comedy something you enjoy? Would you like to do more light-hearted roles?

I would like to do more, of course. Lily, my daughter, always says: “Mummy, you’re not dying again are you?” She can’t bear Dido; when I did it at the Proms. But I think it’s important to have a balance. Offers come in and I’m not going to turn down an Ariodante or a Xerxes, and I’m certainly not going to turn down French baroque – those roles of Phèdre and Medea really are the cream of the baroque repertoire. I don’t think it gets much better than that in that period.

Are there any other roles from that period you’ve got your eye on particularly?

I’d love to do Gluck’s Orphée. I’ve done it in Munich but would love to sing it in French somewhere. It’s such a great piece, and a huge inspiration for Berlioz of course. I have lobbied to Glyndebourne to do it, but who knows what will happen.

The last time you did contemporary opera was Turnage’s The Silver Tassie, where you created the role of Susie. Who among current composers could tempt you back to new opera?

I would have sung Ariadne in Birtwistle’s The Minotaur if I had been offered it. I’m waiting for Judith Bingham to write an opera – she’s a wonderful composer, she knows my voice very well having been a fellow mezzo in the BBC Singers for years. Many contemporary operas do come my way, but it really has to be very good for me to spend time away from my daughter. It has to have the right range, not too low or wrong in the vocal colour. I’m very careful only to accept roles that only show the best of me.

Control and careful choices are a recurring theme in your career – you’ve masterminded your own discs, even fixed your own musicians. Do you think this is the new model for singers in the industry? Is entrepreneurship an increasingly important part of a career?

I’m not sure if it’s a new model, but I think if you are passionate about what you believe in then it’s the right way to go. I love the fact the companies like Chandos and Signum and Coro are really exploring new avenues, offering really good record production and you can guarantee that the final product will be something valuable, if only from an archival point of view. When I do masterclasses at college I do always try and encourage the singers to sing music they love, not what people tell them they ought to do. Because I didn’t do that until I was 35, although I’m making up for it now.

I can’t interview you and not ask you about playing men for most of your career. But you are spending the summer singing strong female roles. Do you prefer one or the other? Is it more challenging pretending to be a man?

I have always found the music of the castrato repertoire more exciting than the roles for females like Bradamante or Edwige. There are some sweet, nice or fun arias, but the music for Nerone in Agrippina, for example, is much more exciting than Agrippina’s own. I think Handel knew how to write for these male characters and give them such virility and fun. There are so many challenges in Giulio Cesare both lyrically and dramatically, challenges you just don’t get in the female roles. I love to sing music that’s both powerful and lyrical and the role of Cesare offers everything, it really is an amazing tour de force.

  •  Sarah Connolly sings the role of Phèdre in Glyndebourne’s Hippolyte et Aricie 29 June – 18 August, 2013

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