What Music for Berenice?

Interview with the composer Michael Jarrell

By Marion Mirande and Simon Hatab 07 September 2018

© Elena Bauer / OnP

Michael Jarrell pendant une répétition de « Bérénice »

What Music for Berenice?
With Racine’s Berenice, Michael Jarrell has chosen to set a monument of French literatur efor the new world premier commissioned by the Paris Opera. How does one capture the majestic sorrow of those alexandrines today? What have Racine’s heroes still to tell us about the state of the world? These are just some of the questions we asked the composer.   

As a composer, what is your relationship with sung French?

Michael Jarrell: Complex. When I wrote my opera Cassandre, in 1994, I decided that the principal role would be spoken. Each time I approach the words of a libretto, I ask myself how to make them sing. For me, the golden rule in French is that the last syllable is the accentuated one. Now, this rule is not followed by everyone. I talked to a musicologist who disagreed with me. In reality, this matter of accentuation seems to be malleable, unlike German or English for example. French has something soft about it, like chewing gum.

Years ago, I remember hearing short operas with libretti by Georges Perec, written in everyday language. I found them unbearable. Spoken French has something very down-to-earth about it. The action is related without the narrator ever being part of it. One is there to listen, like in church. That is why I was attracted to a text in alexandrines: with this classical language I found the distance necessary to make it sing. Otherwise we have to settle for accompanying the words without shedding light on their meaning in any new way.

Racine’s verse has a strongly musical quality. During the composition, does this linguistic music create tension with your own?

M.J.: Alexandrines impose a certain rhythm. I had to break free from a form of repetition, from the corset with which Racine clads his words. I had to make his verse as contemporary as possible, to root it in a present time. With Racine, I still had that feeling of being outside the action, detached from the present moment. I had to get away from that language of “telling a story” in order to immerse myself more in the action. However, I did not want to damage the language of Racine. I believe I have respected it. Taking on this monument in the French language was a perilous exercise. One must judiciously set aside what, in Berenice, literary history has cast in stone so as to offer audiences a new approach to this text. Once I had accomplished this work on the alexandrines, I found that Racine’s text afforded considerable latitude for accommodating the music.   

Ivan Ludlow (Antiochus) et Michael Jarrell au cours d’une répétition de « Bérénice »
Ivan Ludlow (Antiochus) et Michael Jarrell au cours d’une répétition de « Bérénice » © Elena Bauer / OnP
After being forgotten until the end of the 19th century, Berenice is today one of Racine’s most widely performed tragedies. Do you remember any productions that particularly marked you?   

M.J.: I’ve seen two versions of Berenice. The first was a film adaptation by Jean-Claude Carrière with Carole Bouquet, Gérard Depardieu and Jacques Weber. This film had the merit of posing the question: how should the alexandrine be spoken today. There is a passage in the film that greatly interested me, when Carole Bouquet flies into a passion. It seems to me that that is how alexandrines are most audible. I also saw a filmed version of Klaus Michael Grüber’s production at the Comédie-Française about thirty years ago. He adopted a very marked position regarding the language. I must say that Grüber’s work contributed to my wanting to write this opera.

Did you know the singers who were going to sing the roles?

M.J.: I composed the role of Berenice with Barbara Hannigan in mind, having seen her in Written on Skin and in Pelleas et Melisande. When Berenice makes her entrance, she is quite calm, stoical. She thinks all will go according to her wishes. When she discovers that it is far from the case, the music becomes rather acrobatic and virtuoso. At the end, calm is restored, as if everything had turned to dust and ashes. As for Bo Skoyhus, I had already worked with him on Siegfried, nocturne, a setting of a text by Olivier Py. He has exceptional stage presence. The role of the orchestra can be to punctuate, to accompany these characters who are constantly struggling with emotions that threaten to submerge them. I would like the music to be sometimes like a wave, a tsunami that sweeps away everything in its path.

You also decided to make occasional use of electronic sound...

M.J.: Yes. The idea of using electronics came little by little. I wanted the people to murmur and to come back regularly, becoming increasingly present: it’s the “rumour has it...” the voice that rumbles outside the palace, exerting a palpable pressure on Titus.

Berenice presents characters both full of ideals and adepts of compromise. Do you consider that these protagonists, caught up in a conflict between duty and desire, can still touch us today?

M.J.: My relationship with the character of Berenice greatly evolved in the course of the writing process. At the beginning, I was touched by her purity. Then, the more I worked, the more I experienced a sort of disgust for her. I found her manipulative. It’s only natural: she was born at court, she’s a politician with a political mode of operation. And then, there’s that very powerful passage in Racine in which she understands that Titus really loves her, that he’s abandoning her not because he doesn’t love her anymore or out of a desire for power but because their love affair can never have a happy ending. At this moment, I think she changes her tone and it is thus that the tragedy culminates, with this impossible equation: she loves someone that she cannot have. In fine, it is Titus who touches me the most, although at the beginning I didn’t like him. In the end, on the death of his father, when he must don the apparel of the man of state, he finds himself under constant pressure, assailed on all sides: by Berenice, by the people, by Paulinus, by the Senate... Ultimately, perhaps, this is all a grand parable on the passage from youth to adulthood...    

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