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.
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.