The Handel Institute

Issue 12: May 2004

Interview with Christophe Rousset
(Harpsichordist and Director of Les Talens Lyriques)

Christophe Rousset
(photographer: Eric Larrayadieu)

Though Christophe Rousset (CR) hasn’t recorded that much of Handel’s music, he regularly conducts Handel operas, ranging from the famous ones (Giulio Cesare, Alcina, Admeto) to some of the less famous ones (Scipione, Riccardo primo, Arianna in Creta). Philippe Gelinaud (PG) met him at the Café de Flore in Saint-Germain in Paris in March 2004, on the day of a Handel opera arias concert with soprano Sandrine Piau that has also been recorded for CD by Naïve.

PG: What is your earliest memory of Handel's music? What did it mean to you?

CR: My first memory is very clear. It was Alcina in Aix-en-Provence in a staging by Jorge Lavelli[1]. I think Raymond Leppard conducted the English Chamber Orchestra. I was very impressed by this strange staging, all in black, and with ‘Ah mio cor’ was sung by Alcina half-hidden in a trap door. In my memory, the global design looked like The Planet of the Apes. I was really fascinated by this production, a great one of Lavelli and with an excellent cast. I was about 17 years old and the atmosphere of the festival was something special to me. I grew up in Aix-en-Provence and was able to attend some rehearsals thanks to my harpsichord teacher who was coach for the festival. I knew a wardrobe mistress too. Here I entered the world of opera at a time when I didn’t even imagine that I would one day conduct Handel’s music.

PG: You have only recorded Scipione (review) and Riccardo primo (review), but you have conducted many other Handel operas?

CR: If I’m not wrong, I have conducted nine Handel operas: Scipione, Admeto, Alcina, Giulio Cesare, Riccardo primo, Rinaldo, Tamerlano, Arianna in Creta and Serse. And you can find pirate recordings of all of them! The performances at the Beaune festival were recorded by the radio, Arianna was even recorded by several radio stations in France and Germany, and Serse was recorded by a channel. A DVD could be released, but this release is deadlocked for now because of problems regarding copyright. Maybe Giulio Cesare, performed in Montpellier with a full staging, is the only one not to be ‘available’.

PG: Thus you have conducted Handel’s music quite often. Has your perception of Handel and his music changed during your career?

CR: Yes, I think so. I must confess in shame that when I worked on Scipione, which was my first Handel opera, I was very influenced by my Dutch models. I am talking about the recordings of La Petite Bande, I mean Partenope and Alessandro under Sigiswald Kuijken. Looking back on it, I think I did it too neat and tidy. I didn’t trust enough the dramatic genius which is in this work, I was rather in the mechanical aspect of recitatives and da capo arias sequences. On the other hand, considering the vocal point of view, I went far afield from what was done in Holland, using more references to Tosi[2] and having a real attempt at doing bel canto. Thus some choices and some da capos which now seem to be within the standards were thought to be unconventional at the time of the release of this recording. Anyway, I think we could do more on a dramatic point of view, concerning the colour of the arias in keeping with the dramatic situation and tension. The fact that I have conducted fully staged performances has shed new light on my understanding of Handel’s dramatic genius.

PG: What do you think are Handel's music’s greatest assets?

CR: As far as I am concerned, the very first one is the singing line, the melodic genius, the fact that this line is very natural, and perfectly fits the voice. You just feel that the singer slips into this line without suffering the ones he can encounter in a Bach cantata or in Couperin’s Leçons de ténèbre – wonderful pieces which can make you feel that the singers are crucified, a feeling which is part of the game and belongs to the beauty of the interpretative gesture. Handel is about the naturalness of singing, a sort of vocal massage from which results a delight, a pleasure which gives the whole a true hedonistic dimension. Next, we must underline the fact that the numbers follow themselves always with contrasts and give a cohesion to the work. There is a sort of dramatic string which is often lacking in works by Antonio Vivaldi or Nicola Porpora, but that you can find in works by Leonardo Leo, who was a model for Handel – he conducted his music in London. If you are really interested in Handel, if you trust him, when you slip into his dramatic model, you can achieve something of a very high standard, which is not always possible with every opere serie of the 1720’s and 1730’s.

There is something else, a blend between Germany and Italy. I talked about pleasure, hedonism, which are mostly relevant to the Italian side of Handel’s music. But there is a German aspect too – the counterpoint – which sometimes appears. Like serious emergences, which you can find, for example, in the fugato movements of the overtures, sometimes of great austerity, or in the very studied and contrapuntal writing of certain arias, notably in the ones written for the bass Boschi[3]. This is a characteristic you would never find in Neapolitan composers’ music.

PG: How would you define the handelian vocalità? Or, to rephrase it, what makes a good handelian singer?

CR: The first requirement is the ability to sing fast runs, to have good semi-quavers. If the singer does not have them, he or she will automatically suffer. I sometimes worked with singers who just didn’t manage with the music, and that totally curbs the music because it cannot exist in such conditions. The ease of the semi-quaver, which enables the focus on the rest of the music, is essential. The singer also needs to have a good middle register as Handel vocalità is firmly based on it, and it is not always very high-pitched. There is a danger in da capo arias – one I did not always avoid, I must confess – to resort to too many high notes. It results in changing the range of the aria, just to show that a coloratura soprano is able to sing in Handel operas. But in fact I don’t think that a coloratura soprano can sing such arias. I was contacted by Natalie Dessay who absolutely wanted to sing Handel, but she told me there were no roles for her in Handel’s operas. I do think there is no role for her, simply because Handel has not written for such a voice as hers. Cuzzoni[4] and Faustina[5] were not light sopranos, they were almost mezzo-sopranos. I agree with Marc Minkowski’s choosing Magdalena Kozena to sing Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. For such parts you need someone with a well-centred voice, perfectly at ease on the sol3-sol4[6] octave. Of course, all the qualities of a good bel canto singer are needed, I mean a beautiful legato, a sublime timbre. I think the timbre of the voice is something essential in Handel’s music, to make it seem alive.

PG: On a vocal, a musical or a dramatic point of view, what is your favourite Handel opera among the ones you have already conducted?

CR: The very first among my favourites is Tamerlano, because this particular work is written on a libretto full of strength, and it represents a sort of gamble on Borosini[7]. The singers seem to have pushed Handel beyond his facilities, to the end of his dramatic skill, and the results are dramatic climaxes. Bajazet’s death is probably one of the absolute climaxes in Handel’s work.

PG: Are there any Handel works that you would really like to conduct in the future?

CR: There is Ariodante, which I will conduct in 2007. It is a very attractive work, notably because it is based on Ariosti’s Orlando furioso. Ariodante belongs to the greatest works by Handel, just like the other operas based on Ariosti’s work, Alcina and Orlando. In fact I would like to conduct Orlando too, and it is more or less a project for Amsterdam. Among the less well-known works, I would like to conduct Sosarme, on stage or not – I am not yet sure the libretto would enable it.

In a previous interview, Sandrine Piau ‘revealed’ that you write the da capos… Do you think most of the singers do not have the knowledge and/or the instinct to make their own da capos, to leave room for improvisation? Do they need to be handled, guided, or just reassured?

CR: I think that nowadays singers do not have the same training – I mean considering composition – as castratos had in Neapolitan conservatories for example. All the singers had a strong training that enabled them to improvise. There are still singers able to improvise, and do it in a phenomenal way, able to change the da capo in an instant or to sing a different one every night, but they are not the ones I appreciate the most in their way of singing. The singers I mostly appreciate are often less adventurous in their da capos, thus I prefer to offer them propositions. I have never imposed any da capo on a singer, I just give ideas, which is useful to unite the style of a whole performance. You can sometimes listen to such exuberant da capos… Once more I won’t give you any name, but I have worked with singers who sang da capos so extraneous to the text and the dramatic situation, and sometimes with no link to the ability of the singer! Ornamentation is a sort of amplification. The da capo is the confirmation – with a rhetorical meaning – of what was proposed in the first part and was eventually refuted or balanced by the B section. The repeat of the A section cannot express something totally different. To make just decorations, something frivolous, is not possible. Undoubtedly this sometimes happened during the baroque era – look at the lampoonist Il Teatro alla moda[8] and some other evidence. So, why try to be authentic in reproducing the failings? Let us instead rather try to be authentic in looking for the just spirit. The thing is not to reproduce idiotic excess. And I must say that even with the most clever singers I often have to keep them in a way which seems to me the right one, although it is always a matter of taste.

PG: We meet today on the occasion of the concert and recording of a Handel opera arias recital with Sandrine Piau. How did you proceed for the da capos?

CR: I did propose da capos for every single aria to Sandrine, and she had counterproposals that I have sometimes accepted, and sometimes seemed to me not better than mine. But we are working with such a confidence that those discussions are not a problem at all. The interpreter just has to know which room the conductor gives him, how much the conductor guides him. It is the same thing with stage directors, they need you to show to advantage his own genius. I think the singer who does not use the conductor, his aptitudes, in a rewarding way, is a singer who makes a miscalculation. I did work with singers made into such big stars and so locked up in their own style that it was impossible to say anything. I think it was a big mistake, they just do not know how to use the alchemy which can rise between two artists. An alchemy close to the one you can find in chamber music, a mutual exchange, enrichment. With Sandrine, this exchange is perfectly possible because we have been working in a total confidence for ages. She participated in almost all the Handel operas I have conducted. She was not in Alcina, but she was supposed to be in it. Thus we are in ideal conditions to influence each other.

PG: Concerning the programme of this CD, did you discuss of it with Sandrine, or is it her choice? Can you present it to us?

CR: Personally, I would have amused myself to focus on one particular interpreter, to show how much Sandrine is the singer X or Y, for example Francesca Cuzzoni. It could have been Anna Strada del Pò[9], who sang several roles initially written for and first performed by Cuzzoni. But Sandrine did not wish for such an approach, and as it is her recital CD, it was logical to let her choose. As for the ornaments, I was just a guide. We had already performed together many arias which belong to the programme of this CD. Thus it is a good occasion to fix on a CD some common elements from both our paths. I particularly think of Asteria’a aria ‘Cor di padre’ in Tamerlano, which benefits from what we have done on stage, this climax of dramatic tension, when the character is caught between her lover and her father – a relationship that the stage director compared to incest. This sort of psychological vice completely paralyzes her and makes her try twice to kill someone. Of course, one of the targets of such a programme is to point out Sandrine’s vocal skills. I think the arias from Faramondo, Partenope and Alessandro are three virtuoso arias which perfectly fit Sandrine’s way of singing. Concerning Orlando, Deidamia or Amadigi, these are three slow arias in which Sandrine can show all her ‘instrumental’ skill. Her vocalità is of such a purity that she can sculpt the space around her. When she sings such slow arias, she has such a spatiality of the line that she is an ideal interpreter for Handel's slowest arias, with such a tension in this spatial plasticity that we had to show it. For the programme of this CD, we needed some powerful virtuosity – such as the unique aria taken from Scipione, an accompanied recitative taken from Giulio Cesare, and arias featuring some recorders or cello providing colour taken from Orlando and Arianna in Creta. We did manage to find arias with distinctive or marked natures, corresponding to particular powerful moments, such as ‘Se pietà’ (Giulio Cesare), ‘M’hai resa infelice’ (Deidamia) or ‘Ombre piante’ (Rodelinda). They almost all represent dramatic climaxes, which enabled us to go a long way in the characterization of these arias, and I am very satisfied with what we have done together. We were very meticulous, very accurate, and the result is a true interpretation, not a caricatured or empty over-interpretation. Thus we found our appropriateness, our truth, our own perception of the composer’s intimacy, on this thread – the thread of my own limits and taste.

PG: What’s your relationship with stage directors?

CR: It is always changeable: concerning Handel operas, I must say I have been involved with very different stagings. For example, the staging by Willy Decker for Giulio Cesare was very committed in a modern style which shocked a lot of people, and was, I think, voluntarily shocking but showed great opportunism and understanding of the dramatic situation. I was fascinated by the intelligence of the staging – it’s too bad for people who didn’t like it! There were probably some things that were particularly German, and maybe that’s why it did not appeal to the French audience[10]. The staging of Serse directed by Michael Hampe was very German too, but I wasn’t totally charmed with it as there were things more evident, less adventurous, even though it was very efficient. But both of these stagings were revivals, thus I wasn’t able to have a lot of influence on them.

Concerning Alcina directed by Marco Arturo Marelli, I didn’t like it at all. It was a creation, thus it was supposed to be a collaboration, but in fact I had almost no occasion to play a part, and I would say that the audience has heard what he has seen. That’s often a problem in France, where the audience mixes up what they are listening to and what they are looking at. Thus the audience did not hear what it should have heard - too bad for me this time! The most satisfying work with a stage director was done with Pierre Audi at the Drottningholm theatre in Sweden. Being in this 18th century theatre, the costumes, the scenery and the mood were 18th century ones. We produced Alcina and Tamerlano, and they were just divine stagings, first thank to a true collaboration with the stage director, a true mutual confidence, a continuous consultation and reciprocal intervention – the best way to work. And the final results, in this wonderful theatre and with great casts, was absolutely indisputable. I particularly think of Sandrine Piau, Christine Schäffer, Anne-Sofie von Otter and Patrici Bardon, who were all fabulous interpreters of what Audi asked of them. There was Bejun Mehta too, who was an incredible Tamerlano. Those beautiful productions play with the intimacy on an 18th century dimension, including the relationship with the audience, and proves that Handel’s music is a living matter and that the 18th century is not a screen, it can be of an incredible vibration, of an incredible humanity. Note that both of the productions are to be revived in Amsterdam next year.

PG: After all, what makes the achievement of a staging?

CR: I would say it is to trust the work, and I do regret very much that many stage directors do not trust the works they are directing. And thus their work is just padding, and I particularly think of the da capo arias which just become gags. I hate it, I think there is nothing worse: it is just the representation of a sort of cultural fast-food against which I rise up with strength. Many successes are built on that because it is just facile, but it is totally stupid and I think it is a cul-de-sac. The door was opened by Peter Sellars, but he did it with genius and was unfortunately followed by a band of idiots who have no idea about dramaturgy, who make veiled references, sometimes with humour, I do not deny it, but who have no view of the work, do not trust it and have nothing to say. This is what we see in those very bad stagings, but it is so easy that the audience love it. I think this situation is awful, but maybe I already belong to the rearguard, who knows…

PG: What are your future Handelian projects, on stage or in studio?

CR: As I mentioned earlier, Alcina and Tamerlano are to be revived in Amsterdam, in a small theatre (Stadsschouwberg) where Drottningholm is almost to be reconstructed during the 2004-2005 season. Ariodante is to be produced in 2007 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, with Angelika Kirchschlager as Ariodante, and people like Sandrine Piau and Rosemary Joshua. The stage director hasn't been chosen yet. Concerning CD, nothing is planned except the possible re-release of Scipione. We have been working on it for years and it seems that the repurchase of the tapes – a problem which irritated us for years – could be solved at last. And there is Arianna in Creta too: Naïve did refuse to release it, but why not another label? There were talks with the Austrian broadcaster, but during the concert tour, three different broadcasts have recorded it, thus a solution is still conceivable.

PG: To finish with a different perspective, I would like to speak to the harpsichordist: you are quite famous for your interpretations of Bach’s music or of the French repertoire. Do you sometimes play Handel’s music for keyboard?

CR: Sometimes, but considering the harpsichord, Handel is simply an enigmatic composer to me! I totally adhere to the Italian Handel – but not to the English one – as much as the composer for harpsichord is an enigma. I have played the harpsichord for thirty-five years, and I regularly play Handel’s music at home and during concerts, but I am still facing an enigma: I do not understand what he wants to do with the harpsichord, what is his sound aesthetic. I think that he used his facilities a lot and did not really write down everything that was in his mind and in his fingers – he was a great improviser. He certainly had an instrumental genius, but which one? I do not know. It is another world than the one of Italian opera, but I cannot tell you which one, I haven’t yet solved this problem. Thus I regularly keep company with that music, to question him, to understand him – and maybe to understand better his operatic world – but I do not record it…

PG: I would like to come back on the ‘English Handel’ you have quickly evocated earlier… are you not tempted to conduct the oratorios?

CR: Oratorios are machines which have seemed unassailable to me until now. I am a harpsichordist, I have a very particular feeling of intimacy. And even though I am working at the moment on an opera by Traetta which is a big machine too, with choruses, a tearful drama of the late 18th century with dimensions probably comparable to an oratorio by Handel, this English Handel is still too imposing to me, like a cathedral – an Anglican one! It is just a question of personal affinity. For example, I am often asked why I do not conduct Beethoven’s music. To be tempted by the idea is one thing, but to do it correctly is another one. Considering Handel, I think my personality and my characteristics better fit his French and Italian inspiration.

PG: Don’t you think the Italian inspiration and the intimacy are present in his oratorios too?

CR: Definitely, and, in a certain way, there is a French inspiration too. But, despite everything, there is an elaborate aspect, from a German inspiration, which is a sort of repoussoir to me. And that does not mean the intimacy and the Italian inspiration are not there. On the contrary, I think Handel’s oratorios are works in which the fusion of the different styles is probably achieved at a higher level than in his operas, even though if probably in a less modern way – the styles and tastes had evolved a lot in Europe. But once more, there is nothing pejorative in what I say. Handel’s oratorios are full of his genius: there are very inventive choruses, moments of dramatic genius of amazing beauties, but those beauties are not for me, at least for now…


[1] 1978 festival, among others with Christiane Eda-Pierre (Alcina), Teresa Berganza (Ruggiero), Valérie Masterson (Morgana), Ann Murray (Bradamante) and Philip Langridge (Oronte).

[2] Pier Francesco Tosi, Opinioni de’ cantori antichi e moderni o sieno Osservazioni sopra il canto figurato, Bologna, 1723.

[3] Giuseppe Maria Boschi created the following roles: Pallante in Agrippina (1709), Argante in Rinaldo (1711), Porsena in Muzio Scevola (1721), Oronte in Floridante (1721), Emireno in Ottone (1723), Lotario in Flavio (1723), Achilla in Giulio Cesare (1724), Leone in Tamerlano (1724), Garibaldo in Rodelinda (1725), Ernando in Scipione (1726), Clito in Alessandro (1726), Ercole in Admeto (1727), Isaccio in Riccardo primo (1727), Cosroe in Siroe (1728), and Araspe in Tolomeo (1728).

[4] Francesca Cuzzoni created the following roles: Teofane in Ottone (1723), Emilia in Flavio (1723), Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare (1724), Asteria in Tamerlano (1724), Rodelinda in Rodelinda (1724), Berenice in Scipione (1726), Lisaura in Alessandro (1726), Antigona in Admeto (1727), Costanza in Riccardo primo (1727), Laodice in Siroe (1728) and Seleuce in Tolomeo (1728).

[5] Faustina Bordoni created the following roles: Rossane in Alessandro (1726), Alceste in Admeto (1727), Pulcheria in Riccardo primo (1727), Emira in Siroe (1728) and Elisa in Tolomeo (1728).

[6] g’-g’’.

[7] Francesco Borosini created the following roles : Bajazet in Tamerlano (1724) and Grimoaldo in Rodelinda (1725).

[8] Benedetto Marcello, Il Teatro alla moda o sia Metodo sicuro, e facile per ben comporre, & esequire l’opere italiane in musica all’ uso moderno […], 1720.

[9] Anna Maria Strada del Po’ created the following parts: Adelaide in Lotario (1729), Partenope in Partenope (1730), Cleofide in Poro (1731), Fulvia in Ezio (1732), Elmira in Sosarme (1732), Angelica in Orlando (1733), Arianna in Arianna in Creta (1734), Ginevra in Ariodante (1735), Alcina in Alcina (1735), Atalanta in Atalanta (1736), Tusnelda in Arminio (1737), Arianna in Giustino (1737) and Berenice in Berenice (1737).

[10] The performances took place in Montpellier, in the south of France.

Relevant Links:

Christophe Rousset (DECCA):

Les Talens Lyriques:


La Petite Bande:

Natalie Dessay:

Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam:

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris:


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