Fresh from reheasals for the new production of Orlando at La Monnaie, renowned Belgian conductor René Jacobs talks to The Bulletin about the heights, depths and beautiful byways of Baroque music
With their mythological characters and interminable plots, Handel’s operas seem aeons away from our modern sensibilities. And yet we seem to be having a love affair with this podgy German émigré who took the London music world by storm in the first half of the 18th century. Or not so much with the man as with his music, an inexhaustible trove of rousing choruses and gorgeous, hummable arias.
“Handel is a superstar,” says conductor René Jacobs. “Like Rossini, he wrote singers’ opera, a big hit with people who love beautiful singing. Then there’s the exoticism of the high voice – he composed a lot for castrati. The mere mention of his name on an opera programme these days almost guarantees that tickets will sell out fast.”
Jacobs should know: he has performed in and conducted dozens of Handel’s works and is at it again this month with a new production of Orlando at La Monnaie. Our meeting takes place after an early rehearsal with the singers and Pierre Audi, the French-Lebanese director who has devised the bold, modern staging. Most conductors step in a few weeks later, when the orchestra starts to be involved, but Jacobs, a fastidious perfectionist, makes a point of attending all rehearsals. “Orlando is one of Handel’s top five operas, and he wrote forty,” he says, visibly tired after the day’s work but relaxed and friendly. “He seems to have given it his very best, perhaps because it’s the last one he composed for the famous castrato Senesino. It’s part tragedy, part comedy – but comedy in the good sense; the kind that you get in the Mozart and Da Ponte operas, where you laugh – or smile, rather – but with a bitter edge.”
It is for Mozart that Jacobs is probably best known these days; he has recently recorded a much-lauded series of the composer’s operas on the Harmonia Mundi record label. His home turf, however, is the Baroque repertoire. He was part of a handful of musicians, several of them Flemish, who spearheaded its rediscovery in the 1960s and 1970s and resuscitated historic sounds and performance techniques.
This will be his first stab at Orlando as a conductor, though he did sing the main role once back in his days as a countertenor. He switched to full-time conducting in the 1980s but the singer in him remains strong: an exacting conductor of voices, he usually works with a small group of hand-picked soloists who share his high technical standards and interest in text – and who are willing to put up with his notorious tantrums. The countertenor Bejun Mehta and the sopranos Sophie Karthäuser and Sunhae Im, who will perform the main roles here, are straight out of his stable of young protégés. This will be his first collaboration with both Audi and B’Rock, the young and energetic Belgian ensemble that will join him in the pit.
Orlando is the story of a man who falls into a jealous fury when he hears that the woman he loves is in love with someone else. He goes off on a rampage, forgets who he is and mistakes people for what they’re not until he is finally brought back to his senses by a wise old magician. Eighteenth-century Londoners would have been familiar with this swashbuckling romp, a free reworking of Ariosto’s Renaissance epic Orlando Furioso that was very much in the collective psyche at the time. “Many composers wrote operas about the story of Orlando,” says Jacobs, who recently revived another one, Haydn’s lovely Orlando Paladino. Part of the appeal may well have been the formal freedom that the theme of madness allowed. Even Handel, who most of the time adhered to a strict compositional style, produced some astonishingly unfettered music in one famous scene.
Jacobs, too, will give his imagination free rein. That’s what he always does: an avid researcher who’s extremely well informed about period practices and composers’ views, he sees it as his musical duty to bring in more instruments, add ornaments and generally rough up the letter of a score, always in order to reveal its deeper spirit. It’s a maximalist approach that has earned him a fair amount of criticism, mostly from Britain and the US. But to most people who’ve listened to his CDs or heard him live, it feels utterly refreshing.
“Baroque opera,” he tells me, “gives more freedom than later opera. In the nineteenth century, everything, down to the smallest detail, was written down. Wagner wasn’t counting on performers to add their creativity to his. He saw himself as a god, and you can’t add anything to God’s creation. But that wasn’t at all the case in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera, which is why I find this kind of music more modern and more democratic.”
Jacobs grew up in 1950s Ghent. Around the time he started singing in the boys’ choir of Saint Bavo’s cathedral, he had his first encounter with the world of theatre. His father, a shy hardware store owner, gave him a miniature theatre he’d built himself, complete with puppets and booklets containing stories to act out. The toy soon became the centre of young René’s universe. He bought more puppets and invented more stories, enlisting the help of his two younger sisters. Later, he studied classics at Ghent University mostly to please his parents, who insisted he get a ‘real’ degree. “I plunged into Greek tragedy,” he remembers. “At the time, I thought none of this made much sense – all I wanted to do was music. But now I am glad I did. Everything in opera goes back to that.”Today, he is largely a product of those early influences: a consummate musician, a dyed-in-the-wool theatre man and a classical scholar who sets extremely high standards for himself and others. One thing that saddens him is “the lack of culture of today’s opera-goers. I’m afraid,” he sighs, “that in a couple of generations there won’t be anyone in the audience who’s read Homer – not even in translation!”
It is one of Jacobs’ poignant ironies that, in spite of all the mounting honours and acclaim, he seems to feel increasingly misunderstood and isolated. Not many people, for instance, share his interest in libretti and recitatives. “I am not against cuts,” he says, “but they need to be done properly. When I see the way some directors cut recitatives in the middle of a line or by moving lines around, it makes me think of an inept surgeon bungling an operation, where the patient bleeds to death!”
He seems disappointed by the conservative turn the music world is taking, and also by the fact that Baroque music, by becoming mainstream, has lost some of its edge. Although he’s not nostalgic for the clunky sounds and foggy tunings of early Baroque revival orchestras, he does miss that exciting time of discovery when he could unearth operas by Cavalli or Scarlatti and have them performed and recorded. “Handel is all well and good,” he says, “but it is getting harder to propose works that aren’t already part of the repertoire. Baroque opera is becoming popular and that’s a good thing. But there’s a danger that we’ll end up always hearing the same pieces.”
I seem to have caught him in a gloomy mood, but if his plans after Orlando are anything to go by, he should soon be back to his ebullient and adventurous self. First he’ll be off to Berlin to perform Emilio de Cavalieri’s La Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo, an extraordinary musical allegory believed to be the first opera ever composed. Then he’ll be overseeing the release of his CD La Finta Giardiniera, the latest in his Mozart series, for which he has used a late and little-known version of the score that “Mozart would have been happy with”. The next time we will see him in Brussels will be in September, when he conducts Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion at the Klarafestival. This is the piece that first persuaded him to become a musician when he sang it as a child in Ghent. He will be leading his beloved Akademie für alte Musik Berlin and Rias Kammerchor, a 36-strong choir with a crisp and shimmering sound.
Some musicologists and performers argue for the use of four, or at the most, eight, choristers in Bach’s Passions as more authentic, but Jacobs won’t hear of it. “That may have been what Bach did, but is that what he wanted? I think not: he was always pleading for more means and more singers. And he wasn’t alone: many of his contemporaries expressed similar ideas, although no one put it as sweetly as Benedetto Marcello, who wrote in a preface to some his own cantatas, ‘God is happy with a small gift. But of course, he prefers a bigger one.’” I have checked the quote and the actual phrasing is a little different. But Jacobs captured its spirit just right.
René Jacobs conducts Handel’s opera ‘Orlando’ at La Monnaie
April 19-May 11