Magazine article Gramophone

INHABITING LULLY'S Opulent Grandeur: With Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset Has Been Exploring Lully's Operas-Most Recently Alceste, Which He Has Recorded and Performed at Versailles. Richard Lawrence Went to Meet Him

Magazine article Gramophone

INHABITING LULLY'S Opulent Grandeur: With Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset Has Been Exploring Lully's Operas-Most Recently Alceste, Which He Has Recorded and Performed at Versailles. Richard Lawrence Went to Meet Him

Article excerpt

Some 20 miles north of Paris, at Asnieres-sur-Oise, lies the Abbey of Royaumont. Founded by Louis IX in 1228, it is now the home of the Royaumont Foundation, a privately endowed enterprise that, among other things, supports residential courses and mounts public concerts. It is also a research centre and houses an impressive archive of French music, based on the collection of manuscripts and scores once belonging to the pianist Francois Lang. Not much is left of the church, but the abbey buildings have been beautifully restored, and it is in the monks' refectory (which surprisingly contains a Cavaille-Coll organ) that I heard, in October, an abridged concert performance of Stefano Landi's La morte d'Orfeo.

This is the culmination of a study week during which Christophe Rousset worked with a group of young professional singers and players. Teaching and training play an important part in his life, but Rousset is best known as a conductor and harpsichordist. In the cafe, a trolley of crockery clanking to and fro, I asked him how it all began. After studying in The Hague, where he seems to have been not entirely happy, he entered the international harpsichord competition in Bruges. 'Winning that competition in 1983 was quite something', he recalls, 'as the first prize had been awarded only once before, to Scott Ross in 1971.' Back in Paris, he waited expectantly for the telephone to ring. After what sounds like a lean period he started playing for William Christie's Les Arts Florissants; he also performed concertos with Christopher Hogwood, the founder of the Academy of Ancient Music, who surprised him by saying, 'You are going to be a conductor'. At the time, admits Rousset, 'I really didn't have that idea in mind, because I loved playing continuo. I come from Aix-en-Provence, the summer opera there was important in my youth, and my dream was to be part of it. And with Les Arts Florissants I was involved in opera, which was exactly what I wanted. I had a parallel career as a soloist, when, for instance, I recorded the Rameau solo pieces for L'Oiseau-Lyre. So I was very happy with that.'

But William Christie made him his assistant, an appointment that culminated in his conducting La Fee Urgele by Duni and Favart (1765) at the Opera-Comique. Then there was some sort of a falling-out: I didn't ask Rousset about this, but it's mentioned in a fascinating book of interviews with him, L'Impression que l'instrument chante, published by the Cite de la Musique-Philharmonie de Paris. The upshot was that in the same year, 1991, Rousset set up his own group, Les Talens Lyriques. 'Since then I haven't played continuo for other people,' he says. 'I'm involved in my group and in my solo career as well. I do some teaching and research, but it's mostly conducting.' He conducts other groups, too: last June, for instance, he was at Covent Garden for Mozart's Mitridate, and later in October he was to conduct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Handel's Semele.

'I wanted to do something different from the other groups', he continues, 'so my goal was to do mostly Italian repertoire, especially from the Naples school. I recorded a few pieces, including Jommelli's Armida abbandonata (Ambroisie, 02/06) and Traetta's Antigona (L'Oiseau-Lyre, 03/01). Then I saw that William Christie was doing Mozart and a lot of Handel and so on, and less French music, so I moved on to Lully. The shock of my life was when I played in Atys, which Christie put on in 1987. I loved it so much and I thought this composer has to be served a little more.' He started with Perse'e (Astree Naive, 05/02); Alceste, out this month, is the seventh opera to be recorded. 'The special thing with Lully is that he created French opera: he was always questioning what he had done before, inventing new recipes, new scenes. Whenever I prepare a new Lully opera I admire his creativity and his genius; I don't think there is one weak piece.'

What about other composers? …

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