Here's the translation of the interview at the Méridien in Brussels. I've tried to remove as many "fillers" as possible. In addition to Philippe's trademark "Ah feenk"
(je pense), I've discovered another one "C'est vrai que" which I am taking copyright out on as "Eet's true zat"
before anyone else does! A.
Meeting with Philippe Jaroussky, Hotel Le Méridien, 21/10/2013
SdV: Good evening, Philippe Jaroussky.
Ph.J.: Good evening, everybody.
SdV: And thank you for being with us today and thank you (to the audience) for joining us for this meeting on the eve of this great concert at the PDB tomorrow which we are all waiting for impatiently. Philippe Jaroussky, it’s not the first time that you are taking on the repertoire of the castrati; we can recall your album devoted to Carestini in 2007. What induced you to take on Carestini’s immediate rival now?
Ph.J. When I did the “Carestini” album, it was a bit of an “anti-Farinelli” project – by which I mean to say that for a few years after the film “Farinelli” (which I think some of you have seen) came out, Farinelli was much talked about (which is quite normal) but perhaps to the detriment of many other significant castrati in the history of music and Carestini was somewhat forgotten when compared to Farinelli – and Carestini was one of the most wonderful voices of the 18th century. I hadn’t planned to do a Farinelli project – and then, a few years ago, I started to do a programme which tried to recreate the rivalry between Carestini and Farinelli in London and to draw a parallel between the rivalry of the two castrati and the two composers, Handel and Porpora. It was also, notably, a discovery of the music of Porpora. You could say that for this project, I’m rather making use of Farinelli’s fame to introduce the music of Porpora, who is a typical example of a composer of whom you will have heard if you are interested in baroque music but whose music is seldom played. I’m using Farinelli to promote Porpora’s music in this album!
SdV: Exactly. Let’s talk a bit about the relationship between Porpora and Farinelli. In your CD booklet you talk about this singular relationship, the influence that Porpora had on the development of Farinelli right from childhood.
Ph.J.: Yes, it was already alluded to in the film but this CD is a means to focus on the school(s) for castrati. A castrato would be nothing without this education. It was my intention to shatter the myths surrounding the dreadful operation that was inflicted on thousands of children. Unfortunately it (the operation) was not enough to maintain these voices. Becoming a castrato was the result of really hard, even painful, study, very difficult. It involved hours and hours of daily practice in the schools, notably in Naples and in the conservatories. It was very strict. In fact, the art of the castrati is really the art of teaching how to sing and Porpora was one of the greatest teachers in Europe.
SdV: and not one of the least demanding …
Ph.J. Certainly, not one of the least demanding. There’s this famous story about the sheet of exercises that Porpora set for Caffarelli – also one of the greatest castrati of the 18th century – where he made him do the same exercises for hours and hours, trills, etc. – a bit like scales on the piano. I’m sure that sometimes it must have been very painful for the children – one could imagine that it was a sort of – not slavery exactly – but it was really pushing these children right from when they were very young, really driving them to the wall, in order to produce these voices which had superhuman capacities.
SdV One can tell from your interest in this subject and the way that you talk about it, that you have carried out some real musicological research …
Ph.J. Well, I don’t know what you think about it, but there is a fascination with the history of the castrati at the moment. Paradoxically, there is a kind of nostalgia, a certain frustration because, of course, we can no longer hear these voices - but at the same time one is horrified because, obviously, in our day and age, it would be inconceivable to sacrifice these children on the altar of music, to deprive them of their freedom and to cause them physical harm just to produce beautiful voices. It seems completely bewildering in our age. I think that the fascination comes from this – that is to say – on the one hand we are nostalgic (about them) and on the other hand we really don’t want a return of the castrati – because it’s something grotesque. I think this accounts largely for the fascination, not only for us, the singers, but also for you, the public.
SdV: Precisely, and we know that you, Philippe Jaroussky, have had nothing to do with what you refer to as the “diaboliques chaudronniers” (literally, evil coppersmiths or braziers - it refers to the act of castration
A.) – you’re a countertenor. What was your objective as a singer? Was it to stick as closely as possible to Farinelli’s interpretation or did you propose to shed a new light (on this music)?
Ph.J.: No (he means “no” to sticking to Farinelli’s interpretation A.) - and I think the CD cover encapsulates the idea – which was to show an historical figure and me in conversation with him dressed in a totally contemporary way.
SdV: In a leather jacket … (looks more like a blouson to me, but hey, what do I know?! A.)
Ph.J.: The idea was to create a real contrast and to show that I’m a present day interpreter and – just as important when you go to a concert – that you are a contemporary audience as well. You won’t necessarily have the same expectations as an 18th century audience. We know that operas were not listened to in the same way. There wasn’t such an intense silence at the time – a bit like that (laughs - he’s referring to the background noise in the Hotel Méridien. A.) That is to say that the audience went back and forth (during the performance), eating, sometimes playing cards. Now we’re fortunate – and it’s a real luxury – to have such concentrated attention during concerts. Life has changed; many things have changed and my interpretation is a summary of all that – it’s very difficult to explain. It’s a work “to order” of what could have been sung at the time. But above all, it’s an attempt to create an emotion through singing – an emotion which goes beyond the aesthetic and stylistic aspects – to touch the emotion of this music which 300 years later is still here and to bring it alive again. It’s an amalgam of all that.
SdV: There’s someone who has a special place in this research and in this interpretation – it’s Andrea Marcon the director of the Venice Baroque Orchestra. Didn’t he tell you not to follow what is written note by note?
Ph.J.: Yes. I work with a different conductor for practically every CD. For the coming years, I very much wanted to work more with Italian conductors because when working with this music, I find it very inspiring to work with Italian conductors and to be working alongside Italian singers in operas. There’s also an immediacy in the reaction of the orchestra – that is, when you sing, the orchestra understands straight away what you’re saying and there’s quite a magical sort of communion. And Andrea is someone who has an enormous amount of experience and culture in this repertoire and is very well- read. What I like very much with conductors of his generation, who have perhaps worked more than me in this style and who have really done research at source and in books, is that they are able to form their own opinion about a musical score and our interpretation of it. I think that we have a tendency – and I’m just as convinced as he is – to sometimes take what is written literally as a base mark. He very much likes to stress the notion of rubato. Rubato, for those who don’t know, is a musical idea whereby you spend a bit more time at one place (in the music) and take it back at another – that is, to have a flexibility with regard to tempo which allows us to emphasize one word rather than another. It’s very useful. You get the impression that rubato is a rather romantic idea. We speak a lot about rubato in Chopin’s music, for example. In baroque music, it was already an underlying principle – that is, you can anticipate a word, you can hold it back and obviously, it completely changes the flavour of a word. (Could THIS be the explanation of my new-found admiration of Philippe’s text interpretation??
SdV: Yes and it also gives a certain sense …
Ph.J. Exactly, it lends a certain substance, just like a variety artiste would do when interpreting chansons françaises – that is to say, the flavour of the word comes before everything and then you can allow yourself a greater flexibility in the vocal line. Andrea made me work a lot on this for this project, especially in the slow arias – and, after a while, to try to find a way for the voice to float above the orchestra in a much freer way than is written in the score.
SdV. There are 11 arias on this new album. How did you choose them - because there are several world première recordings? What were your selection criteria?
Ph.J. I love doing CDs. I love devising a programme for a CD. I often say that devising a CD programme is a bit like mixing a cocktail – that is a judicious mix – of course, you need contrasts, slow arias, fast arias, obviously. What is wonderful about Porpora’s music in these baroque arias, is that you can vary the instrumentation. You can have arias accompanied by just stringed instruments; or a trumpet solo as in one of the arias – or it could be strings, oboes or flutes – so you can change the atmosphere – and on this CD, I also have the good fortune of having extra variety in the form of two duets with the great Cecilia Bartoli, who accepted my invitation and I find that to include duets brings a different dimension to the CD. Obviously, the castrati didn’t sing alone on stage and there were stories of strong friendships between great sopranos, like la (Francesca) Cuzzoni, and Farinelli, who often sang duets together on stage - and then there are those cartoons of the castrati who were four heads taller than the soprano. Cecilia has also spoken about the friendships between singers whether in the past or in the present.
SdV: A small question … Let’s go back to the personality of Farinelli. How would you describe him? Pouring over your CD booklet, there are some fascinating pages where you explore the relationship between Porpora and Farinelli. I’m quoting where it was said of Farinelli that he was an angel or a devil, that he was a destroyer of theatres, that he was a god. Who was Farinelli for you?
Ph.J. Well, there are many testimonies about Farinelli. You must know that critics have always existed. Theatre critics already existed in the 18th century – notably in London – and there were many people who went to hear Farinelli in London. There are many testimonies which tally. Contrary to what one might think, Farinelli was not, as far as I can see, a “stage animal”. Also contrary to what one might think, they attached a lot of importance to stage play at the time. Farinelli did not have the reputation of being a great actor. On the other hand, he had the quite remarkable ability to sing – in the same opera – a very low, extremely low, contralto aria and then an aria for a high soprano. This must have been particularly impressive. According to me, that’s what probably earned him the label of “angel and demon”. He was very different from the other castrati in as much as he came from an aristocratic background – a diplomatic background. We know that most of the castrati came from very poor families – and for their families it (singing) was an attempt to lift them out of poverty. Farinelli carried on a correspondence with, notably, Metastasio, and the nobility. He held quite considerable political power in Madrid after he stopped singing. I imagine that he had a rather gentle disposition. He was rather slender in contrast to many castrati who were inclined to be on the chubby side. He was well regarded. He had rather a sweet nature unlike many castrati who were extremely extravagant, sometimes very capricious and pretentious. I think what contributed to the Farinelli myth is the fact that there was no decline; his voice didn’t change because he stopped singing at the height of his (vocal) glory. He stopped singing on stage at a relatively young age to go to Madrid to sing for the king who was sick, depressive – the famous aria. There was much frustration throughout Europe – many people wanted to hear Farinelli and weren’t able to. I think this contributed to his reputation as the most famous of the castrati – a bit like La Malibran who died very young. And it’s thanks to all this that his legend was created.
SdV: There’s another mystery surrounding Farinelli – it’s the relationship that he had with Porpora which was so very intense but which stopped from one day to the next and we don’t really know why.
Ph.J.: The problem is that we have no letters. Farinelli vaguely mentions Porpora when Porpora is dying in poverty but he doesn’t speak much about Porpora in his letters at all. What is interesting is that we know that Porpora took in Farinelli, that Farinelli’s father died when Farinelli was still relatively young. You can easily imagine that Porpora was a second father to Farinelli during his childhood and you can see the connection very clearly when Porpora has to compete with Handel in rival London theatres. Of course, he calls on the aid of Farinelli; he plays his trump card. I think that Porpora was aware of the (high) standard of Handel’s music and if he wanted to compete for success, he needed Farinelli, the most well-known singer in Europe - and I think Farinelli had no choice but to go. He had a debt to settle and perhaps the relationship broke up in London. I think that at a certain moment, Farinelli, like an adolescent with his father, cut the cord saying “There you are – I’ve repaid my debt to you. I’ve spent several years in London and now I’m taking off on my own”. I think that even if we have no testimonies, you can sense that this (the breakup) is somehow connected to his theatrical years.
SdV: Coming back to you, Philippe Jaroussky, we know that these bravura arias, these vocal pyrotechnics don’t frighten you but was there any particular preparation (by you) for this repertoire of Porpora for Farinelli?
Ph.J. Of course it’s frightening but I like to frighten myself! Yes, it’s a very difficult repertoire because we know that Farinelli had superior lung power even when compared with other castrati. He had endless breath control and you can see from the pieces written for him that there were passages when he didn’t breathe for a long time – which gave him a certain facility – because each intake of breath can lead to an imbalance in the singing. This is important to understand and, obviously, I have to breathe more often. I have to take very small breaths in places where it was not foreseen, even by the composer – and that’s what makes the exercise tiring and difficult. Obviously, I don’t have the lung power of Farinelli. This doesn’t take away an awful lot from the music – because the quality of the music is still the same – but in some way it takes away a lot of the magic. It’s said that many people fainted when they heard Farinelli (sing). He was not breathing to such an extent that people probably had the impression of suffocation. People were probably completely fascinated by this aspect. It must have seemed as if his voice was not coming out of his body. There must have been something totally unreal and supernatural about his voice. There’s a physical aspect, training – there’s something very athletic about his arias. In the end, singing his arias in concert like I’ll be doing tomorrow or I did yesterday in Amsterdam, is taking a risk. One is walking on a tightrope and one could fall. And I think the public likes this. I think the audience can sense the element of risk and this way of giving the maximum of what one is capable of. This virtuosity is a way of giving everything we can. Nothing is certain in concert. Right from the very first minute, you have to fight. It’s this battle with virtuosity that is a strong element in the entire repertoire for castrati.
SdV: I’d like to wish that everyone faints at the end of your concert tomorrow, but I’d better not! I wish you great success for this concert with the Venice Baroque Orchestra and Andrea Marcon. Thank you, Philippe Jaroussky, for answering these questions.
Ph.J. Thank you.