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 Le Figaro, 19 February, 2015.

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PostSubject: Le Figaro, 19 February, 2015.   2nd March 2015, 10:54

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Translated from the original French. Interview by Thierry Clermont in Le Figaro, 19 February, 2015.

A countertenor specialising in the Baroque repertoire, Philippe Jaroussky has released Green, a double album dedicated exclusively to the numerous composers who have set the poems of Paul Verlaine, in different versions. We find here of course the classics by Fauré, Debussy, Reynaldo Hahn, Chausson, ordinarily sung by sopranos – but also adaptations from Léo Ferré, Charles Trenet, Georges Brassens. The album, generously illustrated with photographs, of which a previously unpublished portrait of Gabriel Fauré, is introduced in a liner-note essay by radio personality Benoît Duteurtre.

When did you develop this passion for Verlaine?

PJ: I had discovered him in high school with ‘Prison’, from the collection Sagesse. He wrote it in 1873 in the prison in Brussels, where he had been incarcerated after shooting Rimbaud. The first line is so well-known: Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit,/Si bleu, si calme! (The sky, above the roof, so blue, so calm). For this album, I chose three settings of it, including the ones by Fauré and Hahn. And the final couplet, superb: Dis, qu’as-tu fait, toi que voilà,/De ta jeunesse ? (What have you done with your youth?) For me, it’s his most beautiful poem! Contrary to what one might think, I’ve been singing Verlaine for a long time (Il pleure dans mon coeur, Chanson d’automne); I even gave a recital when I was 19, with a program of Fauré and Debussy. The mélodie française has always fascinated me. In 2009 I recorded Opium, an album bringing together Charles d’Orléans, Ronsard, Hugo, Gautier, Verlaine… set to music by Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Debussy…

So you’ve had this project Green in mind for a long time?

PJ: It’s been in the works for about eight years. I love Verlaine’s poetry and his universe, made up of languor and melancholy as well as lightness and humour. I find myself there. Just think of the themes and the characters of his second collection of poems, Fêtes galantes, with its baroque side and its pastoral atmosphere. Most of his poems are short, arrhythmic – even dissonant . As he says in his Art poétique he prefers the odd lines out. It’s very human poetry, sensual but with childlike simplicity.

His Art poétique is very specific. In it he says: Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance! “No colour, nothing but nuance!” Do you agree?

PJ: “De la musique avant toute chose” ! (Music first and foremost). His credo. A shame this poem was never set to music! Verlaine loved music. He had heard the setting of his poem Green by Hahn, this little miracle oscillating between two chords, and it moved the poet to tears. Hahn went straight for the heart musically, all the while respecting the text.

How do you explain the success of Verlaine?

PJ: His poetry sings of human passions. Ravel preferred him to Mallarmé, calling him ‘the exquisite singer’. He always inspired musicians, who have contributed enormously to his fame. Recently, Bernard Foccroule wrote music for the soprano Sophie Karthäuser using four of his poems, including Ganymède and Dansons la gigue.

Not to mention the singers of French chanson like Ferré or Trenet…

PJ: I wanted to broaden the scope of the repertoire. The song Colloque sentimental with music by Léo Ferré flows beautifully, he knew to avoid the sense of dramatised dialogue you get in Debussy’s version, for example. I also listened to Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf for the vocal colour of the lyrics. What’s interesting in Ferré’s version is the microphone , he doesn’t do too much with the voice. The performer can be quite free with the text. My goal is to share my love for Verlaine in a way that enables listeners to discover lesser-known composers such as Régine Poldowski, and showing another side of “pauvre Lélian” [an anagram of Verlaine’s name that the poet used to refer to himself] , who had collaborated on an operetta with his friend Emmanuel Chabrier. The participation of the Ebène Quartet on the album adds a modern touch, a new palette of colours.

Some poets are reluctant to be set to music. Victor Hugo refused to allow his words to bow down to music; he said himself: “Nothing irritates me more than this insistence on setting beautiful verse to music. Because the musicians have an incomplete art, they have the gall to try to complete it with poetry, which is in itself a complete art form”.

PJ: I understand that. It sometimes comes to pass that the music isn’t at the same level of the words. It’s also true for the performance! We must not add too much emotion or affect in song, at the risk of killing the poem. It’s not opera! It should be sung and performed with sincerity, modesty and freshness. The poem is the object that allows us to develop this emotional oversensitivity. In mélodie or lieder, we have to hold ourselves back to allow the poem to truly express itself. The voice has to be eloquent, sensitively coloured.

As a countertenor I have a voice that is asexual, ambiguous, that brings a sort of timelessness to the music. I wanted to show that with this vocal tessitura, it’s possible to explore a different repertoire, rather than being limited to centuries-old music originally sung by castrati. Poetry is open to diverse musical interpretations. Prison as envisioned by Fauré is dramatic in tone, while Hahn gives it a more nostalgic reading. But it’s always the text that dictates the rhythm. It’s the poem and the prosody that command the music. The melody is therefore like an explanation of the text, a spatialisation.

What are you working on at the moment?

PJ: A series of concerts devoted to Verlaine, that will begin in Metz, his birthplace, and finish at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on 11 April.


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Le Figaro, 19 February, 2015.
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