Continuing our publication of the interviews and reviews that resulted from our in-person coverage of the latest Festival d'Aix-en-Provence [see the portal which contains links to all articles by clicking (here)], today we are bringing to our members and readers a very interesting interview with the intelligent French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, who sang a perfect Golaud in the gorgeous Katie Mitchell production of Pelléas et Mélisande (a full review of the show and other related interviews are also available in the portal above). Laurent's long and prestigious career boasts great roles and fantastic discography. The artist commands incredibly good English and possesses an engaging personality. Talking with him in person was a pleasure. Enjoy!
Singer: Laurent Naouri
Born in: Paris, France, on May 23, 1964
Recently in: Pelléas et Mélisande (Golaud), Festival d'Aix-en-Provence
Next in: The Fiery Angel (Ruprecht), Opéra de Lyon
Photo Credit Unknown - fair promotional use
Laurent Naouri had his vocal training at CNIPAL in Marseille and at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Since his stage début in the title rôle of Milhaud’s Christophe Colombe in 1992, he has regularly been heard at major French, American and European opera houses and as a guest at leading festivals including among many others the Opéra Bastille, Opéra Garnier, and Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bayerisch Staatsoper in Munich, Opernhaus Zürich, Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona, Teatro Real de Madrid, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, The Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Dallas Opera, LA Opera, DNO in Amsterdam, the opera houses in in Lyon, Strasbourg, and Geneva, the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp, the Brussels Théâtre de la Monnaie, and the festivals of Santa Fe, Aix-en-Provence, Salzburg, Glyndebourne and Baden-Baden.
His broad repertoire ranges from Monteverdi to the contemporary, and includes roles such as the Count in Le nozze di Figaro, Oreste in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, Eugene Onegin, the Four Villains in Les contes d’Hoffmann, Agamemnon (La belle Hélène), Escamillo, Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Falstaff, among many others. He has been heard as Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande in numerous productions, such as the one in the 2006 Salzburg Easter Festival under Sir Simon Rattle, and the recent one in Aix-en-Provence.
Photo Credit unknown - fair promotional use
With a special interest in French Baroque opera, he has performed under conductors including Marc Minkowski, William Christie, René Jacobs, Mark Minkowski, Kent Nagano, and Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
Laurent Naouri among numerous other distinctions and awards is a French knight, and he is married to soprano Natalie Dessay (they have two children). His numerous recordings range from Lully and Rameau to Offenbach and Francis Poulenc.
Photo Dallas Opera
The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Laurent Naouri
This is our interview #204. Copyright Opera Lively; all rights reserved. Reproduction of excerpts is authorized for all purposes as long as the source is quoted and a link to the full piece is provided. Reproduction of the entire interview requires authorization - use the Contact Us form. Photos unless otherwise stated with specific credit are fair promotional use (we often do not know the names of all photographers; will be happy to include them if we are told who they are). Some of the photos were sent to Opera Lively by the Bureau de Presse of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence; authorized use.
Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – I saw you Pelléas et Mélisande yesterday and was very impressed. What did you think of the performance?
Laurent Naouri - To tell you the truth, it was the first of our runs that I’m fully happy with. Everything clicked – stage-wise, pit/stage-wise, orchestra-wise… Because it’s such a complicated show; there are minor flaws at times, something that leaves you with a little bit of regret; but yesterday’s performance left me with no regrets at all.
OL – It was perfect.
LN – It really was.
OL – So, how do you approach this role? What is important to perform a great Golaud?
LN – Well, first, it’s about very cold and detailed music-learning. It sounds very basic, but the thing is that Debussy wanted to stick as much as possible with the rhythm of the spoken phrase, but with a certain emphasis. It’s never fully a recitative; never fully a song. It’s something in-between. You could say it is declamation. So, the first step – and it sounds easy but there are so many details to remember – is to memorize the exact music information that is entered in the score, meaning it is important to know that the end of a word is a half-note, or a quarter-note. Sometimes you would think that you’d say a phrase with not so much emphasis where Debussy would put it. Do it like he wrote it. Unless you find a reason inside it to redo it, stick to it. That’s the first step, I’d say: very precise memorization.
Then, the second step is that in French a succession of even notes is never a succession of even notes. So, even if you have full eight even notes that come in succession, depending on the syllables there is going to be a slight fluctuation of the weight you are going to put on each of them. So, still respecting the exact musical text, you have to find this natural speech-like weight of each line.
I would say that ideally that’s the state you come in when you start rehearsing. Because the rest – all the colors, all that is going to be put in – has a lot to do with the dramaturgy you will find yourself in, in regards to what the director has in mind.
I’ll give you a very simple example. There is a line that I never sang that way before. I’ve sang this role a hundred times so this is interesting for me, when Golaud lies down wounded and tries to impress Mélisande saying “ah, it’s nothing, I’m not really seriously wounded” and she is very caring; she feels very bad and says “do not suffer too much” and I say “oh no, no; I’ve seen worse than that; I’m accustomed to iron and blood.” “Je suis fait au fer et au sang.” [sings it] At that moment in the staging Barbara has this very touching gesture that she does several times in the opera: she puts her hand on my forehead, soothing like that. So “je suis fait au fer et au sang” which I usually say with quite heavy weight, I’m about to say it that way, but then it becomes, “oh, well…” [sigh]. You see? That kind of thing.
Barbara Hannigan, Stéphane Degout, Laurent Naouri and a dancer, Aix-en-Provence, photo Patrick Berger
OL – Yeah… I thought that your Golaud – and maybe that’s what Ms. Mitchell wanted – was more conflicted and tortured than menacing.
LN – Yes, yes! And actually it is very hard for me to have to play a one-sided Golaud, so maybe if I wasn’t convinced myself at that moment I might not have been very convincing, also. So this vision fits me and becomes me, particularly. In a way, you can express it in many different ways. The amount of violence is equal to the amount of passion and the desire to do well, to do the right thing. I always feel that this character is like “what’s wrong? I do everything I can to be the best being, and I’m still not satisfying?” – it is a sort of relation of a man versus a woman: “what do you want”? [says it in a forceful tone of voice, and bursts laughing]
OL – Your take is very interesting! I will ask Barbara tomorrow, but I also observed that a very important symbolic element or psychological element in the play is that at the end Golaud is uncertain if Pelléas and Mélisande actually had sexual relations or if it was platonic.
LN – Oh, yes.
OL – This staging is quite explicit.
LN – It’s explicit, but it is clearly stated from the beginning that this is a dream and a recollection, and as far as a dream goes, sometimes you remember scenes and you transform them. “I wish I would have made love with him!”
OL – Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. It makes sense, now.
LN – For me it makes sense because in a way, if you ask me, Golaud, about the facts, I’d think that nothing happened; maybe a kiss in the end. I think that’s the story, but what happened inside the characters’ minds is much bigger and much deeper. Usually in act IV, at the big final duet between Pelléas and Mélisande, there is this musical line when the doors are closing and Pelléas says “come to me, come to me; my heart is beating madly at the bottom of my throat” and the music starts… [hums a beating music], and then, silence, and then… [hums a melodious, slow line], and 90% of the time in other productions, that’s the big kiss moment. But the erotic charge that is in the kiss could be inside; exactly the equivalent of it is represented on stage in this particular staging.
When I’m kissing Yniold – it’s another difficult topic but for me I don’t think Golaud would do that – but after he’s been so violent with Mélisande, Golaud is a monster for her. He is capable of anything. So that’s why when I meet her in this dream-like interlude with Yniold, it’s like “oh, yeah, I am capable of basically anything; you’ll see that!”
OL – Yes, there is the rape scene, and Yniold is there too; he is under the table, and he is terrified.
LN – Yes, yes!
OL – He doesn’t want to watch.
LN – Of course not!
OL – He just wants to clutch his little ball.
LN – Yes! It’s between real-life reactions, and the fantasized, amplified sub-conscious reactions. So a child growing up sees parents arguing; sometimes they don’t want to be there. It is a reaction that is very easily understandable, especially because the amount of violence is pretty high at that moment. I don’t think we can carry it much further.
Actually in the original idea, is Yniold a girl throughout the whole dream in Katie Mitchell’s mind (a way for Katie to conciliate the use of a female voice to play a child, an operatic convention she finds difficult to deal with)? The dream process allows these kind of sex changes, in Mélisande’s unconscious. That, I still don’t really know but in a dream-like situation sometimes sexual representations are biased because the dream finds an identification in any character in the story he is dreaming about or is recollecting. So that’s what I mean: there is still doubt. Do not forget that we are seeing Mélisande’s recollection, point of view, and fantasy, and in that respect I’m pretty sure that even when Pelléas was just playing with Mélisande’s hair what was going on in their minds was pretty far-out. [laughs]
OL – Very interesting! Martin Crimp, what did he add to the performance as a dramaturg? Did he teach you anything that you didn’t know about the role, before?
LN – No, no, I think his work was much more watching and comforting Katie, I guess, in the consistency of the dream. When you build a dream, maybe we all build that; it would be a work in progress. The object we were presented with, the set, this idea of a dream, this doppelganger of Mélisande, it puts the three of us – Mélisande, Pelléas and I – in a very creative state, full of proposals: this could happen and that could happen.
Martin exchanged mostly in private with Katie. He came to us and we spoke with him but they mostly built that idea beforehand and then during the process I think his part was trying not to interfere, but being confident that the whole thing was consistent and that we were not going in all possible directions. Sometimes when you are doing it and Katie has her eyes set on something, you need a sort of external eye to say “I think this is good theater.” He knows what makes sense and what is strong, and what is interesting but wouldn’t necessarily fit in the fantasy that is being built. It is difficult to make a dream look real. [laughs]
OL – Everything was so perfect, even in blocking and movement; it shows the high theatricality of this staging.
LN – It is incredibly precise, really. And the funny thing is that we roughly blocked the whole thing in one week, amazingly. The rest of the time – and believe me, it was not too long – it was polishing that; polishing and polishing and polishing.
OL – Katie Mitchell has this signature thing of frozen images and slow motion.
LN – Yes, yes. She uses that a lot. In that respect as far as a dream is concerned, it is particularly efficient. It is also particularly efficient if you have this incredibly gorgeous creature that Barbara is. [laughs]. I wish good luck to any other girl who is going to do this part after her. Good luck! [laughs]
Barbara Hannigan and Laurent Naouri - Pelléas et Mélsidande, Aix-en-Provence; Photo Patrick Berger
OL – There is also the atemporal element that also matches dreams – the pregnancy comes and goes, the baby comes and goes…
LN – Exactly; that was very clever, I believe. It was really one of the cleverest elements. It drove me to play with my watch. Golaud is keeping time. All of it was inspiration to go in other directions. Using atemporality was a very brilliant way to always put the viewer in this “I’m watching a dream” position.
OL – It was really brilliant! You have performed the role of Golaud in Salzburg under Simon Rattle, and in Los Angeles as well as London under Esa-Pekka Salonen, not to forget numerous other conductors (Runnicles, Langré, Cambreling). It is said that Débussy wanted the music in P&M performed gently, but for example in Cardiff Pierre Boulez chose to perform it with high dynamics, i.e., loudly. What’s our conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s take?
LN – We must not forget that Pelléas et Mélisande was created in the Opéra-Comique, a very small house. It is even hard to fit all the musicians required by P&M in the pit in the Opéra-Comique. I don’t take literally these comments by Débussy because it depends on the singers, the orchestra, and the venue where it is performed. I believe that the score has very high dynamic differences. It goes from triple piano to quadruple forte.
OL – Or even a capella.
LN – Yes! Try to solve that contradiction! OK, you want it soft, but why so many dynamic marks? It took time, but yesterday I believe that really the orchestra got to the right balance. The interlude after “Absalon! Absalon!” [Editor’s note: Act IV Scene 2] with these three climaxing points, it is very hard to imagine it sort of underplayed. I think it really needs full throttled effect; so would the scene with Yniold and Golaud, the spying scene which is almost unbearable.
Maybe one thing that characterizes Esa-Pekka’s view is the more extreme range of tempi than I’m used to, in some moments. I experienced that with John Eliot Gardiner too. Esa-Pekka’s grip on the tempi comes more from the music and John Eliot’s comes more from the text. So it’s not in the same places that it is going to go really extreme.
OL – Does it make it difficult, because you have the declamation?
LN – [In a soft, conspiratorial tone] It does! [laughs] But that is the advantage of being exposed to several different conductors. There is no ideal P&M. The only P&M that exists is the one that results in the confluence of a conductor with the performers and the director. We all come with our contradictions, our desires, our possibilities, our strengths and weaknesses and we combine them. Saying that someone holds the God-sacred truth is maybe not a very interesting statement. What I like here is “let’s meet and let’s find a common ground.” It’s not like [makes an authoritarian tone of voice] “this is the common ground!” The common ground comes from rehearsing together; then we are in a good place.
OL – You have performed here several times. What is the character of the Festival d’Aix as compared for example with Glyndebourne and Salzburg, of which you have also been a member? And especially how do you compare these with Santa Fe, where you sang a lot?
LN – Oh, Santa Fe for me is very sentimental, because that’s where I kissed childhood good-bye. We spent six or seven summers in Santa Fe. If you ask me, my answer will never be musical. It will be sentimental.
OL – I love that place, too.
LN – But I love being here, too. Maybe Aix-en-Provence would be my second favorite place. Festivals are also about holydays [Editor’s note – in the British sense of vacations], about having our families together. Now our kids are growing up so it is a bit of the end of this thing. They will be in their twenties next year and will have different views of festivals. If you ask me now, I have very strong and fond memories of Santa Fe because of all the family adventures we experienced there.
OL – Are your kids here with you?
LN – Yes, but I’ve just dropped my son at the station. He is almost 21, now.
OL – He is a jazz musician, right?
LN – Yes. He went back because he has a meeting tomorrow for writing stage music; he does this stuff. But he came and loved the show. My daughter is still here for three more days.
OL – Neïma, she sings, right?
LN – God, yes. I don’t know what Neïma is going to sing, but she’s got an incredible voice. I know it is not well-seen by singing teachers but I’d like her to train in both techniques. I have always liked jazz singing and opera singing, and it never hurt me. I’d like for her to explore it all and see where it will lead her. She’s got amazing possibilities out of being so open, and I told her my views, “singing is a job for lazy guys; you cannot train your instrument six hours a day; it’s impossible, so you need to work hard on other stuff.”
She is a gifted student and just got her Baccalaureate with mention “Très bien” [very good] with 17.5 out of 20. She took two years of very high, selective literature classes. She was not too keen on it, but I told her “I think you will learn more about singing by learning poetry and novels and literature and everything like that than singing itself.” If you are gifted, it will come, but the rest is what you have here [points to his head]; it’s the imagination, the culture; and that makes a difference, I believe.
OL – So, your wife [Natalie Dessay] retiring from opera, did it change the dynamics at home?
LN – Very much! It’s weird, she is at home all day! She has just finished a play. She is touring with that same play next year but she has finished her run and she was at home the whole June. Sometimes she still does concerts; she will be at Carnegie Hall next year and will tour with Liederabend which is also a great deal of her time. Still, it changes a lot, because opera takes you away from home for longs period of time; that is not the case anymore. I still cannot tell you how it is, because it is still in transition, but it is fascinating. Really, what she did with this play UND by Howard Barker is beyond anything I could suspect her of being capable of.
OL – She is such a talented actress!
LN – Yes, she is.
OL – She started as a stage actress.
LN – Yes, it proved the fact so well, and I was really very proud. But I mean, it’s still new territory, I still don’t know how… [pauses]
OL – But you have never performed too many times together, right?
LN – No, these last two years we did 15 or 20 concerts together; Lieder, and French song recitals together; we’ve been around a bit in several countries and it was great. Now I know that I won’t ever sing together with her on the operatic stage, but oh well…
OL – I remember fondly that Orphée aux enfers avec that hilarious fly scene!
LN – [Laughs] Yes, absolutely, the PG scene! Actually our daughter was inside at that moment. [laughs]
OL – Very nice! Let’s talk about you as a person, a little bit. How did opera come to your life, vocationally speaking?
LN – Opera?
OL – Yes, you first did jazz.
LN – I really wanted to be… I mean, I did not really know what I wanted to be. I had a wonderful background, a wonderful music teacher in high school, but I wasn’t a really thoroughly trained musician. I started very late. Then she gave me piano lessons when I was 15 or 16 and I really worked hard, thought I wasn’t too bad, and said I wanted to be a musician. She told me “well, you don’t play the piano well enough and you don’t compose. You have a voice. You could use it.” I started by doing piano recitals. For me classical music was non-vocal music. Opera for me was a bunch of overweight people screaming.
OL – [laughs] That’s what my son says it is.
LN – It’s the image I had in mind, then. But show your son what we did yesterday! [laughs hard]
OL – I showed him in Santa Fe La Traviata by Laurent Pelly and he actually liked that. He said “whoa!” because there was Brenda Rae who is very attractive.
LN – Absolutely, she is. Oh, Brenda did again our Traviata? [Editor’s note: This production revived in Santa Fe with Brenda Rae was originally with Natalie Dessay as Violetta and Laurent Naouri as Giorgio Germont]
OL – Yes.
LN – Oh, great. Brenda, she is a great artist. Watch out for her. I like her very much. She was my Julieta in Munich. It’s good that she did it. We created it in 2009 with Natalie.
OL – Yes, it was the same production but Laurent Pelly changed a bit the sets for one of the scenes.
LN – Yes, he told me. But back to what I was saying, I was quite disciplined and when my teacher said that, I said, “OK, I will take singing lessons.” As I had no serious hope that I would be a professional musician, I took science classes and graduated as an engineer while taking singing lessons. After my graduation I think that the reason I went to try my luck in singing was that I felt I didn’t really fit in. I didn’t have a lot of good friends. I was kind of a misfit. So I thought “OK, let me try this.” I gave private lessons in mathematics and physics to pay for lessons in harmony, piano, and voice. I had support from my parents too. Then I started going to the opera and found that there was more than just the cliché. When opera is good, it is the best kind of show you can get, but it is so hard to put together!
OL – Like yesterday.
LN – Yes, yesterday we had it.
OL – How are you in terms of personality, philosophy, take on life, hobbies and interests?
LN – Other interests? Life interests me. Anything. I read a lot. I don’t have any particular hobby. I would say reading takes a lot of time. I don’t collect things. My curiosity is quite wide-spread. It is not focused enough to be an accurate specialist in anything. I’m more a sort of omnivore kind of person. I can find interest in a science book, and in the latest novel. Here we have two great exhibitions I want to take my daughter and my wife to, the Camoin show and the Turner show at the Granet and the Caumont museums here.
Doing the house paperwork takes a lot of time. I don’t really have the time to wonder “what am I going to do?” It’s always difficult. Going to the theater also takes a lot of planning.
OL – So now you are busier than Natalie, right?
LN – In terms of opera, yes. I’m way busier. Next year it is going to be tough, because I’m starting in September with The Fiery Angel in Lyon that takes two months, because it is a new role for me and it is big; it’s all Russian; it is Prokofiev. Then I have a sort of half-empty November so to speak, but not really. Then I’m in New York. It’s just that I’m away in New York but it is paid holiday. Doing Father Capulet is not much. But I have a lot to learn. I have the new opera at the Opéra de Paris, the Francesconi that I’m starting in February [Editor’s note: Trompe-la-Mort by Luca Francesconi; Laurent is in the role of Le Marquis de Granville; March-April 2017 at Palais Garnier], then there is a Così fan tutte back to back, and then I end the season with Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali. I’m doing Donna Agata; it will be my first transvestite part.
OL – You aren’t thinking of retiring, right? Your kind of voice can go on and on.
LN – Yes, that’s it. As long as I can sing, there are so many things I look forward to, you know? Yesterday I was thinking, “I will never have Franz-Josef’s voice, but maybe when I’m 65 I can be a decent Arkel.” [laughs] I look forward to it too, just to explore the other side, and so many things.
OL – Or Le Grand Inquisiteur; it’s a bass role but you can sing low.
LN – Le Grand Inquisiteur is too bassy but I do have the notes. I can go lower than most basses I know but I will never have their color. It is a freaky extension I have in the voice.
OL – But as you age, the voice darkens.
LN – Yes, a little more, but at the moment, in general things are easier than they ever were, so I’m enjoying it.
OL – Fabulous. We made it! It’s been 30 minutes now. Anything to add?
LN – Not really. It’s been a good time. When you experience something like yesterday night, it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it is what makes this business rewarding.
OL – I thought it was a privilege to be there and witness that, because it is not easy to get all elements together like that.
LN – Yes, everything was there. The working process was such a great pleasure! Sometimes you are afraid that there is too much pleasure in the working and the result will not match the pleasure you had in doing it. There is no great morality about it. You can have a great working experience and do something that is just half-interesting. But in the case of what we did yesterday, whether you like it or not, you cannot say that it was not relevant.
OL – Right. OK, thanks.
LN – My pleasure!
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