You may have heard about the wild success of the Théâtre du Châtelet production of Offenbach's La Belle Hélène in Paris, conducted by Mark Minkowski with staging and costumes by Laurent Pelly, which was critically acclaimed, revived twice, and made into a DVD. Well, this fall the same team is producing Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), with Dame Felicity Lott, "the most French of British singers," in the lead role. When the production was given a sort of trial run, to open the new opera theater in Grenoble last month, Christian Merlin interviewed the star (Felicity Lott : «J'ai besoin qu'on m'aime» [I need people to love me], October 5) for Le Figaro. Here is my translation:
In the middle of rehearsals for La Grande Duchesse, how do you feel?La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein will be performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet from October 5 until January 2, 2005.
I feel terrible, as usual. That's nothing new, I had the same impression at the start of working on La Belle Hélène. I have so many lines to speak in French, and I have to sing and act at the same time, which does not allow even a one-second lapse of attention. I watch François Le Roux, Yann Beuron, Sandrine Piau, think they are wonderful, and tell myself that I will never be that good, what am I doing here? I must be a trial for the others, with my complexes. They certainly have enough problems without also having to endure mine!
Nevertheless, you seem so comfortable on stage! What enables you to get past your lack of self-confidence?
The confidence of others. I would like to be stronger and do everything on my own, but that's how it is: I need to be supported by others. The key is teamwork: I am unable to think of my work as an individual activity. That's why, for example, I love to give duo recitals, whether it's with my friend Ann Murray or with Angelika Kirchschlager, whose natural spontaneity I just love. Here, for a spectacle like La Grande Duchesse, one is carried by the Minkowski/Pelly team, which is like a family.
What binds you to them?
First, the fact that we love Offenbach's music and want to serve it as well as possible. I like Laurent Pelly so much because he trusts me and always finds solutions that are suited to me. And he doesn't hesitate to go against the music, which creates a more interesting tension than if the direction says exactly the same thing as the score. As for Marc, he tries to make the score clean, in order that we can hear the music as if it were the first time. He is interested in the color of the words, and even in what is unsaid, the subtext. His tempos, it's true, are often very quick, and he is not easy to follow, but that also creates a positive tension: you always have to be on your toes, and the finales of the acts are so exciting!
I guess that the immense success of La Belle Hélène encouraged you to take on a new Offenbach role?
If I remember correctly, it was at the end of the first production of La Belle Hélène, even before the first revival, that Jean-Pierre Brossmann brought up the idea of another work. La Grande Duchesse is really very different: impossible to make a copy of the preceding work. It is both more and less funny. It makes fun of war and the corruption of power, which really pleases me. The end is crueler, and my character is not very sympathetic, which I don't like as much: I need people to like me!
What draws you to Offenbach?
First, at this stage of my career, it's about doing something completely different, after all these Marschallins. Mind you, I adore Richard Strauss, without him I would be unemployed! But it gets harder and more painful to tell Octavian to go look elsewhere. And then when I look at myself in the miror at the end of the first act of Der Rosenkavalier, what I see is not very pretty. As for the Four Last Songs, I have sung them a lot but when you're not getting any younger, those immense phrases sung in a single breath don't happen by themselves! Not to mention those conductors who drown you under an orchestral wave you can't compete with.
Oh, no! When I sang Der Rosenkavalier with Carlos Kleiber, whether it was in New York, Vienna, or Tokyo, I was never covered by the orchestra! I told him that I would really love to sing the Four Last Songs with him, but he answered that they were completely unsingable. What a wonderful man! You were really hypnotised when he was at the podium, and at the same time he was so funny and gentle. I often write to conductors to tell them that I loved working with them: he is the only one who ever wrote back. I must have thirty-some letters and postcards from him. I won't receive any more. I also like Armin Jordan very much: he is such a sensitive musician and funny, too! He preferred to renounce a more prestigious career because he wanted to be surrounded by those he loves and who love him: I am the same way. And I adore Bernard Haitink, too, with whom I made my début at Glyndebourne 27 years ago. It's the only audition I ever went through, and it was a success. I think he got it over with quickly because he hated auditions, just like me. I pulled off Ann Trulove's high C from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, and that was enough. Still, it wasn't "pretty pretty." It's never "pretty pretty," anyway.
You sing some roles, including in Offenbach, in which we are used to hearing heavier voices. Is that a problem?
It's a problem if I try to puff up my voice, to force the volume in the middle range. When I was working on the Marschallin, I went to consult with Georg Solti, who was so nice. He told me something very simple: "Don't try to do it like other people, sing it with your voice. You envy other sopranos for qualities you don't have, but tell yourself that plenty of sopranos would love to sing like you." That makes you confident. Just like when I met Denise Duval, who premiered Poulenc's La Voix humaine, and she said that she loved my interpretation of that work. Can you imagine: Denise Duval!
See also Manon Ardouin's review (Une superbe Grande-Duchesse!, October 5) for ConcertoNet.com.