Emmanuelle Haïm conducts her own orchestra Le Concert d’Astrée and plays the harpsichord in the production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, directed by Calixto Bieito. While this is her debut as a conductor at Dutch National Opera, she is already quite familiar with this opera house.
Text: Bo van der Meulen
“Before I started conducting, I played harpsichord in Pierre Audi’s Monteverdis — in L’Orfeo with Stephen Stubbs and L’Incoronazione di Poppea with Christoph Rousset. Later, I was a musical assistant. But it is my debut as a conductor with my own orchestra.”
Now you’re doing Handel’s Giulio Cesare, an opera that exists in many different versions. How do you decide which version of the opera to perform?
“I know Giulio Cesare like the back of my hand as I’ve conducted the opera many times before, in David McVicar’s production in Glyndebourne, at the Lyric Opera Chicago and in Lille and Paris with stage direction by Laurent Pelly. I have also recorded a CD with the soprano Nathalie Dessay with all Cleopatra’s arias in all possible variants. There is no such thing as the canonical version of Giulio Cesare. Any opera, certainly a Handel opera, is constantly being adapted. That was already happening in Handel’s day, depending on which singers were available, which musicians and which theatres — and that’s still the case. People have decided there is something called an ‘original version’. But that applies to every work, and there have always been different versions; changes have always been made to suit the current situation. So there isn’t really any such thing as a single original version.”
“In this DNO production, as is often the case, the version was largely determined by the casting. When you opt for certain singers and voice types in certain roles, as we did by choosing a mezzo-soprano rather than a tenor for Sesto, then your version has essentially been decided for you. Arias that could be sung by Sesto and are now sung by Cornelia, so in a higher vocal range, determine the choice for the two singers. Is this a production with an alto (male or female) singing Nireno or a soprano Nirena? These are all considerations that affect the version.”
So no matter how often you conduct Giulio Cesare, it will always be a different Giulio Cesare?
“I always take a fresh look at the text and the musical notes. Whenever I perform a work I’ve done before, I examine and study it as if I’m seeing it for the first time. I start from scratch with every work. Even if you know a work really well, you go through the recitatives again and determine your understanding of the scene this time round, and so on.”
“For this production, I toyed with the idea of coming up with a completely different version, one in which all the music is used. That’s perfectly possible these days, in our modern world. But it also has consequences. The production would be so long that you would need two intervals, you’d have to start earlier and you would have to consider the option of a long dinner interval. These are artistic, dramaturgical and logistic considerations that I went through together with Calixto Bieito.”
Do you continually return to some kind of urtext, the original manuscript? Do you go to the British Library for example to consult the autography and study new aspects?
Laughing: “I don’t need to go to the British Library as I’ve got the manuscript at home! For each new production, I try to collect as much material as possible and to see and read as much as I can, after which I decide on a version. Then you have to look at what people you have this time, who you will be working with. If you have a Cesare who is a real virtuoso then he should sing that aria, or if the singer is very flexible and the director wants to do something special on the stage then you adapt the tempo. If you can see all the options in the material, you know what changes you can make.”
People talk about historically informed performances and updated performances; does this production belong to the second category?
“I always say you need to know what impact the work had on the audience of the day, what excited and moved them. That is what you need to find out. I always work with a group of experts who know everything there is to know about performance practices for Italian opera in a certain period, for instance, experts on the violin during a particular period and experts who know about engravings that can give us information. You then find out for instance that they often used two harpsichords. But you also learn about the approach to phrasing, to playing and above all to how people were touched emotionally. And there is so much more: where did the orchestra sit or stand, where was the conductor? It turns out the conductor stood in a completely different place and there was a very different relationship between the singers and the musicians, between the stage and the orchestra pit. We can’t simply recreate such circumstances in a modern-day theatre. To do that, you would need an authentic theatre like Drottningholm (in Stockholm), not Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam.”
“But also knowing that most of the singers at the time of Giulio Cesare were Italian — even though the opera’s premiere was in London — tells you something about how they sang the recitatives: it was very natural for them. All this information is really important and helps us find a new truth for the present day. What matters to me is the sound, which should be as historically accurate as possible, but that’s perfectly possible in a modern production.”
Could you give an example?
“The questions at the heart of Handel’s oratorio Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno concern whether we humans should strive for beauty, power and wealth in the here and now or whether we should focus on eternal beauty and the true, divine wealth that awaits us after our death. Those are grand, abstract questions that are appropriate for an oratorio and the period in which the work was created. In our production (which was presented at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2016, ed.), the director Krzysztof Warlikowski opted for a modern-day interpretation of these questions. They became topical questions about our obsession with appearances, beauty and its importance. In this way, he made the oratorio relevant and comprehensible for contemporary audiences, but the music remained historically informed.”
“In 2015, I did a production with Guy Cassiers for Opéra de Lille of Cavalli’s Il Xerse, in a version that was created in France for the marriage of Louis XIV, with ballets performed to music by Lully between the acts. Guy asked very different questions. Why did the French want an Italian opera about a Persian king with French ballets for their king? His production became a political one, but with a particular interest in the connections between different cultures.”
What are you expecting from the collaboration with Calixto Bieito?
“I have never worked with Calixto before but I know a lot of his work. I trust him. I can’t say much yet about the production. Of course there is a concept, but a lot will be filled in during the creative process. That’s what often happens — always, in fact. I always start a production full of confidence. You need to function as a team and create something together. The key aspect for me in this process is sharing and feeding one another.”