Soprano Veronique Gens will shortly be singing the role of Madame Lidoine in Olivier Py's production of Dialogues des Carmélites at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées. Sincerely and vivaciously, she tells us about her character, her love of French repertoire and her desire to keep placing herself at the heart of artistic discovery. As an artist, she is generous, engaged, enthusiastic; as a woman, she is intelligent, thoughtful, accessible. She always gets straight to the essentials, ensuring, above all else, that she has been properly understood, which echoes the character of Madame Lidoine as well as telling us something about her ideal of what a singer should be.

Véronique Gens © Franck Juery
Véronique Gens
© Franck Juery

Pierre Liscia: Tell us about Madame Lidoine. What is it about this character that attracts you?

Véronique Gens: It's an immense pleasure for me to sing in this opera. The role of Lidoine is fantastic and the whole work is admirable. There are so many things happening in this marvellous music, particularly touching when you consider that the Carmelites existed in real life. I find portraying Madame Lidoine fairly complex, because apart from an introductory scene which was added by Olivier Py (it isn't in the original opera), she comes on stage in the middle of the opera, at the heart of the dramatic events polaying out, which isn't what I'm used to. After a first act which is extremely tense, heavy, Madame Lidione brings to the Carmelites her simplicity and humanity. She's a country woman, she's got a bit of a rough edge, but she is never pretentious. And she starts off talking about cooking, about rosemary... She brings a ray of sunshine at a point where the revolution has already invaded the convent. And of course, I love the tension that grows between Lidoine and Mère Marie [performed by Sophie Koch], who, in contrast to Lidoine, comes from the nobility. It's the music that creates this tension, particularly using the difference in register between the two characters. In his staging, Olivier Py has succeeded in turning this tension into something really interesting.

What was Olivier Py's part in your understanding of the character and her worldview?

Olivier is a wonderful colleague. I have to tell you: the moment when the director explains his concept to the singers is rarely the high point of our work, but with him, it's completely different. People don't know this, but he's Jesuit-educated and a very pious person. In Dialogues des Carmélites, therefore, he really knows what he's talking about.

Is this revival made special by the fact that we've been talking a lot about religion and martyrdom in recent years, given the tragic events in the news?

The revival has been in the plans for a long time, but clearly, it's arriving at a crucial point. Recently, religion and martyrdom have been at the centre of debate. Consider the last Scorsese film, Silence, which is an upsetting film on the subject. But deep down, I think that Dialogues des Carmélites is a timeless opera. For sure, the French Revolution is certainly present, but it's more of a background canvas. Bernanos wrote the libretto at the end of the 1940s, and the revolution really wasn't news any more. That's what makes me think that we're talking about something bigger, more universal.

Véronique Gens (Madame Lidoine) in the Olivier Py production © Vincent Pontet
Véronique Gens (Madame Lidoine) in the Olivier Py production
© Vincent Pontet
You've said that “the music and the words are 50-50” for you. Do you approach a role differently when the libretto has such a literary quality?

Not at all. Whatever the score, what matters most to my approach is to be properly understood. Of course, it's very important in the Dialogues because the text is so powerful and beautifully written, but at the end of the day, the text is always fundamental. You can't touch the audience without it! I'm sure you know that when I started, I did a lot of baroque. There are a ton of learned treatises of the time explaining how to pronounce correctly one vowel or another. It can get obsessive to the point where you end up tearing you hair out, but I have to admit that – even in repertoire as far from the baroque as the Dialogues, it helps a lot.

A few years ago, you said that Lidoine was an excellent opening to other roles, such as the Marschallin or Desdemona. Do you have any plans for these?

I was supposed to be singing Desdemona in Vienna last year, but I got ill a few days before the première. I was really upset, because I'd worked very hard on the role, all the more so because it was a revival, and in Vienna, revivals only get a few days of rehearsals.

As for the Marschallin, I'm going to be singing some excerpts from the role in concert, but I can't say any more for now. Up to now, I've often sung the same repertoire. I started with baroque, but I've sung a lot of Donna Elvira, Viitellias, the Countess Almaviva. Today, I'd be more than happy to do a more diverse set of roles.

So will you stop being a Mozartian?

You can never really stop being a Mozartian? That said, aside for a few more Elviras, in general, yes – that period is somewhat behind me. As I've told you, the baroque was very important to me. At the time I started, it was still considered a kind of second class music, and it was a real thrill to be part of the public ressurrection of baroque music, with musicians like Les Arts Florissants, Christophe Rousset, Jean-Claude Malgloire. There was a certain logic to the transition from baroque to Mozart – there was a level of continuity. Today, I'm better known as a singer of French music, but that's not really under my control!

You're very involved with the promotion of French repertoire. What is it that attracts you about it?

Mainly, it's the language. Look at the poets whose words have been set by French composers: Baudelaire, Verlaine, Apollinaire. The beauty of the text really is a constant feature of French melodies. Maybe I'm still influenced by my years singing baroque, where you start to learn works by understanding the text. In any case, singing this music gives me huge pleasure. Of course, it's not straightforward to create programmes consisting solely of French music, often because people forget the wide variety that the repertoire contains. With the incredible variety of colours that Poulenc, Massenet, Gounod, Reynaldo Hahn bring to each of their scores, you can make some amazing programmes.

After Néère and Visions, would you like to devote more recordings to French song recitals?

Susan Manoff and I were thrilled with the way Néère (our 2015 recital CD) was received. The Gramophone Award was really a nice surprise, which has encouraged us to go further. So there is another CD on the way: it's also a recital of French songs, but it includes some lighter material like Gounod, Massenet, Henri Duparc, Reynaldo Hahn.

How do you go about deciding the programme for these kinds of recitals?

It's simply whatever takes our fancy! Even if programmes are difficult to turn into reality, Susan and I know that when it comes to recording them and playing them in concert, we're going to get great pleasure from them.

Playing French music for pleasure – doesn't that force you to take it down from its pedestal?

Absolutely, but that's exactly what's needed! French music is in no way the preserve of an elite, precisely because it brings the listener into atmospheres which mean something to you immediately, no matter who you are. And there's always this lightness, such refinement. Of course, Schubert also writes extremely refined music, but French songs have this kind of subtle, soft melancholy which is peculiar to the genre. At the same time, it's music that speaks to everyone: just think of Poulenc's Banalités, where the composer is having fun with the nature of Parisians. It's with these kinds of work that you have to fight the wrong-headed idea that this is elitist music. I think we shouldn't just sing French vocal music, we should have fun with it.

In June, you'll be going for Faust, a heavyweight of 19th Century French repertoire. But it's going to be in very specific circumstances...

It will be my first Marguerite! I wouldn't have been able to do it without musicians with whom I'm really at ease [Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques]. And yes, it will be a pretty special Faust, in the original version recreated thanks to the work at the Palazetto Bru Zane. I'm particularly interested in a number of spoken passages that only exist in that version.

And besides, the collaboration with Bru Zane should carry on, since a new CD is in the works. We don't know much more ourselves yet, but it's on the way!

What matters most to you about this kind of rediscovery work?

I love the absolutely freedom that we get when we're approaching these works, because there simply aren't any pre-existing recordings to act as references! Of course, we adhere strictly to what's written in the score. But that's always direct: you can understand straightaway what the composer is after. It's with that same immediacy and sincerity that I want to communicate with audiences.

Madame Lidoine's sincerity, possibly?

The dress rehearsal for Dialogues happened yesterday, and we were all on the brink of tears. It's music that grabs hold of you, that you feel close to, and I'm so fortunate to be part of this adventure. You only get to do productions like this every ten years!

 

Translated from French by David Karlin