The Sweet Immediacy of Massenet

The Sweet Immediacy of Massenet

The French conductor makes his debut at La Scala, working on the music for a piece in which the world of Goethe is seen through the lens of Massenet


Alain Altinoglu, music director of the Monnaie in Brussels, makes his La Scala debut with a pivotal title of the late 19th-century French repertoire.


LC Getting straight to the point, how does a conductor like you, who has already conducted the world's greatest orchestras, feel about making his debut at La Scala?

AA What can I say, La Scala is a legendary theatre! We all, everywhere, have always known about La Scala and its history. So, happy and excited to be here, of course. Additionally, I feel very curious, a desire to learn about and enter this place where the greatest conductors have passed, some of them French. I think of Georges Prêtre, for example. I also think of the coincidence that Prêtre is a conductor I have met and worked with, and he was the one who conducted Massenet's Werther the last time it was staged here at La Scala, in 1980. And now the baton passes to me: how could I not be excited. Also, because I think my role as conductor here, in Milan, is above all to convey something of the "French style,” how French is played, sung.


LC French style, certainly, especially with a masterpiece like Werther. But then where do we put Goethe? I ask because one of the usual criticisms of this French repertoire of the second half of the 19th century is that it "exploited" the great masterpieces of European literature (Faust, Hamlet, Werther)but drastically simplified them. What do you think of this? That in any case the music compensates, bringing a different level of complexity, or even that Massenet's Werther is something completely different from Goethe's, but equally brilliant?

AA I think the level of complexity of an opera like Werther also lies in the meeting of two worlds: the German world, of course, but seen by the French. Kind of like what happens with Bizet's Carmen, where there is the Spanish world but filtered through the French gaze. In particular, Massenet is a composer who is very careful to adapt his musical vocabulary to the setting of the librettos and their sources. For example, when he wrote Thérèse, an opera about the French Revolution, he introduced a harpsichord in the orchestra, so in Werther he let the allusion to the German setting shine through the writing, which is rich in chromaticism, in other words, through what was at that time an unmistakable representation, since it immediately brought Wagner to mind. Another level through which to look at the opera is then the strong resonance between the story of Werther and Massenet's personal life at that time, the crisis in his relationship with his wife, his extramarital affairs, and perhaps, more generally, his recognizing himself in a certain painful energy, in certain melancholic traits of the protagonist. So much so that he was very displeased that at first his opera was not to be performed in France, perhaps also because of the German matrix of the libretto (after all, there was bad blood between France and Germany at that time).


LC What do you love about Werther?

AA The psychological insight of the characters. And then the dramaturgical effectiveness: the way in which the story evolves, through a play of tensions, distensions, sudden twists, which makes the dramaturgical journey very well constructed, a bit like the great Verdi. As for psychological introspection, for me, for my French mind, ultimately what I love is that kind of simplicity (which does not mean simplification), that immediacy that Massenet always manages to extract: feelings that go straight to the heart.


LC Speaking of the two worlds, French and German, you directed Massenet's masterpiece at the Metropolitan, with Jonas Kaufmann as protagonist, who approached the role from the perspective of radical German romanticism: Werther the loner, the nihilist, the déraciné.

AA Of course, Jonas (Kaufmann) is German! During rehearsals at the Metropolitan, he and I talked a lot about these aspects, naturally, and it worked out great. Here in Milan, on the other hand, there will be a wonderful French-speaking interpreter, Benjamin Bernheim, and, just as naturally, it will change something in the spirit of the character. The role of a conductor is also to support, to help the different singers, whether it's Jonas or Benjamin. You know, it's kind of like when you conduct Werther in New York rather than in Milan or Paris or Berlin. Orchestras are different, too, and we conductors must keep in mind the colours that the musicians offer and then try to be as close as possible to what Massenet wanted. This is all the more true with singers.


LC So, the image of the character is built through the interaction between the performer and the conductor. So, continuing the web of interactions, what is your idea of the relationship between conductor and director?

AA Here at La Scala I will be working with Christof Loy for the first time, and I am very happy to be able to do so. Because Loy is a director who respects the libretto (although it is a bit funny to say this today, we have more and more directors who ignore the composer's wishes), who really wants to adhere to the libretto and who is very interested in the psychology of the characters. I am sure that, together, we will build an important collaboration between musical direction and staging. Also, because Loy is very attentive to my observations (if I say a singer is too close or too far away), or in other words, how much proxemics affects the musical performance.


LC At the same time, however, Christof Loy is a director who puts a strong personal stamp on staging, who believes that directing is primarily an interpretive act.

AA Of course, and rightly so. To be more clear, when I talk about adherence to the libretto, I don't mean keeping the same period of setting, or literal adherence to the captions. None of that matters. I mean respect for the relationships that exist between characters. To be clear, you cannot do a Traviata in which the soprano is alive at the end and the tenor dies, or a Carmen in which it is Carmen who kills Don José. Respect the relationship between the characters, what they say and the feelings they communicate to the audience. This is important. After that, you can do all the transpositions and changes.


LC I see. And what is it like working with a director like Romeo Castellucci, with whom you staged the first two parts of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Monnaie?

AA Romeo's is a symbolic type of creation, because it does not work on the psychology of the characters, but leaves them with an image. It works well with Wagner's theatre, for which a new imagery must be found from time to time. This is what I like about my work: to change method, to change approach in the relationship with directors, depending on the type of repertoire addressed.


LC Let's go back to Massenet. We know that in French opera, at least since Gounod, there is a rediscovery of the intimate, deep relationship between music and the sonority of language. This French language, so different from Italian, with its weak accents, its fluidity, the richness of its nuances. How do you work with singers from this point of view?

AA It is very important, fundamental work. Especially considering that Massenet is one of the French composers who is most attentive to the music of language and precise in indicating how he wants a given phrase, or single word, to be pronounced in the score. Massenet's desire was also very much felt by the French audience. In fact, we might say that France is the country where the sound of language matters most.


LC “The grain of the voice,” as Roland Barthes said.

AA Exactly. After that, in this Scala production of Werther, I work with two types of singers. There are the native or French-speaking singers who pronounce French very well, like Benjamin, as well as Jean-Sébastien Bou and Rodolphe Briand. But then I have foreign singers, with whom I don't work in the same way because first we must fix the big picture and then we get into the details, trying to get their pronunciation as close as possible to the French.


LC Lastly, I would like to ask you about your multiple activities. You are the artistic director of the Theatre La Monnaie, you conduct in major opera houses, but you also devote yourself to the symphonic repertoire, you address contemporary opera, as well as vocal chamber music. How do these different experiences fit together?

AA It takes a lot of organization to hold all these areas together, but I can no longer imagine my professional life without the operatic or symphonic repertoire, especially now that I am also the conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. As for chamber music, opera is full of chamber passages, just think of Werther and the many moments of single instrument emergence. Moreover, working permanently in both Belgium and Germany allows me to get to know the sounds of the different orchestras to the fullest. For example, Belgium is a country between France and Germany, at first, I did not know if there was a "Belgian" sound, then I found out that it is really a middle ground in which the strings are not as compact as in Germany, but neither are they light...


LC What about the orchestra par excellence in Italy, that of La Scala?

AA You can hear it right away when the La Scala Orchestra plays. It is unmistakable in the way it phrases, the way it "attacks" the sound. This is also why I am really excited to work here in Milan, to see how we can bring this wonderful Orchestra together with French music.  I'll give just one example: Massenet knew Italian very well, he lived in Rome for two years, in Villa Medici, and in Werther there are several passages with a verse pattern reminiscent of Puccini; however, these passages should not be played "Puccini-style," but as French music. At the same time, if it is right to bring the La Scala Orchestra together with French taste, it is equally right if not more important to maintain and enhance the identity of each orchestra, especially in this time of globalization.


LC So the "grain of voice" applies to everyone, one could use it as a metaphor for the will to not give in to homogenization.

AA That's right, the grain of the voice!

Laura Cosso
An expert on 19th-century French music, she has devoted two books to Hector Berlioz, of whom she is considered one of Italy's leading specialists. A professor of stage art at the Milan Conservatory, in recent years, she has devoted herself to opera directing