05 November 2010

Interview: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet on Elektra

In Berlin

The story goes that, with his score for Elektra, Richard Strauss pushed the musical envelope so far that even he got scared; thereafter, he retreated to music that was more melodic and more comfortable. Which is to say that he might as well have written the title role of Elektra precisely with soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in mind. She thrives on a big sing and a juicy dramatic role; at the forefront of the most demanding repertoire, she’s an artist who constantly pushes the envelope.

I came thisclose to riding a bus to Berlin for 32 hours, just to hear her role debut, but I missed out. I have another chance this month, in Geneva, where Jeanne-Michèle performs Elektra again. By now, she’s lived with this music and explored the territory thoroughly, and I asked her to share a bit of her perspective, as a preview. Despite a busy rehearsal schedule, she found time to answer my questions.

In concert with the London Symphony Orchestra, January 2010.
According to The Guardian, her Elektra “rippled with intelligence and nuance” in this performance, which was recorded for release on CD (forthcoming).

WVM: When you first told me you were going to sing Elektra, I was thrilled: the part seems such a good fit for you vocally, dramatically, and even temperamentally, because you’re an artist who really likes to challenge herself. Now you’ve performed the role several times in a couple of productions: has Elektra turned out to be a good fit after all?

JMC: My first serious contact with Elektra was as the Fourth Maid in Spoleto. Deborah Polaski sang Elektra and Helga Dernesch was Klytemnestra (and I use “was” intentionally). I was blown away and terrified that people told me I was a baby Elektra, Elektra-in-training.

The great Helga Dernesch as Klytemnestra

Fast-forward to now. I am in my fourth production and have done two concert series and, I hope, finally have her really in my voice and skin. As you point out, this is a daunting process and will continue as long as I am singing Elektra, I am sure. (And maybe when I move to Klytemnestra, too!) As a singer, I am drawn to the most challenging repertoire and characters. I look to feel them and fill them, change and grow with and through them. Elektra is for me one of the most horrible and rewarding to inhabit. I have come to love her, to want to hold her and make it all better, something that cannot be done.

JMC as Elektra, in Warsaw

To be in her and stay connected to myself, hold onto sanity somehow, is the real challenge. Singing this music requires some emotional distance; the vocal demands encompass everything, save coloratura. Each time I sing her, I get better at feeling my own lines, knowing where to step back and just let the music make the point.

WVM: It’s such a demanding role. How did you prepare for it the first time? Or, to put it another way, where do you start when you take on a challenge like this one?

In Berlin, with Marianne Uhl as Chrysothemis

JMC: Someone recently played a Flagstad interview in which she was talking about her repertoire. She said that just being older and experienced was necessary to sing the big roles. That said, all my life has prepared me for these parts. Years on the stage (it is my 20th career anniversary right now) and years of learning the languages of the late-19th- and 20th-century composers, and loving their music. Then there is just gathering info, the Greek plays, the modern plays derived from the Greek ones, psychology and history (this time Moby-Dick, looking at Ahab and Elektra’s parallels) … it never ends, as you know.

And, for me, soul-searching: finding how and where the psyche of Elektra and mine can meet, or not; how our stories can intertwine to bring her to life. This is not always simple. I spend a lot of time journaling and fiddling on the piano. Then there are the words and notes.

In Berlin, with Alfred Walker as Orest

WVM: Have any of your directors or conductors or colleagues really illuminated some aspect of the role or changed your initial perspective in a meaningful way?

JMC: In colleagues, I have been blessed. I have only done one production in which the director believed the story is only one of hatred and horror with no real interest in the history that brought these characters to their current state, and he was eventually willing to be won over to a more balanced psychological read. Certainly for me, it was interesting to give distance to Elektra’s pain, to just look at her hatred and not her desperation and terror and loneliness.

In Berlin, with Henschel as Klytemnestra

Klytemnestras are, naturally, Elektra’s teachers. From my first stage mom, Jane Henschel, to my current, Eva Marton, I have learned so much from these ladies. Elektra is, after all, Klytemnestra’s daughter, and their routes to “K” inform my “E.” Of course, sharing a stage with Eva is a lesson unto itself. She has been very generous with me and I relish this opportunity to share the stage with her.

In this production here in Geneva, we have a husband-and-wife directorial team, Christof Nel and Martina Jochem. Martina is a psychologist and they have worked with me to play the insecure, childish side of Elektra even more. It is a challenge to balance the big exultant musical moments with this, and it helps make sense of some of the “daring” moments of attack and retreat with Klytemnestra.

Is there a definitive take? I think not, which is one reason this story has been around for millennia. It asks us to address these questions over and over.

In Berlin

WVM: The Ancient Greeks would reenact this story to help audiences achieve catharsis, and I wonder how you as a performer feel afterward: exhausted, ground down, or enlightened, uplifted, or something altogether different?

JMC: In the end, I feel emotionally exhausted, depleted and hungry. Some productions end with exultation, a death with a smile on her face, but this is not one of them. I hope there is a bit of a glow in the final moments when Elektra is lost in the glory of righting her world, that somehow more death and blood will erase the past deaths, but she is her mother’s daughter, and the story just continues.

In Warsaw, with Ewa Podles as Klytemnestra

WVM: What’s next on your schedule?

JMC: I am very excited for this winter. I am finishing the Ring Cycle in Strasbourg, Opéra National du Rhin, with my first Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, then I am singing and recording Erwartung with Ekka-Pekka Saraste and the WDR in Cologne, and finally I sing the beautiful Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleu in Barcelona. Needless to say, I am madly studying and preparing all these new roles, reading reading reading and spending lots of time at the piano. I find lots of joy and exhilaration in the process!

Music by Richard Strauss
Libretto by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal

Christof Nel, director; Martina Jochem, scenic analyst
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; Stefan Soltesz, conductor
Grand Théâtre de Genève
November 10, 13, 16, 19, 22, 25 at 8PM

No comments: