Hervé Niquet discusses Grétry’s opera, Richard, Coeur de Lion with Colin Clarke

Hervé Niquet  (c) Julien Mignot

Opéra Versailles’s production of Grétry’s Richard, Coeur de Lion recently was a great success (review click here). The morning after the first performance of the run, I meet Hervé Niquet in an achingly cool hotel in Versailles. Open and friendly, he is an interviewer’s dream.

I point out that it was the freshness of the performance of Richard that was so impressive ‘We all need this,’ says Niquet. ‘Richard is a strange piece because yes, it could be comedy, it could be theatre with music around, it could be opera with comedy around, but it’s a musical from Broadway, really. It’s for everybody. This composer is a genius, he knows how to touch the audience with noble music and with popular music, and with dance. So, for me it is a musical. Grétry’s music needs very good singers, but also singers who are actors. So, I try to find young singers who know how to do both: some principals have more text than song. It is strange, like a musical sometimes, a French musical.’

The music of Grétry fell out of popularity, and I wonder why? After all, it was at one point so popular that Tchaikovsky referenced Richard Coeur de Lion in Queen of Spades (the Countess’s aria) ‘It is a question of fashion,’ Niquet says. ‘Also, it’s a question of editions: we have much music by Grétry that is not written out in parts. We think that in composing opéras comiques, Grétry is not a great composer, he is just for fun. But many years ago I did Andromaque, which has a text by Racine [issued on the Glossa label]. It was terrific. So many think Grétry is just bergerie, just for fun, but he was a very famous composer, a really musically rich composer, and he composed many pieces. Now, he is not very well known. I think it’s a question of fashion because I have many composers like him, so I am not surprised. We have a lot of work to do for 500 years of music, so why not begin with Grétry?’

Why not, indeed. We know that Grétry went to Rome in 1759, remaining there until 1767 (he actually left on New Year’s Day of that year, travelling on first to Geneva, thence to Paris). I mention that I heard, predominantly, a thoroughly French sensibilité in Richard. Hervé Niquet has this to say of Grétry: ‘He is like a good jazzman. He travelled a lot, he met many people, he needed to get money, so he needed to be in vogue, but he also needed his own personality to be recognised like every composer of this period. So, like people in the fashion industry, who must be in fashion and recognised, it’s the same for composers. He also caught many details in life to put on stage so there are many influences, but he has his own style, his own stamp.’

Niquet has much praise for Grétry’s compositional skills. ‘We look at the score and we could think it’s easy music. Because it’s really well organised rhetorically, for example. The organisation is really boring if we get 4-bar phrases; here, if we have a dance, we have maybe 5 plus 4 or 8 plus 1. All the time, so never is it easy: this man knows how to catch an audience, to ensure they don’t sleep.’

‘As far as the orchestra is concerned, it’s a small orchestra, pairs of horns, trumpets, oboes – no clarinet – bassoon, flute and strings. That’s all. But through this small ensemble you have powerful, incredible sounds – the storm, for example.’

‘In terms of structure, to build atmosphere, many people told me he is boring at the beginning of pieces. But he builds this dramaturgy, this rhetoric. So, we begin with “O Richard, o mon roi” suddenly after a pastoral tune; but then you have an expanse of some 90 minutes. It’s really well built, with the colour of the orchestra completely different for each of the principals, all achieved with a small band. This man is very good!’

For the Versailles performance the orchestra was arranged around Niquet in the pit. ‘It’s historic. I do it at Versailles all the time. At the opera house, the orchestra can all look at the stage and the conductor conducts the singers. I had singers behind me, I was in the middle.’

As regards the production, the director Marshall Pynkoski’s contribution to the programme booklet was very clear that this was not a museum piece; it also mentions that he references the Ballet Russes and Les Sylphides. Which takes us back to Broadway, it turns out. As Niquet puts it, ‘Richard is a musical for Broadway or London. Pynkoski comes from Toronto, and we know that all the people in Toronto want to be New-Yorkaises. So, for me, Marshall is exactly the right person to do this musical because he admires the music of Broadway and so on. We don’t need an intellectual stage director from Germany with black curtains and no light because there is a “message”.’

Hervé Niquet stresses that dance is an important part of Richard. ‘We are here in that period where the Baroque dance finished and we begin with petit pas in Russia, so we are in a strange ten-year period, dancers were more flexible in Classical dance than Baroque. So why not?’

Not only that, it is an early example of a ‘rescue opera,’ and one of the most famous – probably the most famous – of those is Beethoven’s Fidelio. And here in Grétry’s piece, we have a character named Florestan, and a significant person in need of rescuing. Beethoven wrote a set of eight variations for piano on ‘Une fièvre brûlante’ from Richard in 1785 (WoO 72). ‘Beethoven took one of the principal themes but didn’t know that it is a very popular, ugly, sexual song originally. So, people knew this song; it’s part of genius to approach the popular people, they know the melody. Don’t forget that this opera was played more than 1500 times in Paris alone during the 19th century. A big success.’

Hervé Niquet is many things: conductor, singer, archaeologist, historical musicologist. And he dares to follow his intuition about these pieces. ‘We don’t know if Richard is a comedy, a dramatic piece, a tragedy, so there is danger. And Laurent [Brunner, director of the the Opéra de Versailles] knows that there is danger, and that I like strange pieces and I am ready to be in danger. If it was a disaster, we did it; I don’t care about my career from that perspective. I find completely unknown pieces of French repertoire, it’s one of the reasons he asked me. There was a risk’. As it turned out, all four performances sold out.

The great news is that the performance will be recorded for CD and video for release in the Château de Versailles Spectacles series, already a veritable goldmine. That sense of exploration is key to Niquet and his relationship to music. He was the first conductor to record a Rossini opera on original instruments, the one-act farsa comica, La cambiale di matrimonio.  ‘A very old recording, more than 20 years now.’ Style is very important to Niquet, but that does not always mean what one imagines it would. ‘You know, it’s a bad idea to think that the singers of the Baroque period had small voices. Do you know how many seats we had in the Salle des Machines, a theatre built in the Palace of the Louvre, built for the for wedding of Louis XIV? 6000 seats.’ Like the Royal Albert Hall, then. ‘Can you imagine that the singers had small voices? No. Can you imagine a small sound from the orchestra? No. For me, a singer is a singer. When you see the principal singers of Rameau and other important composers – they sometimes had very long careers. So, you cannot have a long career without technique. I think we need singers who are educated in the Baroque style. One must control the vibrato like an ornament, like a tool of expression. Poulenc also talked about it. For me, it is just a question of education. We need singers intelligent enough to study ornament or style.

Vibrato, then, is part of the art of rhetoric? (‘rhetoric’ as outlined via the writings of François-Joseph Fétis and Johann Mattheson, for example). ‘What is in the style of jazz – [Niquet sings a jazz line, starting non-vibrato] – so it is the same style in the Baroque. Focus: no vibrato at the attack of the note, for tuning, and vibrato for expression and colour. It’s the same style. If you understand that, you can control it and use big singers.’

What Niquet says next – wrapping up the interview – is both exciting and significant. ‘Through Andromaque, I knew here was a great composer. It was not my idea to go through the Grétry repertoire. But after the performance yesterday, who knows … he is a good guy.’ And there are discoveries galore. One should remember, perhaps, that Grétry wrote a Guillaume Tell, subsequently overshadowed by Rossini’s famous opera, maybe it is time for a reappraisal.

Colin Clarke