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2008.04.03 Le Figaro: The actor sings

The actor sings

Christian Merlin, Le Figaro, 3 April 2008


Translated by Jane Garratt

In the Bastille, the British baritone shows his flair in the role of Wozzeck, which he embodies for the first time.

Born in 1959, Simon Keenlyside is not a star in the eyes of the opera public, however he deserves it more than many others. It is true that for him, artistic integrity is always foremost before media plans and marketing operations. If each of his appearances on stage is an event, it is not so much thanks to his voice (even if his is very noble) it is because his incarnation is a complete work of art. For him, the job of actor is inseparable from the one of the musician.

One saw it in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, becoming the figure of Orphée while assimilating as a dancer the body language imagined by the choreographer Trisha Brown. “It was exhausting but magnificent, but not thanks to me: this is only the fruit of Trisha Brown’s work”, says the British baritone, while obliterating himself behind the interpretation.

One saw it embodied with Britten’s Billy Budd or Debussy’s Pelléas so as to make us forget him completely. Nevertheless, he no longer wants to approach these parts, not feeling himself the age of these roles anymore: “The music that Pelléas sings is the most beautiful of the opera, but the character is monochrome. The human journey of Golaud is more interesting, I am going to turn to him in the future and abandon Pelléas. I want to be the one that says: “That’s enough now” and not to leave this task to the critics.”

A challenge for a light voice.

Today, at the Bastille he approaches the role of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, one of the most beautiful and gruelling in the baritone catalogue: a challenge for a comparatively light voice as his. “It is not so difficult to sing: it is shorter than Don Giovanni, for example, who is constantly registering violence.” Which does not prevent either the fatigue or anxiety: the day before the premiere it is a worried artist that one meets, persuaded that he would be less worried as soon as the second performance. “I studied a lot, but now, it is a matter of throwing myself into the water. The alternatives: to swim or to drown.”

The attraction in the figure of Wozzeck, symbolic victim of all the forms of social and mental alienation that the community of the men is able to invent, is the question: “What is normal? After how much harassment and humiliation does a person crack? And when he does, is he violent towards himself or towards the others?” Keenlyside remembers that aged 17, to earn pocket money, he did the housework in a psychiatric hospital where the prostitutes confined for forty years had become crazy.

At the beginning of Berg’s opera, one has the impression that the madmen are the persecutors, but Wozzeck ends up being sick also. To accomplish this work, dramatic as much as musical, Keenlyside took advantage of the theatrical experience of the producer, Christoph Marthaler: “His intelligence is fascinating. He follows his line but has confidence in the singer: he has fun himself seeing what the interpreter is able to invent, and knows instantly what he is going to eliminate or preserve in the suggestions that I make.”

Simon Keenlyside does not feel out of place in this world of estrangement: a big part of his work is devoted to the recitals of lieder; and poems put to music by the romantic musicians make us finger the line that separates the normal from the strange. “Schumann, Wolf, Hölderlin, Mörike: so many composers and poets have become crazy. They could say the truth but were incapable of living it. They refused the idea that life is a compromise. Like art.”

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