Summer in Amsterdam seemed to have taken a vacation, but the afternoon we met in the canteen of the National Opera it was terribly stuffy. That did not seem to bother Jennifer Larmore in the least: the warmer the better!
She had come to our capital to sing Gräfin Geschwitz in Alban Berg’s Lulu, a role she has sung previously in London and Madrid, in a production by Christof Loy that I greatly admired.
The opera is brutal, and her role is heavy, but she had little time to recover. In between performances she was studying the part of Mère Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. The extremely complex part of the rather unsympathetic and radical nun was new to her, and she was totally immersing herself in it, even though there was only one performance scheduled.
“That is a bit of a shame, because I think the music is gorgeous, and the opera truly moves me”, she says. “I have absolutely no problems with learning a role for only one performance. I have done that before, when I was recording for the Opera Rara label. I studied many unknown operas knowing I would never sing them again afterwards. But I was young and curious, and highly ambitious.”
The rehearsals were long, and the recording sessions always ended with a one-off concert performance. What pleasure they gave me! Besides, without those recordings, I probably would have never gotten the chance to get to know operas such as Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra or Pacini’s Carlo di Borgogna, let alone sing them! And the music is gorgeous!”
“Di Gioia Sorse Il Di,” aria from Carlo di Borgogna. When Opera rara brought out this recording opera connoisseurs called it the ‘belcanto recording of the millennium.’
“Quant’e grato all’alma mia,” from Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra.
In the meantime, Larmore has left the period of singing (unknown) belcanto roles behind her. “It was time to close that chapter. Once you are over forty, you are no longer a young girl. Simple as that! Even though your voice still sounds youthful, and you still sing very well: it no longer works, you need to be credible as well, and remain credible.”
Larmore as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Amsterdam:
It has always been my biggest dream to sing Marschallin in Strauss’s Rosenkavalier. I think the music is incredibly beautiful – Sometimes I secretly think it is the most beautiful opera in the world. It’s a role I definitely would love to sing. So… who knows? For Octavian it is simply too late. That is the same story as with the Rosina’s and all the other belcanto heroines: I no longer have the proper age for them.
“Does this perhaps have something to do with the visualisation of opera?” “Most certainly! The new media and the live movie-theater transmissions have given an extra dimension to the brand opera: credibility. It is no longer possible to sing Mimi when you are 65 like Mirella Freni did, even though your voice is still fresh. Looks are important too, especially with all those close-ups all the time.
Lulu, Loy and Kentridge
The part of Geschwitz took Larmore a very long time to prepare. What was more difficult for her: the text or the music?
“Good question! When I first laid eye on the score I thought: O my God, I cannot do anything with that, how awful! But you need to find a key for yourself. Once you connect with the work, everything goes by itself, you no longer have doubts. Then it is possible to concentrate more on the text, and you start to grasp the entire package.”
“I still remember my first Lulu rehearsal in London. We all had our doubts. Very nervously, I asked: has anyone sung this before? A huge silence followed. Then someone said: ‘Not me.’ and ‘Me neither.’ We all stood there, in a circle, afraid for what was to come. Until Tony Pappano arrived and reassured us with one hand gesture.”
“It is difficult to compare both Lulu productions. I love both of them. From the reviews I read, and from what I heard from people who saw the Amsterdam Lulu too much was going on on stage. There was too much to see, apparently, it was too busy, and because of that it was hard to recognize the opera. It did not feel like that to us. We were right in the middle of it, and formed part of the furniture.”
“William Kentridge is of course a director who in the first place is visually oriented. He is mainly interested in the outside, the form, and in stimulating the senses. As a director, he gave us a lot of freedom, also to improvise, which I like.”
“Christof Loy had a totally different approach. For him, the psychology and the motivation of the characters were the most important. Also the interaction. He is a person who knows exactly what he wants, and how to get there. It is true that with him the personality of Geschwitz was clearer. You found out more about what went on in her head.”
“But I love the Amsterdam production as well. We have all worked on it with so much fun. Conductor Lothar Zagrosek was also responsible for that atmosphere. He joined us at a very late stage, two weeks before opening night, but from day one on he worked intensively on the production, with the orchestra and the singers. He attended every rehearsal, and was always there. I had never worked with such a great, kind and understanding person before.”
“Another role I am very happy with is Kostelnička in Janáček’s Jenůfa. It is very emotional role, remarkably similar to Geschwitz. Both women are deeply humane, and their love is so great it surpasses all boundaries. They really go too far in that! I believe for both parts you need someone who has lived a life herself. That type of role gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
In 2008 my husband Davide Vittone, who plays the contrabass, and I founded the ensemble Jennifer Larmore & Opus Five. By combining the sound of my voice with that of five string players we can experiment in different ways.
At our concerts we do everything: from purely classical concerts to ‘happenings’ with poetry, wine tastings, popular songs, crossovers…. Everything is possible. We perform all over the world: Dublin, Bregenz, Mallorca, you name it. It often depends on Davide and his contracts.”
Trailer of the movie Le digressioni armoniche di Jennifer Larmore, in which a performance by Jennifer Larmore & Opus Five is combined with a choreography of Erica Cagliano.
“I am studying hard at the moment! In the 2016/7 season I will add two new roles to my repertoire: Donna Elvira (in Don Giovanni) at the Theater an der Wien and Marie (Wozzeck) in Geneva.
After that I will repeat my Geschwitz: the Amsterdam production will travel on to the Opera di Roma in May. But first a concert in Tuscany with Jennifer Larmore & Opus Five and then off to Luxembourg for a week of masterclasses. My book Una Voce will be presented there as well.”
“I was asked for the role of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Aix, a production that will travel to Amsterdam afterwards, but the director decided otherwise. Simon McBurney, who will stage the opera, came up with the idea to use a countertenor for the part, something with which the Aix direction saw no problems.”
“Nowadays directors have all the power. It used to be singers who had the final call, but that was way before my time. It is a sign of the times: tickets have to be sold, and halls need to be filled. That seems impossible without creating a little spectacle. We live in a society that is highly oriented towards the visual, wanting more and more all the time. As long as it is sensational or crazy, because only then you get attention. Things have been like that for a long time, but never as much as now. I prefer the “less is more” approach, which you hardly encounter anymore these days.
English translation: Remko Jas
Interview in Dutch: JENNIFER LARMORE