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Jacques Lacombe: The conductor of the Royal Opera House's Tosca talks to Colin Clarke (CC)

Jacques Lacombe

I arrive at the Royal Opera House,Covent Garden with the sounds of the previous night’s Tosca still ringing in my ears. A high-profile cancellation by Deborah Voigt had added a certain frisson to proceedings, as eyes and ears were certainly going to be focused on the replacements, Angela Gheorghiu and Nelly Miriciou. I’m there, however, to interview the conductor, the Canadian Jacques Lacombe.

Arrangements by the ROH are smooth and slick. Someone meets me at the Stage Door on Floral Street, Covent Garden, escorting me to a small and cozy room set within offices to await the Maestro. The wait is short - mercifully for my nerves.

Two things strike me immediately about Jacques Lacombe – first, his youth; second, his eyes. Conductor’s eyes: communicative, alive. There was no doubting from the aural evidence of the previous evening that the Covent Garden orchestra likes him. I am anxious to learn Lacombe’s history, his path to Covent Garden, his plans and, most importantly, more of his “take” on Tosca.

Before we get to Tosca, I ask about Lacombe’s path to conducting? “That’s a funny story. I came to music fairly late. I studied music seriously when I was 11, first piano (for a year – an accident because my family moved into a house where there was a piano in basement) and then I became a member of a boys’ choir; then I played organ. I always wanted to make music with people, though, and with the organ you feel kind of isolated so I started with chamber groups. When I was 18, I was appointed music director of the boys’ choir I was a member of, and that’s how it started. Then my organ teacher – I was very gifted at the organ, I did my master’s degree when I was 18 – opened my eyes to becoming a conductor, and I studied conducting, first of all in Montreal and then in Vienna (Hochschule). In Montreal, my teachers were students of Hans Swarowsky and Österreicher, and that’s why I decided to go to Vienna. Vienna is a great conducting school (the teaching was very good, especially for technique) but also because you had access to the orchestra almost every week so I was able to do a lot of repertoire with them. That’s one aspect of it – the other of course is the city itself.  For students, when you don’t have a lot of money, you still can go to events. In my first year in Vienna, I went to the opera 85 times. The first time I did the “rush” tickets it was Maria Stuarda with Baltsa, I got first row centre seat of the royal box or the equivalent of five dollars. This all gives access to art and culture to young students. I learnt a lot from that. You were able to see all the greatest, and also you could sneak into rehearsals at the Musikverein. That was big for me – now you need so much money.”

Opera is important in Lacombe’s life and I wanted to know what was first opera he conducted and when? “The very first opera I conducted that was with a chamber orchestra in Montreal and I must have been 20 or so. It was Pergolesi’s La serva padrona. Then, my first job was chorus master and assistant conductor at the Montreal Opera and as part of my job I got to conduct one production a year – first was Fledermaus, then Hoffmann, Zauberflöte and Werther.”

I point out that those are quite mainstream but that I also noticed he has conducted Hérodïade, Sapho (both Massenet), Der Traumgörge (Zemlinsky) … I mention Sapho in particular as I personally adore Massenet opera (“I would love to do it again, it was fantastic”, says Lacombe). “I also did an opera I would love to do again, because I find the story very strong – Vanessa by Barber. I did conduct the French premiere of that, in one of the smaller houses in France, Metz, where I was Music Director, but I think a couple of months later either Montpelier or Monte Carlo also did Vanessa with Kiri te Kanawa, so that got a lot more attention. Even more than 20 years after it had been composed it had never been performed in France.”

Looking at Lacombe’s biography, the past few years show his operatic career taking off in no uncertain terms (Met debut 2004; in 2007, debut at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin). Was this a conscious career development or did it come on the back of some particular success in the opera house?

“I’ve never had a plan of my career really, because at the beginning I always felt that music chose me rather than I chose music, and, touch wood, I have never had to look for work. I’ve always been busy doing stuff that I like. With the Met, for example, I was making my Paris debut with the Lamoureux Orchestra at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in the December and I got a call from my manager that Plasson was due to conduct Werther at the Met, and he cancelled and they needed someone for the week after, so I made myself available. It so happened that Werther was the opera I had conducted the most often in my life up to that point, in Montreal, in Philadelphia, in Metz, in Liège, so I knew the piece inside out so it was good timing. And that’s how it started with the Met and right after, Deutsche Oper heard about it and I made my debut there with Pelléas (John Mark Ainsley was Pelléas, Véronique Gens was Mélisande and Tom Fox was doing Golaud for the first time – incidentally, one of the great Pelléases around now is also from Quebec, Jean-François Lapointe). I have a great relationship with the company there, with the orchestra and they invite me every year to do a production, mostly with German repertoire which makes me happy because I don’t want to be typecast as a French conductor. I love the French repertoire – and I am French-Canadian, but I love other repertoire, too, and my background is more to do with German music - we already discussed my period in Vienna.

So I am lucky to have this balance, There was also a time in my life when I did quite a bit of symphonic music in the interim between Dutoit and Nagano with the Montreal Symphony, so I did maybe 20-25 programmes a year with them. I try to find a balance between operatic and symphonic performance. It depends on the season. These last couple of years I have done quite a few operas. In years to come I think it is going to be more balanced, and I think it is more healthy to be that way.”

I comment that they are different types of conducting – opera is more symbiotic, perhaps. “But I find that it helps me. For example, if I were to work only in the pit, I’d be afraid that my conception of the sound of the orchestra, the way you work with the orchestra, might not be as in depth. When you work with the symphonic repertoire you have to focus on a lot of details, and I tend to bring that to my work in the pit. And vice versa: my work with singers also influences my way to conduct a symphony orchestra because the singers’ music is ultimately based on the human breath. I’ve always been fascinated by the voice – early on I was in a boys’ choir, then I was also an accompanist (I did a lot of coaching with singers) so I’ve always been close to singers, and I like that. Plus, another passion of mine is theatre so in an opera I find this nice combination. My hobby, whenever I have time, is going to the theatre.”

And let’s face it, Tosca is pure theatre, and that is my cue to start discussing the present ROH production. Inevitably perhaps, I start with mentioning Deborah Voigt’s cancellation, resulting in not one, but two Toscas, Angela Gheorghiu and Nelly Miricioiu. Gheorghiu sang the role here back in 2006 (MusicWeb attended a performance with the “other” Tosca for that run, Catherine Naglestad). You’ve worked with Gheorghiu before, haven’t you?. “Once before, two years ago, we did the World Premiere of the opera Marius et Fanny by Vladimir Cosma in Marseilles (Cosma is mostly a film music composer). We connected very well from the very beginning, as I also did with Roberto (I’m going to work with Roberto next year in concert in Monte Carlo). So of the leading roles of this Tosca, Angela was the only one with whom I had worked previously; I knew Marcello [Giordani] - we met at the Met, but we were involved in different productions. Bryn [Terfel] I met once after a concert he gave in Montréal, but this was the first time I was working with both of them.”

Both of your Toscas are Romanian … perhaps more importantly, two different people reacting in different ways to the part, albeit same conductor and same production. How does this effect the dynamics of the performance, especially at such short notice?  “We’ve been rehearsing for two weeks and I have been rehearsing with both. I knew Angela before, as I said, and she is musically and vocally totally different from Nelly. They are both very credible Toscas but they bring out different aspects of the role and the orchestra is such a fantastic instrument, so flexible and they listen very well so there is this great rapport between stage and orchestra. I am looking forward to tomorrow night (the first night with Miricioiu). It’s going to be very different, and I guess this keeps the spark in the performance. I’d say it is probably a bit more challenging for the other soloists; from an orchestral point of view it is part of the process. On the theme of changing casts, in a past life I was a ballet conductor I’ve worked with the Royal Ballet, and with ballet you have that all the time as you work with more than one cast and they can be very, very different. With the ballet, the orchestra can’t tell them apart (the only thing they hear is footsteps), so the conductor has to react. I’ve done performances with no rehearsal at all - not an ideal situation - and sometimes the magic happens.”

I remark it was very clear from the first night of Tosca that the orchestra liked him. One thing that struck me was the level of orchestral detail I heard. The orchestra was incredibly well-disciplined; against this there was an unstoppable momentum. How do you keep that momentum going? “There are a couple of things to be said about this. First of all, I like to work closely with the stage director in a production. There is nothing more boring than to see a production in which something that is already stated stage-wise is over-stated by the music. If the message is strong enough from the visual point of view, you don’t need to put quite as much emphasis on it musically, and vice-versa. I always try to find this balance in a production. For example, the Act 2 confrontation between Scarpia and Tosca where he says “Ebben?” and there’s a pause. The way Bryn was looking at Tosca, it felt that we could stretch the pause a little bit, and that’s what gives the timing of the performance and what makes it exciting and believable from the musical point of view and the theatrical point of view. The other thing is that in Puccini the orchestra is very often a character in the piece, so the orchestra will carry the melody and the singers are there to deliver a few words. One of the dangers with Puccini is that all the scores are pretty precise and I find that sometimes people have a tendency to over-state what the music already says. I always try to find the long phrase. Think of the beautiful theme when Tosca first arrives. If you are not careful, you almost want to stop at every bar to enjoy the moment, but it kills the phrase. And I discovered over the years that by fighting this tendency you get the long rhythm out of the score and that’s how I’m trying to work on these scores”. I suggest that is quite a modern take on Puccini … having Sinopoli in the back of my mind, although I didn’t say so, mainly because Sinopoli’s script was overtly deconstructionist, and Lacombe’s isn’t. “It’s a combination of things. There are also traditions that are valuable in parts, but from my experience, not only with Puccini but with music in general, we have to go back to our first impressions of a piece. The problem is when we do a piece that we have known a long time, the rubato that used to be tiny is now much extended. If your body, your soul wants that excitement, it doesn’t get it with the old amount so you add more – it is like adding salt to your food; or, if you drive a road you don’t know very well, the first time you are cautious, but after 15 years of the same route you’re going to speed up. You always have to go back to the origins of your first impressions using the knowledge and your experiences of the piece”. So it’s like a clean-up operation? “Indeed”.

I was very impressed by Bryn Terfel’s Scarpia. (“What a presence, huh?”). I mention the DVD with Chailly from Amsterdam (Decca 074 3201) – on both occasions, Terfel was evil incarnate. “What I think was very good about the performance last night was to have these three superstars, three of the top people to sing these parts right now, and you felt that there was such a strong chemistry between them. I felt they were really putting their talents to the service of the performance. This is what makes this job exciting and for the audience to come and see that is really worth it. With Bryn, it is true that he is not in life a Scarpia at all. On stage, he brings to the part both class and vulgarity. Of the three characters, Scarpia is the most fascinating. There are so many aspects to this character. I find sometimes that performers have a tendency to put him in a little box and say ‘that’s what it is’ – with Bryn, it has a lot more nuance to it, a lot more facets. At our first rehearsal, Terfel was right on the money, he knows the score inside out. He’s a very precise artist but also very intense. When he needs a moment to express something, then you want to give it to him. These moments will probably vary from performance to performance.

I mention the implied sexual tension in the production between Scarpia and Tosca. “Which way can it go?” as Lacombe put it … “…  and again we go back to the first time you see Tosca, if you haven’t read the synopsis beforehand, ideally when you go and see an opera, you shouldn’t know how it is going to end, and to have a moment like that when you just have a doubt, that’s interesting”.

The production was fairly mainstream - no alien spaceships, no post-nuclear war setting …. I’m curious to know Lacombe’s views on modern productions. “It depends on the piece. As a generalisation, in North America, the tendency is to be very conservative in productions, and sometimes for my taste a little too much so. It can be a problem to audiences, too – when people expect a candle, they want to see a candle. But theatre, in my opinion, is also to do with the imagination. There are operas that are very strongly linked to a particular period, so you want that. In Europe, particularly Germany in the last fifteen years, the tendency has been to be, to my taste, too provocative, just for the sake of being provocative. I am not sure it serves the interests of the opera ultimately. But, I did a production of Ariadne auf Naxos in Berlin, a repeat from Munich, produced by Robert Carsen. It is what could be described as a modern vision of Ariadne but it worked from beginning to end. It’s very strong and credible – in Berlin we had 15 minutes standing ovation. The production tells the story – there is nothing that distracts you. I have to say though that to an extent artists and stage directors are allowed to take chances, and sometimes it might not work, but when it works it is very exciting and it brings another aspect to the work. So it depends.”

I grab my chance to bring Wagner into the conversation – Wagner seems particularly afflicted by hyper-imaginative stagings. Lacombe conducted his first Wagner, Holländer, at the Deutsche Oper. Is Lacombe a Wagnerite? “I am coming more and more to him. Wagner I studied quite a bit when I started conducting, partly because my training was mostly German. But I want to do it one step at a time. I think this is type of music that has to grow on you for years. Now I am contemplating Lohengrin in a couple of years. And Richard Strauss, of course. He’s one of the composers I saw the most works by in Vienna, and I was quite happy to do this kind of repertoire with the Deutsche Oper.

“Zemlinsky was a discovery for me. Traumgörge, quite frankly I didn’t know much about it before being asked to do it and found that this is a wonderful score – what an orchestrator!” I refer to a Zemlinsky vogue a decade or so back - including EMI recordings by James Conlon, but also concert and opera performances, for example Es war einmal …. there was also ROH double-bill of Zwerg and Infantin I remember. “Unfortunately, today we have to fill houses. It’s hard. When you do opera like that you need either a big name as a director or a big name singer, plus it takes time and energy; and, for a singer to learn a part like Görge, it’s a killer, extremely long and vocally very, very difficult, and a singer might only sing it once.” I point out that ENO recently took a risk with the Saariaho’s L’amour de loin, so all is not lost.

Will Lacombe be returning to the Royal Opera House? “I hope so. Last night was my first night here and people seem happy and I seem to have a great rapport with orchestra and with the company. It is one of the top companies. You came here and you have a team behind you and I find the company’s spirit to be very healthy”. I point out that’s how you can get the feeling of an ensemble, like last night for example, despite the fact that these are jet-setting stars and a feeling of house ensemble is more associated with ENO. “The support system puts the artists in the best conditions possible to perform and to work as a team which is what Stephen (Barlow, Revival Director) and myself achieved. ‘Let’s go do this and have such fun doing it’ was the ethos. And to have this at this artistic level! – first class chorus and orchestra, and the kids were amazing. Very good”.

I know of Lacombe’s history with the ballet (for 12 seasons, he was Music Director of ‘Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal’), and I ask about this aspect of his activities. “My schedule is planned two or three years in advance … and ballet conducting might be the most difficult thing to do. To this day it is still perceived as being a lesser musician that is associated with ballet. Either you have good conductor who doesn’t know about the dance, or vice versa. So, I’ll see. With the right repertoire, I am not opposed to the idea, but it is the sort of thing where one can easily be typecast. Recently, I did Beethoven Nine with four ballet companies, inspired by Béjart and Karajan. It was a one-night thing, but a very powerful show.”

To end on a light note, Lacombe relates a story that he made his debut with the Edmonton orchestra five years ago – on his honeymoon! “I have a very understanding wife”, he says, possibly something of an understatement. Of Canada in general, he says that “we have quite a few world-class singers. It is important for any nation to have people who are leading the way” … as indeed, is Jacques Lacombe.

Colin Clarke

The remaining dates of Tosca at the Royal Opera House are 11, 14, 16, 18 July 2009

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