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 Interview, Raphaël Pichon on Libertà!

Raphaël PichonThe French conductor Raphaël Pichon and his ensemble Pygmalion have a gift for drawing up innovative, illuminating concepts for their recordings – their discography includes a hair-raising journey to hell and back via Rameau and Gluck with baritone Stéphane Degout, and the Opus Klassik Award-winning Stravaganze d’Amore! which explores the development of opera at the court of the Medicis. Their latest album is no less intriguing, crafting three pasticcios from music which Mozart either composed or was inspired by during the early 1780s in the run-up to his transformative encounter with Lorenzo Da Ponte, who would provide the libretti for the three great operas Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni. As readers of our monthly Editor’s Choices may recall, I was pretty blown away by the results, so I arranged to have a chat with Pichon about how the project took shape, and why he considers this period in Mozart’s life to be so significant.

What inspired you to focus on this relatively fallow period in Mozart's career, and what's the significance of the album's title?

A few years ago I spent a year focusing on the Mozart letters, and I really wanted to discover and understand this transition between Die Entführung aus dem Serail and the birth of the dramma giocoso. I was very surprised to discover that although Mozart didn’t write any new operas between Die Entführung and Le nozze di Figaro, it was a period of intense change in his life: there were so many important meetings with people, as well as the move from Salzburg to Vienna. This period was really the period where Mozart made a clear and committed decision to be free: to be free from his father, to be free in his musical convictions. There are a lot of anecdotes about all of that, but what emerges is a clear conviction that he needed to find, pursue and win his own liberty, and that he needed to become even more of a man of the Enlightenment – he shared so many philosophical aspects of this new wind which was blowing in the late eighteenth century, and his Masonic initiation in Vienna in 1784 was just one element of that, as was his hunger for a new sort of relationship with a librettist. That’s why this period is so crucial, because eventually Mozart will be become the one able to embrace all of these themes and also all of these experimentations in terms of the musical language which continue all the way up to Die Zauberflöte. For musicians and musicologists it’s not the most significant time in his career because there’s nothing really substantial in terms of completed compositions, but for me it’s the actually most important period in his life.

You enlisted the help of the musicologists Pierre-Henri Dutron and Vincent Manac’h to reconstruct and upholster a lot of the music here: does the idea of commissioning and recording a full-scale completion of any of these operas appeal to you?

No, because to me it was more interesting to identify what are really the highlights of these pieces; I’m not convinced that the level of quality and intensity was sustained throughout the works, but in places you can really feel where Mozart thought that he was touching something, and for me all the extracts here illustrate that. It’s also a question of words: the libretti of L’oca del Cairo and Lo sposo deluso are really bad! That’s the main reason why he stopped working on these pieces - and if he stopped, then I’m not sure it’s a good idea to try to continue. But I do think we need to recognise that some of it is fantastic music: it’s really transition-music between Idomeneo and Die Entführung, it’s full of all sorts of experimentation, and for me presenting all these extracts in a montage is more interesting than reconstructing something that Mozart himself didn’t feel was achievable.

Do we know very much about Mozart’s own feelings towards these uncompleted works?

Yes – in his letters to his father there are references to his collaboration with Giambattista Varesco on L’oca del Cairo, and we see how happy he was when he started work on certain scenes, but also that he was very shocked at the naivety and ridiculousness of Varesco’s proposition for the finale. What I think is the most interesting thing here is the conviction that he wanted something but he hadn’t found the right person to give it to him until that crucial meeting with Lorenzo Da Ponte; even the start of their relationship wasn’t great, because the first libretto that Da Ponte offered to Mozart wasn’t particularly good, but once they met properly the chemical reaction started and finally something new was possible. When we get the first glimpses of that something it’s already so distinctive – for instance in the finale of L’oca del Cairo we see a sort of fresh, sparkling excitement that will eventually come to fruition in Le nozze di Figaro.

How did you come up with the idea of organising the three ‘montages’ on the album around the subtitles of the three Da Ponte operas - La folle giornata, Il dissoluto punito and La scuola degli amanti?

It was really clear to me as soon as I started thinking about the project in the context of Mozart’s letters: during this period Mozart saw a lot of operas by his contemporaries, and when you read those letters you see how horrible and vicious he could be about other composers. He essentially says that all the other new music’s rubbish, but there are three exceptions: Soler’s Una cosa rara, Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Salieri’s La scuola de' gelosi. When I discovered that, I found that in each of them there was a sort of prefiguration of the three great operas which Mozart would go on to produce with Da Ponte: in Cosa Rara we meet the first Don Giovanni of the Classical era, and the libretto of La scuola de' gelosi (which premiered in Venice) was rewritten by Da Ponte for the 1783 revival in Vienna and foreshadows Così fan tutte. And the Paisiello, I think, introduced Mozart to the real shock of Beaumarchais and the idea that he could explore political ideas in his works, so of course there’s a kind of premonition of Le Nozze di Figaro there, and once you get going you start to see all sorts of connections. After that I just tried out this idea of making a mosaic out of these pieces, and hopefully injected a sense of drama on the recording to give it more life and coherence.

Did you work on crafting a narrative and characters for the singers, or did you approach the repertoire as concert-music?

I spent a lot of time thinking about the dramaturgy; I also thought a lot about the tonal relationships and about the musical narrative, because it was really important to me to create something that was pacey, coherent and rich. The conditions were fairly standard in that we recorded over about a week, but as most of the singers are people I know quite well I was able to introduce the project to them all a few months beforehand so that they could start to develop their ideas before we started rehearsing. Once the structure of everything was really clear, we went into rehearsal and spent a lot of time talking things through so that the singers could work on the element of interaction between them, especially for all the ensembles. We didn’t want to try to be hyper-real and actually stage everything: it was more a question of getting the perfume and the atmosphere right, so it was really helpful for them to introduce detail into the dramaturgy of every chapter.

Do you have plans to perform or record the Da Ponte operas now that you’ve spent time focusing on their immediate predecessors?

Definitely – there’s nothing confirmed yet, but I think it will come quite soon. It’s been incredibly helpful and so exciting to have taken this time to explore the background to those pieces in such detail: I feel very lucky that with Bach and Rameau, too, we had the space to do that work before starting on the real masterpieces.

Sabine Devieilhe (soprano), Siobhan Stagg (soprano), Serena Malfi (mezzo), Linard Vrielink (tenor), John Chest (baritone), Nahuel di Pierro (bass-baritone); Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon

Libertà! was released on Harmonia Mundi on 30th August.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC