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June 3, 2011 8:44 pm

The pull of the past

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Christophe Rousset in his Paris apartment with the François de Troy portraits

Christophe Rousset in his Paris apartment with the François de Troy portraits

I have barely crossed the threshold of his Paris apartment when Christophe Rousset urges me to view two of his most recent acquisitions. Before me is a pair of early 18th-century portraits by François de Troy; the first depicts a courtly gentleman with a cold stare, and the second a woman who, with coy pride, displays a copy of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s score for Armide. The pages are open at Act V; the notes – and this, Rousset explains, is most rare – are clearly legible. “I had to have it,” he shrugs. “And look at this,” he says, pointing to a spinet with an inscription dated 1573, “feel the keys.” I touch the smooth strips of boxwood and notice that four and a half centuries of finger work have worn a soft indent on each.

We are in Rousset’s sitting room, a modest space crammed with extraordinary artefacts: rows of leather-bound books and scores, antique prints, early keyboard instruments and – rather incongruously – a small, cosy-looking bed belonging to his cat, Hermione. Many of these treasures stand as a testament to his interests and achievements as a conductor, harpsichordist – and archaeologist, of sorts.

Since founding the baroque ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Rousset has blown the dust off numerous composers who have, for too long, been overshadowed by Handel, Vivaldi and Mozart. Alongside early French repertoire, Les Talens Lyriques have especially championed the work of Niccolò Jommelli, Tommaso Traetta, Leonardo Leo and Nicola Porpora, composers associated with the castrati schools in and around Naples during the 18th century.

At 50, Rousset is hardly in the first flush of youth, but he remains at the forefront of a daring new generation of baroque interpreters: puckish and spry, he is known for his style and lyricism, and for his part in bucking a trend for historically informed performance that had obsessed many of his predecessors. This is not to suggest that Rousset is in any way shallow or unthinking – indeed, his initial impulse is often cerebral. Last December, Les Talens Lyriques gave the “modern premiere” of Bellérophon , Lully’s 1679 tragédie lyrique, written in flattery of Louis XIV’s military prowess, in the Opéra Royal at the Palace of Versailles; Rousset had been prompted to produce his own edition of the score after chancing upon first-edition manuscripts in a Paris bookshop.

A fascination with history drives many of his projects. “Having a time machine, like this spinet here, makes me dream,” he says. “That’s why I chose the harpsichord – it was this idea of diving into the past.”

As a child growing up in Aix-en-Provence, Rousset was in thrall to the city’s architectural splendour and inspired by the baroque operas he saw at the annual Festival d’Art Lyrique. A demanding child, he found focus at his grandmother’s piano and began harpsichord classes at 13, but he claims his future career had as much to do with chance as ambition. “When the Russians entered Afghanistan, people were talking about a new world war. I remember all the students in my school were asking what you would choose to do if you had to die in two years – that’s adolescence,” he laughs, “and I thought, hmm, I think I’d prefer to study music.”

So he studied the harpsichord, first at La Schola Cantorum in Paris, then at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, before his talent caught the attention of Christopher Hogwood and William Christie, who remain two of the most eminent baroque conductors. At first Rousset was content to play an unglamorous continuo role within Christie’s ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, but his interest developed to the point where, in 1991, he decided to create his own group.

Since those early days, Rousset has continued to perform as a soloist and conductor. Both roles will be marked by two debut concerts at this month’s Aldeburgh Music Festival. In the first, Rousset will present pieces for solo harpsichord by Handel and François and Louis Couperin; in the second, Les Talens Lyriques will be joined by sopranos Céline Scheen and Eugénie Warnier for François Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres, an intense vocal series written for Holy Week.

A touring concert titled Hommage à Farinelli is another highlight of this year’s anniversary programme. It acknowledges the huge exposure that Les Talens Lyriques enjoyed as a result of their involvement with Gérard Corbiau’s 1994 film, Farinelli. This biopic of Carlo Broschi, the 18th century’s most famous castrato, captivated modern audiences – not surprising, perhaps, given the lure of celebrities and sexual oddities. “I was not the first conductor to be approached but I was young enough to explore this crazy idea that Corbiau had of blending two voices.” To recreate the androgynous sound of a castrato, they superimposed a female mezzo voice on to a male countertenor.

“It’s impossible to know what a castrato sounded like,” Rousset says. “All we know is that if Handel had a problem with a castrato he would choose a female voice over a countertenor, and that’s my attitude in general.” I mention the eerie 1902 recordings of Alessandro Moreschi, who was known as the last castrato. “Yes, but he was old and not the best anyway, it just reminds you of an old woman singing.”

Les Talens Lyriques will revive two more forgotten operas this year: Antoine Dauvergne’s 1671 Hercule Mourant at Versailles in November and – perhaps more significantly – Domenico Cimarosa’s Il marito disperato at the Teatrino di Corte di Palazzo Reale in Naples in December.

I know Rousset will not disclose what other works he has up his sleeve so I ask what he still hopes to find. “I would love to discover the six remaining Leçons de Ténèbres, because we know Couperin wrote nine and we have just three. Then there’s L’Arianna, of course, the missing Monteverdi opera, but there is still a lot of Neapolitan music to be discovered and enjoyed,” he smiles. “I can still pull out some rabbits.”

Christophe Rousset presents a programme of solo harpsichord music at Blythburgh church on June 14; Les Talens Lyriques perform at Aldeburgh church on June 19; www.aldeburgh.co.uk

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