La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Véronique Gens

Ambassador of neglected French music

Benoit van Langenhove
Reading time
5 min.

The soprano Véronique Gens is a regular on our stage. She made her debut here as Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni) and then performed Iphigénie (Iphigénie en Aulide), Roi Gaële (Alceste), Vitellia (La clemenza di Tito) and, most recently, Madame Lidoine (Dialogues des Carmélites). She is also a passionate interpreter of French mélodie.

After a remarkable portrayal of Madame Lidoine in Dialogues des Carmélites at La Monnaie, you are returning for a new recital on February 11th 2019.

It’s a recital devoted entirely to French mélodie, a repertoire that is sufficiently rich to cover all the variations in atmosphere. I want to avoid performing the umpteenth version of universally-known song cycles like Banalités and La Courte paille. I prefer to go off-piste, off the beaten track, so first of all I turn to Reynaldo Hahn, an all too little known composer whose exceptional qualities and variety of songs I really relish. There is also music by Gounod, the melancholy of Duparc, the lightness of Massenet who isn’t perhaps as profound as Duparc – which makes it difficult to fit him into a recital programme – but who has a charm all of his own. So as to send the audience home in up-beat mood, I round off with the popular La Fontaine Fables, which were wittily set to music by Offenbach. I assure you, French mélodie is so rich in itself that it is quite unnecessary to add songs by Schubert or Schumann, which I have been asked to do on occasions.

Your programme also includes a song by Prince Edmond de Polignac, better known as the husband of one of France’s greatest patrons of avant-garde culture than as a composer trained in Munich and Paris.

The ambiance of his Lamento, to a text by Théophile Gauthier which was used by Berlioz in Les Nuits d’été under the title Au cimetière, is so special that each time I sing the composition it takes the audience by surprise. At the request of La Monnaie, which will shortly be staging the opera Robert le Diable, I have also included several pieces by Meyerbeer. But that takes us back to the lighter sphere of romance and ballades, and that means I have to be mindful again of the balance between the composers. You can’t place Meyerbeer alongside Duparc.

Before contacting you, I re-read La Mélodie et le Lied by Rémy Stricker (1975). It seems to me that in that period French musicology rated the mélodie less highly than the Lied.

And yet French mélodie is full of beautiful things! Many scores have since been published but they are rarely if ever performed. I am once again drawing on an experience I had back in the 1990s with the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, where baroque music that was gathering dust in libraries was rediscovered. I relived that process with the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice, whose research into French romantic music put the spotlight back on music that had not been sung since the nineteenth century.

Did you put this programme together with the Palazzetto Bru Zane?

No, this is the result of research I carried out with my loyal pianist partner Susan Manoff. First of all we work separately and then we get together to try things out and decide what gives us the most pleasure to sing and play. Susan Manoff’s interest in the repertoire of the mélodie goes back a long way and she has a well-stocked library on the subject.

© Franck Juery
Does this recital have a theme?

It’s all to do with the desire and pleasure of researching and interpreting a whole variety of things.

So do you feel more like a narrator-poet or a singer?  

Not entirely one or the other. It is half and half. I don’t sing recitals to display brilliant vocalism or to perform bel canto. I look for something more intimate, something simpler, I look for an immediate rapport with the audience. I stand on the stage to tell a story through sublime texts written by great French poets. And Susan Manoff’s piano playing helps create the ambiance for me to do that.

At the time of this interview you are rehearsing Berlioz' Les Troyens at the Opéra Bastille directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. Can you tell us something about that?   

No (laughs), except that it is something grandiose.

And after that?

I will continue in my role as the ambassador of neglected French music. I have lots of recitals scheduled. In March I am singing the role of Donna Elvira directed by Antonello Manacorda at the Wiener Staatsoper, in May I am at the Bozar for an Armide (Lully) with the Concert Spirituel led by Hervé Niquet. And I am looking forward to the freedom and joy of Jacques Offenbach’s comic opera Maître Péronilla which will be at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in June. It will then be recorded for Bru Zane.

You love walking in the cities where you are working. What are your favourite places in Brussels?

Now that I am working here, I don’t just explore the city at random, but I always like going along to the Sablon to visit a famous chocolatier, for example, and to the Saint-Hubert galleries. And in the restaurants I can never resist the real Belgian soups.