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A Neapolitan Affair: Christophe Rousset and Cimarosa

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Christophe Rousset, born in 1961, is one of the worlds leading baroque conductors. Growing up in Aix-en-Provence he realised his talent as a harpsichordist and has since gone on to become a fine harpsichordist and an ambassador for early opera. This realisation led him to build his own orchestra in 1991 under the title of Les Talens Lyriques, which is taken from Rameau's opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé ou les talens lyriques.

Back in December I caught up with Rousset on the opening night of Domenico Cimarosa's Il marito desparato (The desperate husband) at the Teatrino di Corte in stunning Naples, Italy.

Cimarosa is a baffling composer: Born in 1749 and a composer of the Neapolitan School he wrote over eighty operas in his lifetime, he was hugely successful however his music seems to have been lost in the folds of time and almost forgotten but not in Naples:

Why did you want to do this project and conduct this little-known Cimarosa opera?
I've conducted two other pieces by Cimarosa that I loved and in Naples everything smells like Cimarosa.

Have you had to revise the music?
The Teatro di San Carlo did a production ten years ago and decided to revive it in more authentic state. It's a long opera that has been cut to make it bearable for a modern audience.

And what of the music and language?
It's lovely music - The drama is interesting and the cast sing in old Neapolitan dialect that makes the characters colourful and flavoursome.

We went backstage to snoop at the set and it's a modern staging, how does this affect your approach to the music?
Not at all - I always conduct the music the way I feel it no matter whether the staging is modern or authentic.

Where does your appetite for this repertoire come from?
My taste for archaeology led to my love of this repertoire. Growing up in Provence I had the opportunity to see Roman sites and had a love for discovering unknown treasures. In music I like to discover new repertoire because that is exciting for me - There is no reference so everything is new - you have something create and that's exciting, no matter how difficult.

What difficulties come with these discoveries?
The most striking experience I had was on Lully's Bellerophon: The singers were singing the parts without any drama and so I had to take on the stage director's role and lead the drama in the vocal lines - You have to do the whole thing from zero and take it all on your shoulders.

As you said previously, Il marito desperato is in an old Neapolitan dialect, how does that shake things up? Can you understand it?
Not one singer or the stage director was able to understand the libretto that was written in 18th century Neapolitan dialect which is a lot different to the language we have today. However the music is witty which allows the audience to understand the libretto.

With Mozart and Haydn kicking around, why do we need Cimarosa in the repertory?
Cimarosa, at the time, was more famous than Mozart or Haydn. He would travel to Vienna, Salzburg, and Paris and became famous all over Italy, he was a big star: That interests me - why was he so popular? I try to understand that and I try to make them work again for today's audience. An Italian composer once stated that "Mozart is too melancholic and the really joy of music is in Cimarosa" Not to say that the audience at the time were conscious of Mozart's genius but they preferred the work of Cimarosa - they saw it as more accessible and efficient - It's difficult to comprehend that nowadays because the way we judge a work today is much different.

Lastly, the Teatrino di Corte is a very authentic stage to use; will we see more of this location-specific authenticity?
Naples is full of old, now disused, theatres - I'd love to open the doors.

Christophe Rousset and his ensemble Les Talens Lyriques will be touring opera houses and concerts halls throughout Europe and will make an appearance at the Wigmore Hall in London later on this year