The novella Manon Lescaut by L’Abbé Prévost dates from the 18th-century (it appeared in 1731) and in later times it would prove highly adaptable. In 1949 the distinguished director Henri-Georges Clouzot made an updated film version starring Cécile Aubry and Serge Reggiani and, rather more significantly, in the 19th-century it spawned a ballet by Halévy and no less than four operas. The first two of these – Balfe’s The Maid of Artois (1836) and Auber’s 1856 staging which as a more direct adaptation kept the novel’s title – are, like Clouzot’s film, works that have largely faded from sight. But both Massenet’s Manon (1884) and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893, his third opera) retain a hold in the repertoire, while the work’s continuing appeal to artists was further confirmed by Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude (1952) and by another ballet in the 1970s using Massenet’s music.
But it is Massenet’s opera which concerns us here because, although it is hardly a frequent visitor to the stage, a new production of it is being prepared for Covent Garden by the French director Laurent Pelly. This looks like an attempt to make us more aware of a composer whose standing is higher in his own country than in the UK. Indeed, for all the excellence of his BBC series on Italian opera, Antonio Pappano, Music Director of Royal Opera and conductor of this Manon, is a supporter of French opera. Even if one narrows-down the focus to Massenet, recent seasons at the Garden have offered a production of Werther and a concert version of Thaïs, while Cendrillon, the composer’s take on the Cinderella story, has been announced for next season.
Manon is being played by Anna Netrebko, her presence is a virtual guarantee of full houses. But the artist I am to interview is Russell Braun who appears in the role of Manon’s cousin, the soldier Lescaut. I listened beforehand to the classic recording of Manon conducted by Michel Plasson and was astonished to note the similarities between it and Verdi’s La traviata. Of course the plots are different while the central situation can be thought of as a reversal: where Verdi’s Violetta is a courtesan who finds love and puts her past behind her, Massenet’s Manon is a young girl, no more than sixteen, an innocent who finds love with a Chevalier, Des Grieux, but then allows her craving for society and for riches to lead her into a life of pleasure among wealthy men who take an interest in her. The subsequent story-line finds her drawn back to Des Grieux after the depth of his love becomes clear through his decision to become a monk since life without her has lost its savour. This may seem far removed from the Dumas plot which attracted Verdi but consider these facts: in both operas, the second Act finds the lovers living together and reveals the disapproval of the man’s father regarding their relationship; each opera contains a scene featuring gambling which shows the lovers in conflict; the finale of both works has the title character dying while her lover tries to persuade her that they will have a happy future together. Like Carmen, Manon, despite its dramatic and ultimately tragic story, is described as an opéra-comique, but that’s because these are 19th-century works which include passages of spoken dialogue. There is a touch of this even in the last scene of Manon which encourages one to recall that Verdi, working in a totally different idiom, nevertheless makes his dying Violetta read rather than sing the contents of a letter!
These are issues to discuss with Russell to see if he concurs or not, but to start with I follow my usual practice of asking about his background and the way in which his career came about. In this instance, however, I have no need to ask if music played a part in his childhood because he is the son of the baritone Victor Braun who died in 2001. In point of fact we are talking about two musical households here for Russell is married to the pianist Carolyn Maule who acts as his accompanist and partnered him in a recording of Schubert’s Winterreise. They have two sons now aged thirteen and nine. As for the family in which Russell grew up, the musical connection involved others besides his father: his mother was a mezzo-soprano who gave up a career to look after her children and both an uncle and one of his grandfathers were singers. As regards his own generation, the talent was passed on in a decisive way since Russell’s sister is a jazz singer and his younger brother is also devoted to music, albeit to ‘heavy metal’. “The way that my wife and I are raising our children is that music is an absolute necessity, something in which you need to be educated because it’s part of one’s culture. But I hope that I’m not pressurising them into becoming musicians because it’s really not a necessity to keep the line of Braun musicians going. There’s a wider issue here. Quite often I’m asked why so many singers come from Canada and I think that the fact that it’s a multi-cultural place is relevant. Although I’m not a Catholic myself, I was recently invited by an acquaintance to attend a service in a Ukrainian Orthodox Catholic church. A choir that he had founded was singing the Liturgy and afterwards during lunch they continued to sing all the time. Music in some cultures is just omnipresent. Indeed, I think that one way to hang on to your cultural identity is through music.”
Russell himself was born in Frankfurt and when he returns there with Carolyn in November it will be his first recital in Germany although he has occasionally appeared there in opera and as a concert-singer. “With my father being a singer we moved around a lot and my memories are more of the Munich area than of Frankfurt. Also I have very nice memories of one year that we lived here in London.” This was, however, a lifestyle that would change dramatically in 1982 when his parents divorced and he and his siblings left Europe for Canada with their mother. Four years later, settled in Canada and attending the University of Toronto, the 21-year-old Russell met his wife-to-be. “The first song we did together was that one in Die schöne Müllerin which asks ‘Wohin?’, ‘Wither?’. Looking back that seems so appropriate as our future path followed from that.”
Early on Russell had developed an interest in the arts that extended to painting and learning the piano as well as to singing, the latter being just part of this range rather than something for which by 1986 he had clear-cut professional ambitions. “I admire so much those colleagues who really had to face up to making a choice, but with me it really just evolved. I was asked to join a choir where in time I was given some solos, and that led to my joining another choir so that subsequently as a student needing to earn some money I did it by becoming part of an extra chorus with the Canadian Opera Company. Nevertheless, because of the situation into which I was born, a musical family, I always felt that in some way I would be able to pursue a career as a musician. Between high school and university I worked as an usher in the Roy Thomson Hall and what I heard there while Sir Andrew Davis was conducting was an enriching experience musically. Then when I went to the University I had to give up my outside voice teacher for one of their teachers. In that I was very, very fortunate because the person assigned to me was the wonderful Welsh mezzo Patricia Kern. The way in which she would sing and pronounce the English language was an eye-opener for me. But it also helped that she knew my father very well and thus she aided me in finding my own individual path because she could recognise that I was a different singer and needed to be.”
The family history and the doubts expressed early on by his father as to whether Russell’s personality made him suited for a singing career resulted in a long-time estrangement, but one that happily ended when Russell’s first son was born. Consequently late on in Victor’s life, father and son appeared together in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. I wondered if, paradoxically, this troubled relationship had helped Russell’s artistry by providing emotions and experiences that would give him an extra insight into some of the dramatic roles he has played. “It might have if I were an actor but, while I don’t ignore the need to get inside the character I’m playing, I think that for me it’s even more important to explore the palette of what the composer has seen for us in the character. That’s the first step. As an actor you use your technique in a very different way because what is needed for singing is to achieve solidity and to breathe deeply, and that’s a journey of another kind.”
In looking back on the way his career has developed, Russell pays tribute to the late Richard Bradshaw who was the general director of the Canadian Opera Company and who conducted too. “He was English – very British – and he came from Rugby. He was extremely generous and supportive and would be so helpful in suggesting repertoire for me to consider. I’ve researched my Lieder and my English song, but in terms of opera I’ve been so lucky to have people around who have said ‘that’s going to be a good role for you’. They have planted the seed, and that’s how it was with Pelléas, with The Barber of Seville and with Billy Budd.” At this point in his career he is completely open-minded. He’s just done Britten’s Death in Venice for the first time and upcoming debuts include the roles of Chou En-lai in John Adams’s Nixon in China and of Olivier in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. Other works that he would relish range from Wozzeck to Orfeo. That’s not all. Despite some Donizetti operas and songs by Verdi in recitals (he often shares a concert with his friend Michael Schade), Russell’s CV shows a greater emphasis on French music than on Italian. “In fact I love the Italian repertoire and, as a listener, I’ve had much more emotional responses when hearing Italian opera than from French works. I am delighted to have my first two Verdi engagements coming up, Ford in Falstaff and Posa in Don Carlo. In this respect Simon Keenlyside, who is a friend, is an inspiration for the way that he has branched out into singing such interesting repertoire – but I doubt that I myself could go so far with dramatic roles as he has. Nevertheless I can hear what my father said about that: ‘I was a lyric baritone just like you and one day when your cords are more leathery you’ll go on to sing all the roles that I did’. That’s how he put it, whether or not it was the red wine talking.”
Despite having performed mélodies by Massenet, Russell does not claim to know a lot of his music and in some ways he finds the richness of Manon rather daunting. “The cleverness, brilliance and genius of it are almost overwhelming and in Act Two there are two arias back to back, ‘Adieu. notre petite table’ and ‘En fermant les yeux’ which are absolute jewels.” As for his own role, that of Lescaut, he finds that it is something of a challenge. “When first studying it I was struck by the incredible elegance of the music, but I was also deceived by it because the character is quite brash. I have to find a way of bringing out the man’s vulgarity despite that elegance, to show the ineptness with which when gambling brings him money he tries to play the part of a socialite. He wants to be accepted in society and he wears a spanking new suit and arrives carrying gifts. In the novel he basically sells his sister into prostitution, but Massenet thought that that was just too uncomfortable. So in the opera, Manon is not his sister but his cousin. There’s a lot here about hypocrisy, but in some respects his behaviour is comic and this production although not played for laughs makes no apology for the comic aspects. But if it’s well done the blending of the comic and the tragic can be true to life – just think of Shakespeare’s plays and the comic elements that can be found in Don Giovanni before we are brought to the abyss if only a director has the courage to look for them.”
Part of the interest in the character of Lescaut is that he changes and becomes sympathetic to the lovers in their eventual plight. But this adds to the problems that confront the singer. “It’s always fascinating to play a character who evolves, but in the greatest works you are given key moments to express that. There’s Billy Budd’s ‘I’m strong, and I know it, and I’ll stay strong’ and Barbarina’s brilliant passage ‘L’ho perduta’ in Le nozze di Figaro, but for me Britten and Mozart are the masters of showing that. In Manon the progress is off-stage between scenes and you have no staged moment of reflection in which the development is there for you. This is the exact opposite of a role like Pelléas where you’re sort of nothing at the beginning but can then develop the character bit by bit. Here you have to be fully present from the start in all aspects and finding that is currently my biggest challenge.”
Finally to comparisons: does Manon sometimes remind one of Bizet? “For me Massenet is quite different. Where Bizet is lush and lyrical Massenet is more language-driven. Listening to our wonderful, wonderful orchestra the other day I was thinking about how much articulation there is in our parts. The way Massenet writes tenuto or staccato, or even tenuto with staccato – and sometimes with an accent and at other times without – means that you are constantly asking yourself what it means and what it is that the composer wishes to do with the language. I find that our conductor Tony Pappano is incredible at not letting go of the character of the music.”
And what of that other comparison, the one with La traviata: is Russell persuaded? Perhaps it would be fair to say that he finds the notion engaging but not necessarily more than that. He certainly concedes that the fact that the novella itself existed long before Dumas’s tale is not a fatal flaw in the argument. “My impression is that Massenet’s opera is very different from the novella. For example there’s an integral character, a confidant of Des Grieux, who simply doesn’t appear in the opera. And La traviata was around before Massenet composed Manon, so ... but what is certain is that this piece by Massenet is musically unique.”
- Seven performances from Tuesday 22 June to Saturday 10 July 2010 – at 6.30 p.m., and at 1 p.m. on Sunday 4 July
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera