Christophe Rousset – ‘’Every style is perfect in its own way’’

IRSSWhen I saw that the International Rameau Ensemble Summer School ( ) would be featuring Christophe Rousset this year, signing up didn’t take much persuasion.


A brief background on Christophe (more detailed information can be found on the website of Les Talens Lyriques ): he first made his name as a harpsichordist with a recording of Rameau’s flamboyant Pièces de Clavecin, and then championed the works of François Couperin and Domenico Scarlatti – music that is courtly, worldly, ebullient and laced with discreet eroticism. Rousset subsequently formed Les Talens Lyriques, an ensemble dedicated to performing some of the more flamboyant operatic and orchestral works from the 18th century. If, like me, you were fortunate enough witness the collaboration between Les Talens Lyriques and Ann Hallenberg bringing Farinelli’s vocal pyrotechnics to the Wigmore Hall last May, it will have gone down as a concert never to be forgotten.

Let’s face it, the opportunities to go and see French Baroque opera performed in the UK are rare, however with Sarah Connolly bringing Charpentier’s Médee to ENO, and featuring recently in Glyndebourne’s production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, attention to the beauty of this French repertoire does seem to be on the increase, and rightly so.

My current Baroque repertoire focuses mainly on Handel, Bach and Gluck. As a native French speaker, widening my range of repertoire to include Rameau and Lully has always been of interest to me, yet tackling it is a very different kettle of fish; the ornamental styles and expected performance practises are significantly different, as is the feeling when singing the music. With so many stylistic uncertainties, who else would’ve provided a better source of guidance than Christophe Rousset?

During my 30 minute open masterclass on Thursday, I took the Phèdre’s aria “Cruelle mère des amours’’ from Hippolyte et Aricie by Rameau. The aria opens Act 3; Phèdre (who harbours an illicit love for her stepson, Hippolyte) is bargaining with the Goddess Venus and imploring her to make Hippolyte receptive to her feelings.



French vocal music is about text. The text and the music are serving the libretto, so it’s not about singing, it’s more about the declamation;

  • Why are you singing – what is the intention?
  • Why do you stop? Use your pauses to allow the audience to witness development of thought.
  • Do you allow anyone else to talk?
  • Show your engagement to the music prior to you singing; your impulse to sing must be in response to a sentiment.
  • The words should be expressed more than the ideas themselves.
  • You must be constantly active /engaged, whether vocally, or in thought.


‘Playing’ sadness is weak. A character may be rejected, angry, bitter, abandoned, and vengeful – but sadness should be avoided because it is a ‘flat’ adjective.

  • Make clear what emotional state you are in.


Directly translated as ‘unequal notes’, it reflects the conscious distortion of the rhythm from its written values.

The main function of notes inégales was to grace passages, most of which are melismatic in character i.e as a form of embellishment for passages that are primarily step-wise and predominantly legato. It was not used to tamper with the essence of the melody, but more as a means of emphasis and embellishment. These ‘notes inégales’ were rarely notated, yet it was expected that the singers abide by this practice (or alternatively, it was written predominantly in the instrumental lines, but never in the vocal line – to allow the singer the freedom to select which sections they would apply this practice to).


This practise was so much a part of the manner of playing in France, that playing in an equal style was often indicated by vertical slashes over the notes, staccato marks, slurs over more than two notes, or the word marqué written under the music.

I found singing in this style a revelation, and such a helpful tool in emphasising the text one step further without feeling bound by what is printed on the page.


  • French music is about text, declamation, grammar, theatrical gestures and of course the inventive 18th century dances in Rameau; invest in ensuring you fully understand the historical, musical, and theatrical aspects to the opera before you even attempt the individual arias.

The two day course culminated in an evening concert of pre-selected operatic scenes and chamber ensembles – a perfect way to put into practise what had been so thoroughly and enthusiastically explained by Christophe, leaving us all looking forward to applying these new skills to our personal repertoire.

I look forward to seeing what the IRSS have planned for 2016/17!

(Photography credits to: )