Felicity Lott: Interview
Dame Felicity Lott tells Time Out what it‘s like to play ’La Belle HélÃ¨ne‘ as ’a middle-aged lady‘s dream‘
Every so often the allegedly supercilious French take une anglaise to their hearts: Petula Clark, Jane Birkin, Charlotte Rampling… Another tradition is the Briton who finds her element in French music, notably Debussy’s original fey Mélisande, Mary Garden, whose Aberdonian-accented ‘Je ne suis pas heureuse’, after the pregnant heroine has been dragged around by the hair by her jealous husband, aroused derisive laughter at the disastrous premiere. But Garden became the greatest interpreter of that and other French roles.
Latest in the line is Felicity Lott, though the laughter she arouses is deliberate. She’s been the unexpected heroine of a brace of Offenbach operettas at Paris’s Châtelet. Unexpected because she’s revered for her taste and intelligence in serious roles. Paris has acclaimed her in Strauss – ‘Capriccio’ and ‘Rosenkavalier’ – Mozart, the Glyndebourne ‘Rake’s Progress’ in the famous Hockney sets; and besides the Châtelet she’s sung in every Parisian opera house: the new Bastille, the old Garnier, the Opéra Comique, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.
She regrets that Paris missed her ‘Louise’, Gustave Charpentier’s Parisian working-girl (an acid test for a non-Francophone), whom she portrayed in Nancy and Brussels. She even has a flat in Paris, a commitment emphasising that ‘French audiences are very nice to me’ – an understatement worthy of Mélisande.
And now Flott, as Dame Felicity is affectionately known to fans and colleagues, is back with ENO in an imported Parisian success: ‘La Belle Hélène’, Offenbach’s irreverent take on Helen of Troy. The singer reflects on her unlikely casting. ‘The Châtelet manager approached me; I’d done recitals for him and he said “You should do more funny stuff”.’ Flott’s light-hearted recital encores are something of a speciality: ‘After walking on eggshells in Mozart and Schubert Lieder it’s nice to let your hair down in something sexy and funny.’
She admits that she wasn’t what director Laurent Pelly expected. ‘He was saddled with me. He didn’t know me. But the experience was life-changing. He wants to show off what you can do, not show up your weaknesses – some directors have such definite ideas…’ Playing to Flott’s strengths led to a follow-up, the equally successful ‘Grande Duchesse’ (recently out on CD and DVD) where her militaristic German royal is a man-mad monster with a dash of Joyce Grenfell.
‘Liberating’ is a word that recurs when Flott talks of comedy – with one proviso: ‘They all say don’t play it for laughs!’ ‘They’ include Peter Hall (in Britten’s ‘Albert Herring’) and Nick Hytner (‘so funny, so inventive’ in Handel’s ‘Giulio Cesare’). Hard to do when, as in the Châtelet ‘Hélène’ the shepherd Paris came on with sheep in rehearsal ‘and everyone screamed with laughter’. Pelly’s production is ‘inventive and funny’ and, she assured one interviewer, not remotely vulgar. ‘Then I went back to rehearsal and thought… er, well…’
Offenbach can easily be coarsened (‘I’ve seen ghastly performances of “Hélène”,’ Dame Felicity admits). And the story of Helen’s elopement poses other problems, notably depicting the most beautiful woman in the world. Flott is notoriously negative about her appearance. She wails that she’s too tall for Mélisande (read swan-necked and elegant), too big for Mimì (hands too vast to be frozen, she complains), and a production peopled with bathing-costumed lovelies made her wonder ‘what on earth I could do with all these athletic young people… At rehearsal there were these two beautiful creatures half-naked throughout the show – and there was me!’ With rueful humour she confirms it’s all seen ‘as a middle-aged lady’s dream.’
But she’s comfortable with the angle. ‘I have to think some way around the character. I can’t function – with all my complexes! – if I think people are going to laugh as soon as I appear. I don’t feel my voice is enough in itself. If I can lose it in character it’ll be okay: more spoken roles than standing and singing to show off your wonderful voice.’
That’s not the international diva speaking, that’s the sweetly modest Cheltenham girl whose teacher-training revealed ‘I was useless in front of a class’ and loves being back at the Coli, scene of her big breaks in the 1970s. No wonder she emphasises the streak of nostalgia in Offenbach’s score – more heart, more tenderness than in some of his scathing satires. And it’s the Cheltenham girl who excuses the wanton Helen’s adultery. ‘She tries to stick to the straight and narrow. But it’s all divinely ordained. She starts a war but she has no choice…’ The Dame looks suspiciously demure; and suddenly more Parisian than Cheltenham.
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