22 May 2010

ARTIST PROFILE: Christophe Dumaux, countertenor

Countertenor Christophe Dumaux [Photo by David Bachmann]

When visiting Bologna in August 1770, the English music historian and author Charles Burney wrote in his famous journal of meeting the world-renowned castrato Farinelli, ‘I cannot describe the pleasure it gave me to see this extraordinary personage, who had so enchanted all Europe by his uncommon powers.’  It is indeed a testament to the remarkable quality of Farinelli’s singing that Burney, from whose pen came some of the most astute assessments of Farinelli’s singing during his London tenure as primo uomo of his tutor Niccolò Porpora’s Opera of the Nobility, should have written so exuberantly of him more than three decades after his voice had last been heard in Britain.  Farinelli was unquestionably among the finest castrati of the Eighteenth Century, a member of an unintentional fraternity of singers who inspired some of the most demanding and emotionally poignant music of the Baroque and early Classical periods.  One of the greatest challenges faced by artists involved with the Baroque renaissance that emerged in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century was the necessity of making decisions about how and by whom music composed for castrati would be sung.  In the occasional performances of works like Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Händel’s Giulio Cesare prior to the 1970’s, roles composed for castrati (principally Nerone and Ottone in the former and the name-part in the latter) were typically transposed for tenors, baritones, or basses, enabling preservation of the gender identities of the roles at the expense of the composers’ concepts of musical integrity.  The heightened sensibilities of the Baroque renaissance led to ever-broadening efforts to present Baroque and early Classical scores in performances that adhered to their composers’ original intentions, not just by using instruments and playing techniques from these periods but by restoring Monteverdi’s, Händel’s, and their contemporaries’ operatic heroes to the vocal registers for which they were composed.

Some twenty years before the Baroque renaissance reached its zenith, two unique artists emerged who paved the way for Baroque specialists to realign the music composed for Eighteenth-Century castrati with male singers possessing the appropriate vocal registers.  In Britain, there was Sir Alfred Deller, a remarkably unique artist whose work in the sacred and secular music of Bach and Händel revitalized the legendary British choral tradition and whose revelatory performances of John Dowland’s Elizabethan songs and the music of Henry Purcell not only refocused the attention of Twentieth-Century British musicians on the music of their collective past but also inspired Benjamin Britten to compose the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose music recalls Purcell, for him.  In America, there was Russell Oberlin, an equally important and perhaps even more effective artist whose voice, in contrast to Deller’s falsetto, was a genuine high tenor in the tradition of the French haute-contre.  Neither Deller nor Oberlin enjoyed extensive opera-house careers despite being regarded as pioneers in singing castrato roles at the original pitches.  Comparing their sounds, Deller’s voice was ethereal, a sexless timbre that could seem almost inhuman, whereas Oberlin’s voice was similarly pure but firmer and more centered, capable of reaching soprano heights but always obviously emanating from the throat of a man.  The combined influence of these two artists set the stage for the advent of the modern countertenor in the subsequent generation, when the doors of the world’s opera houses opened to singers such as James Bowman, René Jacobs, Jeffrey Gall (the first countertenor to sing a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera), Jochen Kowalski, and, another few years on, David Daniels and Andreas Scholl.

Christophe Dumaux as Unulfo in Händel's RODELINDA on the occasion of his Metropolitan Opera debut, 2 May 2006 [Photo by Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera]

It is upon the foundation laid by these esteemed singers that the career of young French countertenor Christophe Dumaux has been built.  ‘The first one I want to quote [as an influence on my career] is James Bowman, with whom I [took part in] a master class,’ Mr. Dumaux reflects: ‘then René Jacobs, and later Andreas Scholl and David Daniels.  I [was] brought up with the recordings of all these artists, and I [have been] lucky to work with them in my career.’  It was opposite the Bertarido of Andreas Scholl in Händel’s Rodelinda that Mr. Dumaux made his Metropolitan Opera debut on 2 May 2006, a performance that prompted Bernard Holland to write in the New York Times that Mr. Dumaux’s MET debut heralded the arrival of another ‘first-rate countertenor.’  In an age in which first-rate countertenors are perhaps more plentiful than first-rate Verdians and Wagnerians, there are nonetheless exceptional qualities in Mr. Dumaux’s singing that set him apart.

The son of musical parents, Mr. Dumaux’s first explorations of the family craft were as a cellist.  ‘My cellist experience was a passion, and at that time [in my life] I didn’t want to become a musician,’ he recollects.  ‘The cello was at first a hobby, but [during] the same period I began to sing in a chorus, and I realized that my experience in an orchestra brought me a kind of humility [that enabled me] to begin my career as a singer.  To my mind, these two worlds are completely different.’  After studying singing in his native France and taking part in a student production of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, Mr. Dumaux made his professional debut as Eustazio in Händel’s Rinaldo in Montpellier at the Festival de Radio France in 2002, in a production conducted by René Jacobs and recorded by harmonia mundi.

 Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo in Händel's GIULIO CESARE at the Opéra de Lausanne, with Charlotte Hellekant as Cornelia and Max Emanuel Cencic as Sesto

An important milestone in Mr. Dumaux’s career followed in 2005, when he participated in the rapturously-received David McVicar production of Giulio Cesare at the Glyndebourne Festival, singing Tolomeo, a part that has become in the brief space of five years a signature role that Mr. Dumaux has sung to great praise with opera companies throughout Europe and the United States.  The role of Tolomeo epitomizes Mr. Dumaux’s approach to his art, which in his own assessment is centered on maintaining a sense of spontaneity.  ‘Each time I am on stage I try to make my character evolve,’ Mr. Dumaux says.  ‘I try to convey to the audience the dark, complex sides of the character, such as for Tolomeo, who is both Machiavellian and at the same time charming.  Indeed, I’ve sung Tolomeo more than eighty times, and each time I try to bring something new to the character.’  Mr. Dumaux’s success in achieving spontaneity is apparent in any of his performances as Tolomeo.  Of his performance in the November 2007 outing of the McVicar production at Chicago Lyric Opera, conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, Steve Smith wrote in the New York Times, ‘The countertenor Christophe Dumaux brought a penetrating voice and a thrilling physical athleticism to the role of Tolomeo, Cleopatra’s conniving brother and co-ruler.  His interactions with Ms. de Niese [soprano Danielle de Niese, who sang Cleopatra] mixed salaciousness with adolescent contrition in a manner both fascinating and repellent.’

Not surprisingly, the music of Händel occupies a large place in Mr. Dumaux’s repertory.  ‘I am open to all repertories,’ he says, ‘but I prefer when the music had specially been composed for countertenors – even if Händel composed not for countertenors but for castrati.’  Music both earlier and later than Händel is also vital to Mr. Dumaux’s career and artistic development, however.  ‘I’ve recently sung [the Voice of Apollo] in Death in Venice by Benjamin Britten in the Theater an der Wien.  Next year, I’ll be in a new contemporary creation composed by Bruno Mantovani, called Akhmatova, at the Opéra de Paris. I have received scores by Jonathan Dove, and I am very interested in this music and hope to sing this repertory very soon.’  Even while possessing a welcome and obviously intuitive musical curiosity, Mr. Dumaux is aware of the natural boundaries of his voice at this time in his career, bringing uncommonly insightful judiciousness to his choices of repertory.  ‘Before accepting a contract I always look at the score, and if this [role] doesn’t fit me I prefer to refuse the role rather than to risk running into trouble vocally.  I have refused many roles; for instance, Nerone in L’Incoronazione di Poppea.  I am very interested in this role thanks to the duality and complexity of the character, but unfortunately I don’t have sufficient high notes at this moment [in my career].  Maybe I’ll get them in few years, and my voice will allow me to sing this part.  In 2011, I am [scheduled] to sing the title roles of Giulio Cesare and Rinaldo, and I think that both of these experiences will happen in suitable moments in my career.’  Mr. Dumaux adds, pensively, ‘Generally, I prefer to sing secondary roles in order to avoid trouble with a primary one.’

Christophe Dumaux as Cavalli's Giasone in Mariame Clément's production for Vlaamse Opera [Photo by Annemie Augustijn, Vlaamse Opera]

His considerable success in leading roles is evident from the recent recording of Händel’s Orlando, previously reviewed on this site, in which Mr. Dumaux brings both intensity and tonal beauty to his performance of the title role, however.  Another recent success was in the name-part in Mariame Clément’s evocative production of Cavalli’s Giasone for Vlaamse Opera.  Critic Bernard Schreuders wrote on ForumOpera.com that Mr. Dumaux, ‘who continues to improve, enacted a Giasone as camp as one could wish, both seductive and detestable, and he brought off with panache tessitura that is dangerous for a countertenor.’  Of Ms. Clément’s production, Mr. Dumaux says, ‘The director [Ms. Clément] chose not to place the action in the [era of Classical] mythology but in a post-Apocalyptic setting in order for the spectator to interpret the story and place it in the period that he wants.’  Though a potentially controversial business, Mr. Dumaux feels that a certain degree of artistic license among directors is crucial to introducing younger audiences to opera.  ‘I think that the most important [things] are to adapt classic repertories to modern situations and, more particularly, to attract young people to operas; and also to try to stop some of the prejudices that concern [young people’s perceptions of] opera. That’s why, even in Baroque repertory, some directors update the sets and costumes and make the operas more approachable to young people.’  This progressive attitude towards the presentation of opera is consistent with Mr. Dumaux’s personal philosophy of singing, which he characterizes as being based upon ‘pleasure and rigor.’

Above all, it is Mr. Dumaux’s view that striking a balance between one’s lives on and off the stage is the most critical component of an individual’s artistry.  ‘The state of mind influences the voice a lot,’ he suggests, ‘and [I believe that] if the strength [of mind] is absent there is no way to sing in a good way.  The most gratifying element of singing for me is to really enjoy being on stage and giving pleasure to the audience.  The day when I no longer enjoy being on stage, I’ll stop my career.  Indeed, the greatest challenge of this career for me will be to enjoy the stage for another twenty years and more!’  Realizing, respecting, and managing the impact that a career as a singer has on one’s personal life and relationships are the other elements of the balance for which Mr. Dumaux strives.  ‘I spent a lot of time to dedicate my life to music, far away from my family and friends.  This cost me a lot, so I realized that my private life is more important than music and now I succeed in reconciling both my private life and music.  Music is a passion, but my biggest passions are life and spending time with those I love.  If I have to refuse some contracts to spend more time with my family, I don’t hesitate.’  The almost indiscernible core of his artistry is this ability to give everything to his audience in the course of a performance but to resume a refreshingly ‘normal’ life when the applause ends.  ‘When I am on stage I am not Christophe Dumaux anymore: I am entirely the character.  But when the performance is over, the character is left on stage.’  This, in Mr. Dumaux’s view, is the way in which a thoughtful artist survives the sacrifices he makes for his art.

Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo in Händel's GIULIO CESARE at the Opéra de Lille, with Charlotte Hellekant as Cornelia [Photo by Frédéric Iovino]

It is this emotional centeredness that allows such a thoughtful young man to portray threatened, tormented, and sometimes unhinged characters with fiery brilliance.  As with any singer, however, it is the voice that demands primary attention, and Mr. Dumaux’s modesty cannot obscure the fact that his is a vibrant, beautiful voice that is meant for leading roles.  Unlike those of many of his rivals, Mr. Dumaux’s voice is a true alto, even from the bottom of his range in baritonal chest resonance to the bright top and without the slightest hint of femininity.  His is unquestionably a masculine timbre, and an heroic one that is well-suited to the alto castrato leading men in the operas of Händel and his contemporaries.  Though the actual timbres and ranges are not at all alike, there is something in the sweet but stirring sound of Mr. Dumaux’s voice that is reminiscent of some of the headily beautiful voices of generations past, voices such as those of Georgi Vinogradov and Léopold Simoneau.  As with these artists, the intensity of Mr. Dumaux’s singing is derived organically from his consummate musicality and dedication to thoughtful, idiomatic delivery of text.  He is content to follow composers where they lead him and, in making these journeys repeatedly, to find new insights and nuances at every turn.  As he suggests, each performance is a new creation such that even a role that he has sung more than eighty times is approached with a combination of experience and inquisitiveness rather than with a carefully-sorted-out impersonation that is employed repetitively, unchanged, and then stored away like a costume until it is required again.

Mr. Dumaux is a rare countertenor who, possessing a voice of exceptional quality, a solid technique, and an impressive understanding of himself as a man and an artist, one can imagine enduring in his craft to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of his professional debut.  Perhaps more remarkably, Christophe Dumaux is the even rarer countertenor one can truly imagine oneself wanting to hear for decades to come.

Christophe Dumaux in the title role of Händel's ORLANDO at the Théâtre Municipal de Tourcoing

Heartfelt thanks are extended to Mr. Dumaux for his wondrous grace, kindness, and candor in responding to the questions that formed the basis for this article.

Sincere thanks are also extended to Mr. Dumaux’s manager, Ms. Claire Feazey of IMG Artists Paris, for her dedicated assistance and to Ms. Marie Kalaghabian, Vocal Division Intern at IMG Paris, for her assistance with providing photographs used in this article.

Click here to visit Mr. Dumaux’s profile on the IMG Artists Paris website.