Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: Christine Rice

Christine Rice

Christine Rice

Royal Opera’s new interview space a sort of modernist glass cube containing two sofas appears to have been modelled on Big Brother‘s Diary Room. I half expect my subject, Christine Rice, to launch into a tirade about her ‘house- mates’ or moan about the day’s challenges, but that would be underestimating her charm and good humour.

Rice might be one of the most sought after opera stars, but in this world of cutthroat ambition and inflated ego her modesty and lack of pretension is well known. True to form, she breezes in after several hours of rehearsals and, cup of tea in hand, begins by explaining the logistics of childcare. Fortunately for Rice her real-life role as a wife and mother of three young children is yet to translate into stage stereotype not for her the matronly Madam Larina or that scourge of middle-aged mezzos, the dreaded Mrs Sedley and over the last decade she has played some fantastically diverse and complex characters.

In fact Rice seems to revel in a unique sense of independence where roles and repertoire are concerned, something she puts down to her unconventional background. Rice read Physics at Balliol College Oxford, and was two years into a DPhil on global weather systems when she decided to jack it in and study voice at the Royal Northern College of Music. “I wasn’t a dyed and washed musician who’d always wanted to be singer. I met a lot of people at college who were steeped in Mozart and Lieder, and already had very strong identities, but I had no identity in that frame and I’ve been led by opportunities rather than seeking out specific roles for myself.”

Although her family was scientifically inclined, her father was a chemistry lecturer and her siblings all read sciences, her musical sensibilities were apparent at school: “I think I went through the drums, the recorder and the flute before I eventually settled on the piano and violin!” she laughs. At Oxford her spare time was devoted to theatre, as opposed to music, and her character choices have often been informed by a passionate interest in drama. “That was my original enthusiasm and I took it very, very seriously. I was in Manchester Youth Theatre and went to see all the plays I possibly could at Stratford and the Royal Exchange Theatre. So actually singing came after that.”

Once settled on opera, however, her ascent was swift. She soon landed small roles at English National Opera and, like many established soloists, rose through the ranks of the Glyndebourne Chorus to perform in their touring company a stint as Carmen in 2002 was followed by the role of Irene in Theodora and the title role in La Cenerentola. But a major turning point in Rice’s career occurred in 2001, when Antonio Pappano heard her as Varvara in Katya Kabanova at La Monnaie just before the start of his tenure as musical director at Covent Garden.

“Pappano… the conductor of our generation in opera”

Impressed by her performance, Pappano highlighted Rice for future projects at Royal Opera and over the last five years Rice has played a myriad of roles there, including Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle, Sonyetka in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Concepcion in L’Heure Espagnol and the title role in The Rape of Lucretia, a handful under Pappano’s own baton. She is, not surprisingly, full of praise for the maestro and enthuses about his fluency and flexibility. “He’s going to be the conductor of our generation in opera he is already and his years in charge here are going to be a really celebrated time.”

Of particular note is Rice’s involvement with new opera. Recently she has created the roles of Miranda in Thomas Ads’ The Tempest, and Ariadne in Harrison Birtwistle’s Minotaur, two of the most significant opera compositions of the last decade, if not the last fifty years. “Aren’t I lucky,” she says, peeling with laughter, “fantastically lucky! When you’re offered these things you’ve no idea how the score is going to present itself and what the role is going to be like.” Minotaur, which premiered earlier this year, impressed even die-hard Birtwistle sceptics with its colourful, elegant score and intense psychology, and Rice describes the excitement of the rehearsal period, “full-on at the coal-face, discovering what this piece was.”

Given her extraordinary range of experience, her latest Royal Opera appearance as Giulietta in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, seems an odd choice, but constant reinvention has always played a part in her success. Offenbach, who was still writing the piece when he died in 1880, has often been hailed as the godfather of operetta a questionable accolade, some might say but while Rice admits the score poses fewer intellectual challenges than anything by Ads or Birtwistle she is clearly relishing its heady sensuality.

“Hoffmann… gorgeous, sumptuous, singable music”

“It’s gorgeous, sumptuous, singable music, it’s really delightfulyou know you’re going to enjoy singing it and the audience is going to enjoy hearing it.” And there are other obvious attractions, not least a first-rate cast: the title role is played by the glamorous Mexican tenor, Rolando Villazn, who received ecstatic reviews for his 2004 performance, Gidon Saks tackles each of the three villans, and Pappano is back in the pit.

In the bizarre, vaguely bildungsroman, narrative, Rice plays Hoffmann’s Act II love interest, a Venetian courtesan who has been instructed by the sinister Captain Dapertutto to seduce him and steal his reflection. “She’s a great operatic clich,” Rice giggles, “there’s sex, and evil, and she gets to sing the Barcarolle so there’s a lot of fun to be had, but the costume does most of the acting for you.” Said costume is a ruby-red dress of epic proportions, bouffant and bejewelled, that might have walked straight out of a Titian portrait. It somehow epitomises the grandeur and seedy opulence of the production as a whole.

First seen at Covent Garden in 1980, John Schlesinger’s staging must be one of the oldest in repertory, and since his death in 2003 has been in the hands of loyal revival directors, Christopher Cowell in this case. The sets are monumental, the costumes lavish and its emphasis, like many from the post-war era, is on decoration over drama: Schlesinger’s piece is no longer simply dated, it has matured into an antique. Rice reminds me that the Met have rolled out far dustier productions but she is fascinated by an approach that would inconceivable today. “I almost feel like it’s a piece of history. I’m bringing my girls to see it because I don’t know how many times they’ll revive it, and a lot of these old productions are not going to be around for much longer.”

“Partenope… the performance of a lifetime”

Rice’s unpredictability has also made an impression on her recording catalogue. While fellow mezzos are flooding the market with Handel compilation discs, Rice’s own solo release presented Handel arias alongside songs by Brahms, Wolf, Duparc and Howells. Of course she feels a natural fondness for Handelian opera and has played her fair-share of trouser-roles indeed her recent Arsace in ENO’s new production of Partenope was hailed by one critic as ‘the performance of a lifetime’ but she is never afraid to venture into uncharted or unfashionable territory. An example of the latter would be Respighi’s rarely heard Shelley setting, Il tramonto, which she recorded last year with Pappano.

This season sees Rice continuing to mix and match, with Penelope in Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria for Teatro Real at one extreme and Suzuki in Madam Butterfly at the other. The latter wasn’t entirely planned: she had originally signed to play Xerxes in a revival of Nicholas Hytner’s classic production, but after Anthony Minghella’s sudden death last March, ENO chose to revive his Madam Butterfly in its place and she was asked to transfer.

When asked what roles are in her sights, Rice admits she would love to revisit Carmen and La Cenerentola, and expresses a keen interest in Strauss. Oktavian in Der Rosenkavalier, something of a rite of passage for mezzo-sopranos, is perhaps the one obvious gap in the Rice CV but her rich, mature voice and youthful energy suggest she is ripe for the role. I hope we don’t have long to wait.

Les Contes d’Hoffman runs at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from 25 November to 13 December 2008. Tickets are available on 020 7304 4000 or online at royalopera.org

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More on Christine Rice
The Rape of Lucretia @ Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny @ Royal Opera House, London
Carmen @ Royal Opera House, London
Hallé/Elder @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Hänsel und Gretel @ Royal Opera House, London