Conductor Jean Fournet
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Born: April 14, 1913; Rouen, France Died: November 3, 2008;
Weesp, The Netherlands
Methodical, unflappable (he is said to have seldom raised
his voice), and subtle in the ways of the French repertory, Jean
Fournet saw his career extend over an extraordinarily long period.
After having established himself in his native country, he proved a
welcome addition to opera companies in America, where the French style
had become something of a lost art. Beyond stage work, he proved, both
early and late, a persuasive interpreter of the French symphonic
literature. After studies at the Paris Conservatoire, Fournet made his
debut in his native city in 1936; two years later, he was engaged by
Rouen on a permanent basis. In 1940, he moved to Marseilles and,
beginning in 1944, presided over the Paris Opéra-Comique as
music director, simultaneously offering instruction in the art of
conducting at the École Normale. In the 1950s, he was involved
in several recording projects that enhanced his reputation
considerably, notably his Fauré Requiem and a lightly turned Les Pêcheurs de perles. Two
further appointments awaited him in Europe before he turned to a
regimen of guest conducting: in 1961 he became conductor of the
Netherlands Radio Symphony, and from 1968 to 1973, he served as
artistic director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Fournet made
his American opera debut with the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1965 directing
a double bill consisting of a staged Carmina
Burana and Ravel's magical L'heure
espagnole, the latter with Teresa Berganza, Alfredo Kraus, and Sesto Bruscantini.
The conductor impressed immediately as one who could imprint elegance
and respect for French style on his casts. His success led to further
assignments, each helping reestablish the French wing in a city that
had known great French artists in decades past. Among the productions
were Les Pêcheurs de perles
in 1966, another double bill (Le
Rossignol and Oedipus Rex)
in 1968, Werther in 1971, Pelléas et Mélisande
in 1972, Manon in 1973, and Don Quichotte in 1974. In 1987,
Fournet made his Metropolitan Opera debut conducting a production of Samson et Dalila. In addition to a
number of orchestral discs, Fournet recorded the aforementioned Les Pêcheurs de perles for
Philips with Léopold
Simoneau and Pierrette Alarie, still unsurpassed. Fournet's
Fauré and Berlioz Requiems
are also impressive, likewise his 1973 Chicago Manon with Kraus and Zylis-Gara.
-- From the ArkivMusic
Website (text only - photo added for this website presentation)
-- Names which are links in this box and in the box at the bottom
of this page refer to interviews by Bruce Duffie elsewhere on this
Jean Fournet had a long and wonderful career, and he
certainly raised the standard of French music wherever he
conducted. In Chicago we were fortunate to have had his artistry
in several seasons. He made his American debut here in 1965, and
returned many times as shown in the boxes above and below.
During his visit in 1981, we arranged to sit down for a conversation
between his performances. His English was good, but he asked to
have a translator present, and I am grateful to Alfred Glasser of Lyric
Opera for his assistance in providing that for us.
Most of what you are about to read was originally published in 1983 in
the semi-annual Massenet Newsletter,
put out by the Massenet Society of America. I have re-edited it
slightly, and added a few things which were left out because of space
considerations in the magazine. The biographical material in the
box above, as well as the photos and full list of Chicago appearances
have also been added for this website presentation.
Here is that conversation . . . . . . .
Noting that he had twice previously led Gluck's Orfeo, I asked about the various
versions of that work.
"The version with baritone is very
nice. I prefer the version for a man over the one for a woman,
and when it is a male singer, I prefer the baritone more than the
tenor. The French version with tenor has more vocalizing
throughout, but I prefer the Italian version with baritone."
Reminding him that Romain Rolland had said that Massenet
is at the heart of every Frenchman, I asked if this was true.
"Massenet has written works at all
levels. Most of them are at a very high level, and some are a bit
easier, but he is a very serious composer and a very important
composer. The French public loves Massenet, but not only
Massenet. In America there is very recently a great upsurge of
his works - not only the "big" scores, but also certain minor
works. Massenet was fantastically gifted and had a terrific sense
of the theater. He was a great technician and knew his craft
well. There are some of his works which spring from genius and
are of the very highest level. Then there are other works which
are simply a professional musician turning out another piece which is
charming with good workmanship, but lacks the spark which makes a Manon or Werther. But he was a man of
the theater and felt the theater deeply, and this produced masterpieces
of his output. Of course, at the time each new opera was of great
interest to the public because it was the newest thing from the pen of
I then asked Maestro Fournet about Massenet's skill as an orchestrator,
and he said,
"Massenet's operas are
well-written for the orchestra and well-written for the vocalists who
participate in them. The orchestration is very strong and within
the scores of his operas there are all kinds of wonderful details that
are scurrying around like ants that go through the texture of the
orchestration. It is a special joy for the conductor to make
these details come out."
Next I asked the Maestro to discuss the individual operas and their
"Of the operas of Massenet, I feel
that Werther is the most
profound. It has the most depth and is the most touching.
Charlotte is a great role, but the interest id divided in this opera
clearly between her and Werther. Manon is a miraculous bit of
perfection. Everything is the way it ought to be - there is no
way to improve on it. It has beautiful melodies, beautiful
orchestration, exactly what is required every single time. Don Quichotte is very
special. It's not a "public" opera. That is to say it is
not for the lay audience. One of the things that make it less
popular (and might have improved the opera) would have been to give
more spectacular arias to the title character. There are no bit
"tap-your-toe" or "wipe-your-eye" arias like there are in some of the
other pieces. Adding this kind of musical material would have
made the audience feel more with him and would have made them cry with
him. in the opera, the arias are very rare, and the very best one
is given to Sancho! On the other hand, the continuity of the
piece and the details within the orchestration make it a very
interesting work, very special and quite different from any of his
Here I interrupted the catalogue to probe a bit more about Don Quichotte. Because it is
such a late work, does it have any relation to Falstaff which is the last opera by
"Like Falstaff, Don Quichotte is a very late work
of the composer. However, the difference of Falstaff from the early operas of
Verdi is tremendous. The difference of Don Quichotte from the early operas
of Massenet is much less. One other aspect which you must always
bear in mind is the wonderful skill Massenet had for creating music for
the female protagonist. All his life, Massenet spent writing one
female after the other, and at the end perhaps he decided to write
something to give himself pleasure. A Don Quichotte would be something
quite different because the protagonist would be the title
character. At the end of his career, Massenet had had all the
success that anybody could have wanted, and he didn't care whether this
opera was a success or not. He wanted to write something that he liked, and what turned
out was something quite special. This, of course, was also what
Verdi had said during the composition of Falstaff."
To return to the listing of operas by Massenet, I
pointed out the tradition in the early days of resident opera in
Chicago, when Mary Garden sang many roles - including Jean in Le Jongleur de Notre Dame.
[See my article Massenet, Mary Garden, and the Chicago
Opera 1910-1932.] Fournet commented,
"I prefer Le Jongleur in the original version
with a tenor. I really don't approve of it in any other
version. There are other roles which were originally written to
be sung in "travesty" by a female which are occasionally sung by a male
tenor. One such role is Siebel in Faust. It is much less
effective that way, however. Siebel was written with a kind of
character in mind, and the whole gracefulness is destroyed when a man
I also pointed out that in one season, Le Jongleur had been given on a
double-bill with La Navaraise.
"From the point of view of the
artistic creation, Le Jongleur
is a very charming work and it's absolutely worthy of Massenet.
It's an interesting piece that deserves to be played, whereas La Navaraise is not on that same
level at all."
Are there any of his operas which should not be done?
"I am sure there are some...
Herodiade is not done now as
much as it was once. Thais
is a little bit superior to Herodiade.
Esclarmonde is not much played
any more but in the period of 1925-30 it was really very popular."
Knowing he had conducted so very many works, I asked if he had done
such works as Cléopâtre
or Chérubin or Sapho.
"I have not conducted them, but I
know them. When I first started out as a young conductor, there
were opportunities for me to play some of these pieces, but they were
less important and not frequently performed. You know, there are
two operas named Sapho - one
by Massenet and one by Gounod. Even though the titles are the
same, the subject matter is completely different and there is no
relation between the two."
Moving on to another area, I asked the conductor which composers were
directly influenced by Massenet.
"Both Alfred Bruneau and Henri
Rabaud (the composer of Mârouf)
were students of Massenet. Apart from his creative musical
processes, Massenet was an excellent professor for many years, and his
pupils adored him. There was even a time when Debussy was a
student of Massenet. His L'Enfant
Prodigue was written for the Prix de Rome and shows the
influence. This is Debussy who had not yet become the real
Turning the coin over, I asked who influenced Massenet.
"Probably he was influenced by
Gounod. I find it very interesting this season here in Chicago to
conduct Roméo of
Gounod and Don Quichotte of
Massenet on alternate nights. In doing this, I am able to see the
similarities and the differences, and it is fascinating to make
comparisons. Gounod was still writing very much according to
tradition. He was still under the shadow of Meyerbeer and all the
rules which were set up for how an opera was to be written. It
was like a prescribed formula - arias, recitatives, and all the other
details. In Don Quichotte,
however, I find very few passages that are strictly traditional.
But what is remarkable in Roméo
is the number of passages which rise far above these conventions.
You get the pure genius operating at a level that you don't find in
Massenet. So Gounod, who was weighed down with all the rules and
conventions, in some instances surpasses the level of Massenet who was
free of all the rules. When I conduct Massenet, I find all kinds
of things that are fascinating. There is wit, humor, ingenuity,
and genius, but not at the same level as Gounod achieves in Roméo."
Going on to a completely different topic, I asked the
Maestro how he felt about recordings.
"I like making recordings, but
what you lose is the certain atmosphere of emotion. The
technicians are very clever and good at their jobs, but what they don't
understand is that there is more to it than just a series of
vibrations. You can paste something together and get a
performance that is technically perfect - not one false note - but the
soul of the pieced will have vanished in the process. One time we
had stopped and started so many times that I simply demanded to be
allowed to play the piece straight through. We did, and that is
what is on the published disc. I like the idea of recording a
live performance where the performers go from the beginning to the
end. There may be one or two slight imperfections - a false not
or a bad entrance - but the inspiration of that performance is there
and the nervous energy and all those things which make the soul of the
music will be available. I would prefer to do that than record in
the studio with all the dials."
I asked if he knew the compositions of his fellow conductor Jean
Martinon, and if he had done his opera Hécube. [Martinon was
Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1963-68.]
"He is my friend, and I have
conducted some of his works... but not Hécube. I did his Symphony and some other orchestral
pieces. He was a good composer."
Then I dared to ask a fatal question - was he a better composer or
better conductor - to which Fournet gave the most wonderful reply.
"He was perfect at both!"
At the end of our conversation, I thanked him for returning to Chicago,
and he said,
"I enjoy coming to Chicago.
There is an atmosphere here that is conducive to good work. There
is both co-operation and consideration by and for all the people in the
company. There is concern and attention paid to every requirement
of the performance, so it is possible to do very good work here."
Jean Founet at Lyric Opera of Chicago
1965 [American Debut] - Carmina Burana
and L'Heure Espagnol
with Martelli (Carmina
Director Josef Witt
1966 - Les Pêcheurs de Perles
with Eda-Pierre, Kraus, Bruscantini, Ghiuselev; Sets and Costumes by
Peter J. Hall
1968 - Le Rossignol
and Oedipus Rex
Garaventa (both Rossignol
Picchi, Gramm (both Oedipus
1971 - Werther
Troyanos, Angot, Andreolli
1972 - Pelléas et
Petri, Arié, Taillon; Director Paul-Emile Deiber
1973 - Manon
Gramm; Sets by Jacques Dupont, Director Paul-Emile Deiber
1974 - Don Quichotte
Ghiaurov, Cortez, Foldi; Sets by Pier Luigi Samaritani, Director Italo
1975 - Orfeo ed Euridice
Stilwell, Cotrubas, Zilio; Sets by Pier Luigi Samaritani, Director
Sandro Sequi, Ballet Director Maria Tallchief
1977 - Orfeo ed Euridice
the same as 1975 except Shade
1981 - Don Quichotte
Ghiaurov, Valentini-Terrani, Gramm, Gordon
Roméo et Juliette
Freni, Kraus, Raftery, Bruscantini, Kavrakos, Kunde, Cook
; Sets by
Rolf Gérard, Director Fabrizio Melano
1987-88 - Faust
Gustafson/Soviero, Shicoff, Ramey, Raftery, White; Sets by Samaritani,
Director Antonello Madau Diaz, Ballet Tallchief
© 1981 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in a Dressing Room backstage at the
Civic Opera House in Chicago on December 11, 1981. The
translation was provided by Alfred Glasser of Lyric Opera of
Chicago. A transcript was made and published in the Massenet Newsletter in January of
were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1990. The transcript was
re-edited and posted on this
website late in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.