Conductor  Jean  Fournet

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Jean Fournet

Born: April 14, 1913; Rouen, France   Died: November 3, 2008; Weesp, The Netherlands

fournetMethodical, 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 website 

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."

fournetReminding 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 Massenet."

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 inter-relationship.

"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 other operas."

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 Verdi?

"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."

fournetTo 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 sings it."

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 HerodiadeEsclarmonde 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 Debussy.".

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."

fournetGoing 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

fournet1965  [American Debut] - Carmina Burana and L'Heure Espagnol with Martelli (Carmina), Berganza (L'Heure), Kraus, Bruscantini; 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 with Eda-Pierre, Garaventa (both Rossignol), Picchi, Gramm (both Oedipus), Dominguez, Washington

1971 - Werther with Kraus, Troyanos, Angot, Andreolli; Director Lotfi Mansouri

1972 - Pelléas et Mélisande with Stilwell, Pilou, Petri, Arié, Taillon; Director Paul-Emile Deiber

1973 - Manon with Zylis-Gara, Kraus, Patrick, Gramm; Sets by Jacques Dupont, Director Paul-Emile Deiber

1974 - Don Quichotte with Ghiaurov, Cortez, Foldi; Sets by Pier Luigi Samaritani, Director Italo Tajo

1975 - Orfeo ed Euridice with Stilwell, Cotrubas, Zilio; Sets by Pier Luigi Samaritani, Director Sandro Sequi, Ballet Director Maria Tallchief

1977 - Orfeo ed Euridice with the same as 1975 except Shade for Cotrubas

1981 - Don Quichotte with Ghiaurov, Valentini-Terrani, Gramm, Gordon
           Roméo et Juliette with Freni, Kraus, Raftery, Bruscantini, Kavrakos, Kunde, Cook, Negrini; Sets by Rolf Gérard, Director Fabrizio Melano

1987-88 - Faust with 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 1983.  Portions 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.

Award - winning 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 like 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.