From Libretto #9 (2023)

Seven questions for ... Clémentine Margaine

Clémentine Margaine takes the leading role in Massenet’s HÉRODIADE, singing the part of a woman torn between jealousy and her role as a mother

Hérodiade is hungry for power and gripped by jealousy - but also a genuinely loving person. Which of these feelings do you most identify with?
It’s precisely that complexity that I’m attracted to. Hérodiade is wrestling with some major interior conflicts and contradictions. She’s plagued by a clash of urges, is full of rage. I really go for that stuff.

How does Massenet render these very different moods in musical form?
Oh, it’s brilliant the way he conveys the anger that drives the way Hérodiade feels and acts. Her scenes always begin on a fortissimo note before revealing her tender, feminine side. The initial anger is reflected in the music, too, which has to find its way through the fury.

Hérodiade brings about the death of her own daughter through her own jealousy. Is there any room for empathy there?
As a mother, I have to say that putting myself in her shoes would be a bridge too far. Then again, I’ve never abandoned my own child, so I can’t know what she was going through. I try not to judge her.

What’s the biggest challenge associated with this role?
Its layered character. With each appearance on stage Hérodiade is overwhelmed by a different set of feelings, and anger is the common denominator, hovering over everything. Her very first words are »Venge-moi« (Avenge me), which sets the tone for the opera. The challenge is to convey the different aspects of her character credibly, without overdoing it or presenting her as hysterical.

How do you prepare for the role?
I’ve got a kind of ritual. Odd as it may sound, before I get stuck into my preparations for a role I haven’t sung before I read the relevant edition of »Avant-Scène Opéra«, a well-known French guide to opera. Only then do I look at the score and start singing – and to begin with only the bits that are fun and easy to sing. Getting to grips with a role also entails dealing with frustration and coming up against brick walls. But I always want the initial phase to be about joy and my love of singing. And I try to remind my body of what a wonderful thing it is to sing.

How do you deal with those brick-wall stretches?
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But listening to how other singers have got around the problem has often helped me in the past. I’m the kind of person who digs out as many past recordings of the relevant opera as she can. And I want to know exactly why such and such a thing grabs me and attracts me and something else doesn’t. It may just be a single inhalation at a particular juncture which gives me a light bulb moment. Streaming lets us do things today that you never could have 20 years ago. And nowadays there are so many video clips on YouTube where you can study the expression on the faces of the great singers and see how they move their lips, how they breathe, right down to the position of the tongue. They’ve got to be my best mentors. I can really immerse myself in the stuff and go deep.

The opera ends tragically with the death of Salomé and Jean. What’s your own takeaway from HÉRODIADE?
It’s curious, isn’t it, that although Massenet named his opera after Hérodiade, I never feel that I’m the main protagonist – at least where onstage time is concerned. I’ve often wondered why he didn’t call his opera SALOME, just as Richard Strauss did in due course. And the deeper I delve into the role, the more convinced I am that it’s Hérodiade’s contradictions that led Massenet to make her the focus of the work. I, too, am no closer to understanding her completely, but with the passage of time I’m learning to make my peace with that. That’s my takeaway from the role.


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