By Laurence Vittes
Cellist Ophélie Gaillard‘s new recording (Aparté) with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra of Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote is not only outstandingly fresh and bold, but illuminating. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the cellist’s ascent as a leading soloist and innovator. The surprise is that Gaillard is one of the rare women to have record the role.
This curious oversight by the classical-music industry extends to live performances. A quick survey of leading female cellists, including Alisa Weilerstein and Sol Gabetta, reveals that rarely if ever are they selected for the role. Not so for women violists. The New York Philharmonic‘s principal violist Cynthia Phelps has played the role of Sancho Panza at least 42 times.
Gaillard’s performance represents power that is waiting to be unleashed. Whether her recording represents the curve of a change remains to be seen.
I spoke to Gaillard just before a concert in Nuremberg with Pulcinella, a “collective” of virtuoso soloists with a passion for performance practice on period instruments.
What did it feel like taking on such a traditionally male role?
In a way the character of Don Quixote is more an archetypal figure more than a simple male human. And in most Baroque operas—and quite a few Richard Strauss operas—some male characters are sung by women! These travesty roles are very common onstage—Octavian in Rosenkavalier is not an exception. Playing the “title role” in Don Quixote is a beautiful and challenging role that’s beyond the gender question!
What were the main interpretive challenges you faced while making the recording?
It was to face such a big orchestra, being the hero of the story—or should I say the anti-hero—with the understanding that it’s not a traditional concerto; in fact it’s more a symphonic poem in which I share the stage with Sancho Panza, played by Dov Scheindlin, and Dulcinea, played by Alexandra Conunova.
One of the most fascinating parts of this score is Strauss’ fantastic yet wonderfully refined orchestration. At the end of the introduction you hear tense, dissonant fortissimo outbursts while Don Quixote’s sanity is falling apart. In many places the orchestra is tremendously loud and rich. Throughout you hear the orchestra’s beautiful soloists: the tuba tenor, the bass clarinet, the flute, the fourth horn, the first oboe, so many, all sharing the leitmotivs of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and Dulcinea.
How did you develop your interpretation?
I prepared for Don Quixote the way I work on concertos: by improving. In this case through focusing on elements like sound, color and nuance because you can never be loud enough against Strauss’ orchestration. And the non-musical sources of inspiration are infinite! I’m just getting involved in Cervantes’ mesmerizing story itself plus reading other picaresque novels. I’m fascinated by the drawings of Gustave Doré, and the paintings of Gérard Garouste and Picasso! I’ve discovered so much about madness, love, and heroism.
What projects are you currently working on?
Next week I play with my Pulcinella period instrument orchestra a Boccherini program at Bavarian Radio’s Classical Festival in Nuremberg, and we just finished recording the first part of a Boccherini double album. Next month I’ll play the Schumann Concerto at Juan les Pins on the French Riviera and the Saint-Saens concerto in and around Toulouse. And of course I’ll be taking care of my students at the Haute École de Musique in Geneva, which is a big investment in my artistic life!
I suppose everyone knows about the theft and recovery of your cello in February. What gear are you using?
I’m playing the 1737 Francesco Goffriller cello made in Udine, loaned by the CIC bank, and a fine French bow—my own—made by Jean Pierre Marie Persois. For now, and for the Strauss recording, I am using mostly Rostanvo strings and Versum strings. When I play Baroque music, I use gut strings by the French maker Charles Riché, gut strings by La Folia, and for the double basses Oliv or Passione gut strings by Pirastro.