Elizabeth Watts

The British soprano on Arne's Artaxerxes, unwieldy costumes, and being 'nuts about Bach'

Elizabeth Watts
Published: February 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm

With two discs – of Bach and Arne – out now, it seems like 2011 is off to a flying start?


Certainly having two recordings within eight days of each other is exciting. After singing in Artaxerxes in the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House in 2009, I’m making my debut on the main stage, singing Marzelline in Fidelio at the end of March. That’s quite a landmark. I’ve just had my recital debut at the Concertgebouw, and I’m singing in the main hall there. So there’s lots of nice things happening this year.

Why did you choose Bach for your solo CD?

I’m nuts about Bach. I’m also nuts about Schubert, and I’ve recorded that. My voice is heading in a more lyric direction, and bel canto is a very different technique, so I thought this was a ripe opportunity to record Bach. I really wanted to record Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, and I really enjoyed singing Jachzet Gott in allen Landen!, as well as the more unusual arias. And I had something to say about it as well. I don’t like to record things I don’t have something to say about. I'll be pretty surprised if some people don't hate this disc, as it's quite dramatic the way I take on the texts and do the dynamics, and some people would say that's not Bach.

What would you say to them?

I think we're judging Bach from our own idea of how we do things in church now. But I can imagine in Bach's time people were more fervent in their beliefs, and church services were long. When I did some research for the disc I read about how the instrumentalists can't have been any good because they only had a short amount of time to rehearse, but perhaps the quality was fantastic as they only dealt in that one idiom. From my research there's evidence that Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! might not have been written for church anyway. Plus there's an emotional response from me to the music. It may not be how Bach was done in his time, or it might have been, or does it matter?

Do you have a favourite moment of your Bach programme?

I really love the aria 'Ich wünschte mir den Tod'. It says everything to me about Bach, that wonderful misery of the era. The harmonic twists and the bassline are miraculous in the introduction. It reminds me of one of the choruses in the opening of the St Matthew Passion. By misery I mean a sort of expressiveness. The way Bach expresses misery is like no other composer. It’s a sense of weight, a sense of vulnerability and openness in your despair that’s extraordinary.

Arne's Artaxerxes is a tangled tale of love, murder and betrayal. Can you give us a flavour of the opera?

I won’t go into the intricacies of the plot, but my character Mandane is constantly in a state of extreme distress as the man she wants to marry is accused of murdering her father, and one of her brothers has been murdered because they think he killed her father. We don’t have any idea who the villain of the piece is until right at the end. It’s worthy of I, Claudius, there’s lots of intrigue.

How do you feel towards your character Mandane?

She's a great character, and it's great music. Lots of coloratura to get your tonsils around. It’s fiery, and a great challenge. It was great fun to do! The plot is Metastasio-tastic – it's very tortuous – but you have to make it real. It’s exactly the same with the coloratura, every bit has to mean something. It’s not just a case of firing it off. It was a very emotional rehearsal process. Partly because I lost my mother five years ago, so you start to think about playing someone who's lost their father in terms of your own experience. The whole opera starts with the two lovers meeting in secret, in blissful happiness, and that goes to losing your father and brother, all in one day.

'The soldier, tir'd of war's alarms' became a favourite aria of Victorian singers. Do you have a favourite moment?

I also really enjoyed 'Fly, soft ideas, fly', but 'The soldier, tir'd' is a great sing. It comes at this point in the piece where everything's gone well, and we're all going to be happy. When we staged it, I had this massive gold cage on, which was a pain because it was like wearing a bell. The moment you tipped to one side the whole thing did a big wobble. It was about a centimetre wider than the entrance to the stage, so I had to slide on at an angle, saying a slightly ridiculous plotline. It was quite amusing trying not to look like a tipping blancmange.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

Both the Bach (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807550) and Arne (Linn CKD 358) discs are on sale now. Arne's Artaxerxes is BBC Music Magazine's March Opera Choice

Audio clips:


Arne: 'The Soldier, Tir'd from war's alarms' from Artaxerxes
Bach: 'Ich wünschte mir den Tod' from Cantata BWV 57

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