Mozart as Mozart heard it

09.24.09
Les Violons du Roy
The Globe & Mail

By Colin Eatock

New York's Metropolitan Opera is famous for a lot of things – but period-performance style isn't one of them. Insulated by its own glorious traditions, the Met has proven resistant to the early-music movement's quest for authenticity. Yet this seems to be changing – at least a little – thanks in part to Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie, who's making his Met debut Wednesday night, conducting Mozart's Die Zauberflote ( The Magic Flute ).

“Not so long ago, the idea of period style was regarded as foreign,” says Labadie from New York, where he's been rehearsing with the Met's cast and orchestra. “If that's what you did, you were regarded as some kind of weirdo. But people are more open minded than they used to be.”

While Labadie was never told by the Met that he was hired expressly to bring an 18th-century style to their Magic Flute , that's what he intends to do – to the extent that circumstances allow.

“My rehearsal time is rather limited,” he points out. “I have just four rehearsals with the orchestra, and in between my rehearsals they're working with other conductors on other repertoire. But yes, I will try to bring some of the experience I have to this repertoire.”

At 46, Labadie is a man of experience where period performance is concerned. He's probably best known as the conductor of Les Violons du Roy, a Quebec City chamber orchestra that he founded 25 years ago. (The group has a dozen recordings on the Dorian label.) In recent years he's been guest-conducting with some big “mainstream” orchestras throughout North America. Orchestras such as the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics, and the orchestras of Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. In Europe, he's led orchestras in Glasgow, Barcelona and Hanover, among other places.

He's getting noticed for his efforts. The New York Times remarked on his “clipped, energized phrasing, bright timbres and sharp articulation.” And the L.A. Times praised his “spirited and passionate music-making in works by Handel and Haydn.”

Labadie brings a missionary zeal to these gigs, convincing players used to a lush, romantic sound for a cleaner crisper style to take a fresh approach to pre-Romantic repertoire.

“In two or three days, you can't turn a modern orchestra into a period band,” he observes. “Once in a while I come across some resistance from players, but that happens less and less. And when I return to orchestras, people know me and know what to expect. There's a feeling of trust.”

Thanks to his work with his own orchestra in Quebec City, Labadie is well situated to spread the gospel of period performance. Les Violons du Roy is a “period” orchestra in terms of repertoire (mostly 17th and 18th century) and performance style. But, unusually, the group plays on modern instruments, making it a kind of hybrid modern-period ensemble – and making Labadie an expert on pouring old wine into new bottles.

Similarly, Labadie is striving to bring a sense of historicism to the vocal side of The Magic Flute – to “integrate the singers in the same stylistic universe,” as he puts it. (His cast features Susanna Phillips as Pamina and Matthias Klink as Tamino, with Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night.) He readily admits that this can be a challenge at the Met, where the sheer size of the theatre demands a fullness of voice foreign to Mozart's time. Yet he's confidant that “there's still plenty of room for Mozart's unique writing to shine through.”

Labadie is no stranger to singers' concerns and the demands of opera production: He studied voice, in his younger days. “I was a baritone with a loud and short octave,” he laughs. “But it opened my ears and mind to a new repertoire. That's how I got interested in opera.”

His love of opera led him to serve as artistic director of Opéra de Québec (in Quebec City) for nine years. This was followed by a four-year stint as head of the larger Opéra de Montréal, from 2002 to 2006. Things did not go well in Montreal: During his tenure the company ran up a deficit of almost $2-million, before he left the company. “I was hired with a mission to enlarge the repertoire,” he explains. “That required an increase in funding, which the company was never able to manage. It was clear in 2006 that I'd have to go back to very traditional rep. So I felt there was no room for what I really wanted to do.”

He insists that he wasn't pushed out, but chose to jump – and has never felt blamed for the Montreal company's near collapse. Yet for the conductor whose career has otherwise been a stellar trajectory, the incident seems to have left a few scars. He's certainly in no hurry to become artistic director of another company, and has pretty much stayed away from opera since 2006.

Then the Met came along – out of the blue, as Labadie tells it – and asked him to lead their Magic Flute . And tonight he'll officially become a member of the select group of Canadians who have conducted for North America's largest opera company: Wilfrid Pelletier was the first, back in the 1920s, and others include Mario Bernardi, Yves Abel and Jacques Lacombe. (On New Year's Eve, Montreal maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin will join the club, when he conducts Carmen at the Met.) When Labadie climbs the podium this evening, he hopes that his take on The Magic Flute will offer something different to the audience. “The ideas is not to recreate the music of the past – because we'll never know what it sounded like. Period performance is a tool, to speak to modern audiences.”

Bernard Labadie conducts The Magic Flute in New York Wednesday night, Saturday afternoon and Sept. 30.