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An Interview With Gerard Corbiau

Farinelliis a film about the power of the human voice, its ability to heal, wound, love and fascinate. Is the voice life itself?

The human voice is that part of us which lies closest to the essence of being human. It is the most basic and at the same time the most refined means of expression. The voice is the most distinctive and obviously personal characteristic. One is frequently able to identify a person more clearly by their voice than by their silhouette which can easily be disguised. A voice doesn't really change. It is the perfect mirror of all our emotions. It reveals our feelings and enables us to convey them to others. I have always found it wonderful that babies in the womb know their mother's voice and when they are born they re-discover this voice. A mother's voice has the miraculous ability to calm and soothe. It is also, by its first cry, that a child signals its arrival to the world, its desire to live and exist as a separate being. Yes, the voice is life itself.

What liberties have you taken with history and with Farinelli's story in particular?

As few as possible! Nevertheless, I did have to take a few to make the film work, dramatically. My wife and I wrote the screenplay and to do so we read a great deal about the period, studied original documents and listened to a lot of music from the time. However, there comes a point in research for a movie when you have to stop; after all, we were not creating an academically historical work. All artistic projects require a certain amount of creative license; one has to be free to recreate, invent, and be subjective about the story one is dealing with. I think one should make use of the historical facts, without remaining completely faithful to them, except when they are crucial to understanding a characters personality.

Why Farinelli and not one of the other famous Castrato singers of the time such as Cafarelli or Senesino?

Because Farinelli was unquestionably the most important! I saw him as a symbol. And then there was the mystery which surrounded his life. He was very discrete and retiring. I was seduced by all of this, and his unusual destiny.

Cafarelli had certain characteristics which I was interested in. He was quick tempered, full of self importance, haughty, and temperamental ... but I felt he was too close to the cliched image one would have of a castrato. Senesino was much more engaging, however, I was won over by Farinelli. Farinelli was both strong and fragile. He was a man constantly in search of his lost dignity.

Why did you choose not to explore the friendship between Farinelli and Metastase, the famous librettist in your film?

It is true that their friendship was interesting and extremely touching. However, they did not meet at all during the period dealt with in the film. It was only in Venice where Metastase was given the title 'Imperial Poet' that their friendship really developed as can be seen in their correspondence.

We decided to concentrate on the relationship between Farinelli and his brother Riccardo Broschi since this seemed to us to be more intense and more interesting, dramatically.

Were you seduced more by the idea of making a film about this period of history or by the music?

It was in fact the music which pushed me to make the film, and the combination of this together with the story of Farinelli was irresistible. Making a mere historical "fresco"; has never interested me, I am not a historian and I believe, very strongly, that this is not the purpose of film. The past only interests me when it encourages a reflection on the present.

Where did your passion for music come from?

I am especially interested in the connection between fiction, music and emotion: Music in its relation to fiction and vice-versa. These connections enable me to look at what really fascinates me. They make it possible for me to touch that which unites us all: the heart and the need to dream. In the movie theatre I want to dream and I also want to make others dream... What enables us to unwind and find ourselves more powerfully than music?

Music permits us to touch and feel a quality of emotion which no words could ever express. It enables us to reach the otherwise inexpressible and indescribable.

What do you think of the respresentation of music in cinema?

Music enables me to exploit cinematographically, virgin territory; it makes music live. I find it interesting to make music the dramatic source of my film, to look at it as one of lead characters. As for filmed opera, why not? However, opera is composed to be acted and sung on a set and the internal rhythm of opera is totally incompatible with that of film. I like films which "speak" like music.

You filmed the 18th Century, when the Baroque style was at its height, in a Romance style. Can you explain this?

It is true. But what would have been the point of filming the 18th Century in a Baroque style? And what is more, which Baroque? Baroque is essentially emotion, and emotion is best expressed through the way in which people look at each other. I film the way in which people react to each other. This is the priority of the camera when I film. The rest is just a question of style.

I have a horror of a camera which only reflects excellence. Farinelli, at the beginning of his career thought of little other than excellence, however, later in life when he met King Charles VI, he understood the need to become "human" and find true emotion. As a result he made his style more simple, and his priority was to touch the heart with his music. Thus he became an innovator and influenced the future of Baroque music.

There were two great epochs in European history, the Middle Ages and the 18th Century, and both were great due to their artistic achievements. Would you say that this is a European film?

This is not a film which unites artists from different European cultures artificially for the simple reason of a co-production. For example, both Broschi brothers were Italian and so are the actors who portray them in the film. The Broschi brothers travelled across Europe, so in the film we hear a number of languages. They form an integral part of the film. However, in the 18th Century the language of culture was French so the majority of the dialogue in the film is in French.

At this time, a particular musical style which originated in Naples, of which Riccardo Broschi was one of the major representatives, swept through Europe and was avidly listened to everywhere: in Italy, Spain, Portugal, England, Austria, Germany and even in Scandinavia.

Did you wish to show an image of the 18th Century hitherto hidden from the public?

I did not wish to show the 18th Century as one of nothing but lace and elaborate dresses. The 18th Century was a hard, uncouth, coarse and, I believe, very violent period. The violent nature of this century interested me a great deal. The young castrato were forced to live a very hard life. First they were emasculated, then made to undertake long and exhausting apprenticeships, and all this purely for the glory of music or the church! It is not surprising that many resisted this fate by trying to defend their art and become someone in the public eye. The public was as cruel at this time as in the Roman era.

There is an underlying sense of death in FARINELLI also present in your earlier films. Will you talk about this?

That's true. A consciousness of death is something with which we all live, and at my age, I think about it more and more urgently. The romantic coming together of the cradle and the grave is no longer simply an image, but a reality. The Baroque period was dominated by a feeling of death.

In the three films I have made, death is very present as it is part of life. It is seen through Francois in L'ANNEE DE L'EVEIL and in THE MUSIC TEACHER death is quite serene. The latter film focusses on a man arriving at the end of his life who is conscious of having accomplished his destiny and who is given the time to make his mark though a musical contribution. FARINELLI is something else. He carries death within him, in his throat. He knows that death will truly be the end for him. His voice, which is his reason for living, will be extinguished when he dies. Nothing of him will remain since it is impossible for him to procreate. The end of my film is like a kick in the face, life taking its revenge on death, or art taking its revenge, they are the same thing.

Please explain to us the crazy but creative idea of recreating the voice of the castrato.

I couldn't make a film about a castrato without music being a major part of the film and it was necessary to make the voice of Farinelli fascinating, mysterious, moving and powerful, like nothing one has ever heard before.

Today the music composed for castrati is occasionally sung by sopranos or high counter-tenors. However, much of the music composed for these wonderful singers has been lost, simply because today no single person can sing it. The range of Farinelli's voice covered three and a half octaves and whilst some singers today aspire to this, there is no one who can sing like a castrato. I think the reason there has never really been a film about castrati is because of this problem.

So I had the idea, absolutely crazy I admit, of somehow finding a way to combine two voices: the voice of a man and the voice of a woman which had a similar quality of tone. I was faced by a challenge to which I had to rise and which, in fact, took me and many others on an adventure which lasted nearly two years.

How did you choose Derek Lee Ragin and Ewa Mallas Godlewska, and how did you work with them?

I chose them with the help of my musical advisors, Mark David and David Miller. We listened to the most beautiful voices in the world today and decided to chose Derek Lee Ragin and Ewa Mallas Godlewska. We first decided to find the male voice we wished to work with for the simple reason that Farinelli was, after all, a man! We needed to find a voice which was flexible, malleable, agile and used to singing Baroque music. However, above all, we looked for a voice which was "physical," in which one could feel the humanity, and a voice which would reveal emotion.

Our search led us to Derek Lee Ragin, whose voice fulfilled all our expectations. When we heard Ewa Mallas Godlewska we found surprising similarities between her voice and that of Derek Lee Ragin. Both Derek and Ewa were extremely excited to work on the project and determined to help us in every way that they could.

Derek Lee Ragin and Ewa Mallas Godlewska worked together under the direction of our musical director, Christophe Rousset. The company Auvidis produced the music (we made a recording of the sound-track for CD at the same time as we were shooting the film.) Once recorded the two voices were pre-edited (a job of extraordinary precision) by Jean-Claude Gaberel, before being handed to the specialists at IRCAM, under the direction of Philippe Depalle who digitally fused the two voices and produced the final soundtrack. This task took seven months.

Working on a film that is set in the 18th Century, imposes a particular iconography and influences one's choice of artistic collaborators and advisors with regard to music, set design, costume design and cinematography. Would you speak a little about this?

Walther Vanden Ende, my cinematographer on THE MUSIC TEACHER was one of the first people to work with me on FARINELLI. Then I worked on the set design, scene by scene, making sure it would become an integral part of the story, enhancing the script, reinforcing the work of the actors and increasing the intensity of emotion. I was lucky enough to work with Gianni Quaranta, who has designed a number of sets for theatre and opera. He created sets which perfectly complimented the interior lives of the characters. The same applies to the costumes. Everyone was working towards creating an image of the 18th Century which didn't necessarily conform completely to historical truth, but which was appropriate to help convey what the different characters were feeling.

The extravagant shoes Farinelli wears, created by Olga Berluti, are 18th Century shoes, but at the same time they are shoes of a rock-star! The costumes which Anne de Laugardiere and Olga designed were made from material which existed at the time, however the designers, like everyone else, were working towards the common goal of being true to the psychology of the characters and making the scene work. This objective lies behind the style of certain items of clothing and the colors used in certain scenes - such as the modest red used for the coat of Elsa Zylberstein in the scene on the stairs, the decision to dress Margaret Hunter only in black or to give Farinelli a modern "look" rather like that of a rock-star.

The fame of the largest rock-stars in recent years such as Michael Jackson, Prince, David Bowie or Mick Jagger owe much to their androgyny. Is this a throw back, conscious or unconscious, to the phenomenon of the castrato?

It is true that an androgynous "look" seems to fascinate the public. But what I find especially interesting with regard to castrati is their interior androgyny. The extraordinary voice of the castrato conjures up images of universal harmony between the sexes, between man, woman and child. Their voice is probably the closest the human voice has ever come to the voice of God, it enables us to catch a glimpse of another world

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Last modified 16-August-1995.