Created in 1999, Dominique Pitoiset's production
of Falstaff is now celebrating its
coming of age. Bursting with life, it is making a comeback at the Opéra
Bastille, with Bryn Terfel in the title role. An occasion for the director to
cast a fatherly eye on his now grown-up child.
Tell us about your first encounter with Falstaff.
I first got to know Falstaff through Shakespeare.
At the time of this production's creation, I'd had some major successes in the
theatre with Love's Labour's Lost, The Tempest and Macbeth. I had come out of the German school, and had been
assistant to Karge and Langhoff, then Giorgio Strehler, who himself had been Bertolt
Brecht's assistant. So my approach to Verdi came about via a post-Brechtian,
"tangible" theatre. We thought about the mediation of objects, how to
increase the focal points of the interaction between the singers. This worked
rather well with Verdi because with him, the movements are
"musicalised" – dictated by the musical writing.
How did you come to conceive this production and its aesthetic?
I had taken it on with the conviction that we shouldn't do anything too contemporary with it, while being aware that an Elizabethan aesthetic wouldn't dialogue at all well with Verdi's music. I thought it would be interesting to exploit the discrepancies by creating a world on stage that was visually closer to Verdi than Shakespeare. It's a production from the previous century, with an aesthetic that's a very far cry from my current projects. My standpoint would be different if I had to stage the work again. However, looking at the staging, I find it has a lot of charm, and I've immersed myself in it again just as you'd enjoy rediscovering an old comic book tucked away on a shelf.
This staging is full of the ghosts of those who have inhabited it – and there are a lot of them. At the opera, the history of revivals is full of memories and the human element. If a production works and carries on for years, it's thanks to the community of artists and technical teams who keep the whole idea alive. This is something we don't see as stage directors. Once the first night is over, we generally turn the page, ease off the pressure and move onto something else.
How much room for manoeuvre do you have with a revival?
Changes always depend on the new singers'
relationship with their roles, what their interpretation allows and the way
they move. With time, I have learned to observe them. Then I can make
adjustments and guide them along paths where they can develop. If you look at past
revivals of this production, there have been some very different Falstaffs and
Alices, for example. You have to factor in the artists' singularities and
requirements. Opera is a world where, with very short rehearsal times, people
are putting their reputations on the line, and it's pretty scary. With the
passing years and each new project, my own fears have gradually subsided, and I
now take great pleasure in helping performers confront their anxieties more
Can you tell us a bit about the character of Falstaff?
When I look back at this production, I think
about the film by Orson Welles, and that brilliant scene, played with
incredible finesse, when the young king ascends the throne. Falstaff, who knows
him well, is in the crowd and shouts out to him, trying to attract his
attention. But the king pretends not to see him, and magisterially disowns him.
That scene alone encapsulates Falstaff: a buffoon for whom the whole world is just
a joke – and that aspect is what deeply touched the maestro Verdi, I feel.