In 2013, a new production of I Puritani, directed by Laurent Pelly, entered the Paris Opera’s repertoire. To mark the revival of the production at the Opéra Bastille this season, Octave is republishing the interview that Laurent Pelly gave to the Opera’s magazine. He reveals his fascination for Bellini’s last work, the scenographic challenges he was confronted with and the use of video as a dramatic tool.
As a theatre and opera director you are a faithful habitué of the 19th century. Where would you place I Puritani in your personal geography of that period?
Laurent Pelly: Between romantic opera and bel canto. I think what I find most fascinating in Bellini’s final opera is the singing. It’s true I’ve focused a lot on the 19th century, but generally on works from the second half. I’ve never really tackled bel canto be it Rossini or Verdi—except for La Traviata which I directed in Santa Fe. But then, La Traviata is no longer bel canto: it’s theatre. I remember when I did L’elisir d’amore at the Opéra Bastille—my first Donizetti—I asked myself a lot of questions. Of course, it was a very theatrical comedy. It certainly wasn’t Handel’s aria da capo... Nevertheless, I found myself confronted with a style new to me, a style comprised of repetitions and variants far removed from sung dialogue. But as a director, I’m most interested in making use of the form to tell a story. With “L’elisir”, using the energy of the singers I was gradually able to get to grips with those stylistic codes to bring them alive, to give meaning to the merest note, to never let the music flow by gratuitously. Today, I’m at exactly the same point with I Puritani: how to build something theatrical from this new musical material? That’s the question I try to answer with the conductor and the performers. My greatest pleasure is working as closely as possible with the singers and chorus to draw on their performance to lend form to my production.
In a work such as I Puritani, do you find the singing—more than the libretto—the true challenge when it comes to the staging?
Yes. I assume that the music predominates because the plot narrative is constructed in a rather odd way. It is serious without really being so. At the start of the opera, how else do we explain the fact that the inhabitants of the jubilant fortress announce the marriage of Elvira to a man from the opposing camp without the young woman being aware of the union herself? How else do we explain that she tries out her nuptial veil on a prisoner whom she doesn’t even know and who turns out to be the Queen who in turn runs off with Arturo. To me, all of that seems to be more fantasy than reality. This was the reasoning behind our decision to tell the story through the subjective eyes of Elvira. Approaching it from that angle enabled us to construct a dramatic narrative that constantly referred to the music even if it meant moving away from historical reality. Furthermore, it seemed to me that the historical narrative was always more of a pretext than a major pillar of the drama. Unlike Victor Hugo who, when he wrote his Cromwell, sourced a significant corpus of literature and fervently questioned his relationship to the Napoleonic myth and his own era through the figure of the Lord Protector, I don’t think that Bellini and his librettist Pepoli were really passionate about 17th century England or the conflict between the Royalists and Puritans...
The approach of recounting a story through the eyes of a character seems to be more in line with the writing style of a novel or a film screenplay than theatre...
Those are art forms that inspire me greatly. Especially cinema. I often perceive the stage—and the process of developing a scenography—through the movements of an imaginary camera. In shot, reverse-angle shot, travelling shot, wide-angle shots and closeups... In the theatre, I ask myself how can I transpose those cinematographic techniques? How can I obtain the rhythm of an edited film?
For I Puritani, how do you translate the idea of a “subjective camera” with things that are quintessentially theatrical such as scenography, costumes...?
The idea was to use the era—by performing in costumes and historical sets—while at the same time re-examining it: to create a mental world as perceived in the mind of a dreamer. With my stage designer Chantal Thomas, we developed a rather unconventional scenographic object that is both minimalistic and highly complex. The set represents a 17th century-inspired English castle, albeit one reduced to its angles and lines: it’s an immense cage on a revolving stage that encloses the character in a harsh, austere world, at once historical yet unreal. The same goes for the costumes. I worked from the lines of the era, but I pared them down to make them purer and I used fabrics that were anything but realistic. We present the chorus for example in a highly graphic way. They appear like a set of pawns on a giant chessboard with extremely rigid silhouettes. It is the world as seen through the eyes of an Elvira plagued by madness.
Is the use of video projection—something rather rare in your productions—also part of this process?
Yes, and it’s interesting because the use of such a medium is new for me. It’s an additional experiment that I’m attempting with this I Puritani. At certain times during the performance we project black and white images of close-ups of the characters, which make us lose our spatial bearings and contribute to the nightmarish atmosphere of being confined in the mental space that is Elvira’s mind. By extension, that dramatic concept also allowed me to grapple with the theme of the sacrificial female character which is so pervasive in all—or almost all—of the works from the 19th century.
Is the question of the condition of women in the 19th century something that particularly moves you?
Not the condition of women per se, but rather, the jubilation with which the 19th century theatregoer watched the great heroines suffer and often die as they were served up as sacrifices to bourgeois morality. I did a production of La Traviata this summer... Manon is in the same bracket, Carmen too... Because these women are seeking freedom and fall outside the realms of accepted norms, it causes a scandal, but also a reactionary gratification in seeing them pay with their life for their yearning for emancipation. To be sure, in I Puritani, Elvira survives, however, she still has to experience madness. And since she lives in a male-dominated world at war with itself in which she strives to experience her own desires, I think it makes sense to imagine the work through her eyes.
In addition to your prolific career at the opera, you also work regularly in the theatre. What do you gain from the constant back-and-forth between drama and opera?
Although the two are related, and although I get the impression that I’m doing the same job, working at the opera has greatly enriched the man of the theatre that I was. What I find most interesting in opera is the “absolute convention”: as soon as a character sings, you have to invent solutions to be able to maintain the dream. And since I like to create oneiric dramas this particular “constraint” suits me perfectly. Opera has also taught me to appreciate large spaces: it’s extremely rare for us to work on stages that big in a theatre. And then, the vagaries of programming have meant that I’ve dealt a great deal with works from the 19th century repertoire at the opera. Meanwhile, at the theatre, I recently staged two plays by Victor Hugo. So inevitably, the two worlds begin to interact—the eras, the styles, the ways of envisaging a production...
You make many references to Victor Hugo, whose plays, in fact, you have often directed. You said jokingly that you could live extremely well in the theatre by just staging the works of Shakespeare and Hugo. In what particular way do those two playwrights nurture and sustain your vision of theatre?
Hugo and Shakespeare—who was a great source of inspiration to the former—are for me two great masters because their theatre closely intertwines human tragedy and comedy. Recently, I directed Macbeth: it’s a fearsome, violent, blood-soaked play, yet it is also one in which I couldn’t help but see a farcical dimension—a dimension that Jarry also appreciated in “Ubu Roi”: murdering everybody to seize and retain power, only to become isolated in one’s own madness... The way that Shakespeare and Hugo have the ability to constantly oscillate between profoundness and the light-hearted or ribald helps me to understand the works that I am directing, including this production of I Puritani: This gigantic, transparent castle-prison, this pathetic murderous war...
Compared to other directors whose aesthetics are immediately identifiable, your productions follow on one after another, yet none are alike—even when you work regularly with the same stage designer. Is it a constant concern for you to renew and invent without reproducing what has come before?
I don’t look at the problem quite in that way. Let’s just say that I believe that the work must assert its aesthetic. That’s why the staging for I Puritani doesn’t resemble Giulio Cesare or L’elisir d’amore, or Platée. With Chantal Thomas my scenographer, we have no formula. We always like to start with a blank slate. Of course, I have my obsessions and my way of telling a story can be influenced as a result: I’m fascinated by theatrical illusion and that fascination can manifest itself in any given production. But what interests me most is to be completely absorbed in a work. Sometimes, I feel the need to transpose the work; to change the era or deconstruct it, because we no longer have the cultural references to understand it. Yet for others, I completely avoid doing so. I just restaged L’Enfant et les sortilèges in Japan for example. When I direct a masterpiece that is so complex in terms of dramaturgy and scenography, my role is, above all, to do everything I can to ensure that it “functions”. If I start to deconstruct it, I risk killing it...