On the Wrong Road

Benoît Jacquot’s La Traviata — By Christophe Ghristi

At the Opera, nothing draws Benoît Jacquot’s interest more than its conventions. When directing the great melodrama, La Traviata, he delights in what makes most other directors run a mile: the exaltation of emotion. Octave reproduces an interview given in 2014 when this production was created.  

Benoît Jacquot: In Italian, La Traviata means “the woman led astray”, of course, but also refers to an alternative route or detour. We consider almost automatically that la traviata is Violetta but why couldn’t the title also evoke an alternative pathway or wrong turning? Violetta has clearly chosen a path, her destiny, which is contrary to her desires. For her, it is the worst possible course and, of course, it is Germont who shows her the way. Violetta is perhaps not the matrix for all feminine roles but she is a great figure, an archetype of feminine tragedy that goes back to the dawn of time. However, she is perhaps the matrix of a certain type of tragic figure belonging to opera, in the melodrama repertoire, which I find particularly fascinating. In order to reach a certain level of tragic incandescence, a detour via melodrama in the literal sense of the term: sung drama, is the trademark of opera. The operatic undertaking consists in singing the drama, bringing it to a level of burning intensity which cannot be reached, at least not in the same way, by tragedy or modern drama. 

En scène!: In La Traviata there is a sense of truth and realism which wasn’t the norm in opera at that period …

B.J: There is certainly a preoccupation with truth but at the same time a preoccupation, characteristic of any popular theatrical undertaking, with ensuring that the exposure of that truth remains acceptable to the audience. Even in comparison with Dumas’s La Dame aux camellias, although not an exceptional novel, what the libretto recounts, exposes, shows, has been largely watered down. It’s not the same thing; it’s been made acceptable. Even if Verdi was not, strictly speaking, a member of the bourgeoisie, he was anxious to get something across to his audiences without rubbing them up the wrong way. It was, after all, the sublime that interested him, much more than Violetta’s downfall. The fall exists in La Traviata only to highlight the sublime.

The fall is, however, staged in minute detail…

This is a staging of misery, of profound misery. A misery that is sentimental, human in the sense that it affects humanity, social, sexual…

La Traviata, Opéra de Paris, 2016
La Traviata, Opéra de Paris, 2016 © Vincent Pontet / OnP

Financial also? Money is a source of humiliation.

Money plays a curious role. Alfredo is a complete idiot! He doesn’t understand that she loves him since he throws money in her face to insult her whilst she sacrifices herself for him. He understands nothing! Masculine humanity in this opera is a representation of the law at its most restrictive. Germont and the Baron are closely linked: because of their status, they both have power over her; one of them through a form of debauchery, the other through family ties and the need to ensure social stability. What she seems to be looking for, the reason for her sacrifice, is something one could call propriety: she wants to recover her honour. But that is an over-simplification: for something else is at work that goes beyond that: she wants to appear to herself as the woman she should have been. She consents to a sacrifice, of great beauty by the way, rendered admirable by music and song. The sublime brought into play – obviously this is what interests Verdi – is manifested through the music. If one only acted out the libretto, as a play, it would be insignificant. As soon as it is sung, as soon as we hear that music, one of the most beautiful things you can show on stage takes place: the manifestation of the sublime in a situation doomed to disaster.

The play opposes masculine and feminine tragedy, each very different, a miserable tragedy…

As if men – and this is often the case in opera –had only the choice between a sort of complete vulnerability, of almost ontological weakness that one might call spinelessness, and, at the other extreme, the assurance that comes from the authority one accords oneself or which is conferred upon one, be it the Baron, on the strength of his wealth no doubt, which allows him to keep Violetta as his mistress, or the father on the strength of family ties. The doctor has a rather charming role: he is more on her side, if only because he has a direct rapport with her life, which is gradually fading – and he knows this better than anyone – and, at the same time, he’s a doctor who “lives it up” and who comes to examine her between two boozing sessions. He is charming, even in his text, in what he sings. He is rather realistic. Alfredo, on the other hand, has, strictly speaking, no authenticity for me. Yes, he’s attracted to Violetta, there is something about her that sparkles for him and that dazzles him, but…

Doesn’t he run away when the misery becomes too obvious?

Yes, he runs away. That’s the spinelessness I was talking about. If there is a choice, when it comes down to it, it’s already been made, and she knows this because she asks him to marry a girl from his own milieu.

Isn’t this the immediate acceptance of her status as victim?

The fact that she’s a high-class courtesan is of extreme importance. That’s why it was so important to me to have the painting of a courtesan by Manet on stage. In theatrical terms, what I was trying to convey, symbolically and also very realistically, is the period of the end of the 19th century, which I’m familiar with through film (Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, Renoir’s Nana or Pabst’s Loulou) in which the sublime is introduced in the midst of what one might consider to be the least conducive to it. That’s without mentioning Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu which has roughly the same subject: the rise and fall of a female character in a world of spineless, brutal, authoritarian men that takes place through a sacrifice both enforced and accepted. Violetta is strongly akin to that.

La Traviata, Opéra de Paris, 2016
La Traviata, Opéra de Paris, 2016 © Vincent Pontet / OnP

And at the same time, she is extremely typical of her time, of Les Fleurs du Mal and of Manet, much more than we think.

Certainly, but – since there’s also a painting by Manet of Baudelaire’s prostitute mistress, Jane Duval – it’s not altogether the same thing: Baudelaire spent a lot of time alternating between two women: one of them was, in his eyes, a sort of representation of the purely sublime (Madame Sabatier), the other was a low-class prostitute (Jane Duval). His mode of pleasure and his existential position were polarized by these two extremes of femininity. Here, it’s not exactly that: there is one woman who is not divided.

But isn’t she a “Duval” who dreams of being a “Sabatier”?

That would be convenient but it’s not my impression. She pursues the only profession she can in order to rise above the social position which otherwise would be hers. And that drags her into a world that literally consigns her to a role. This young man that comes along and instantly falls madly in love with her, is like her last chance of salvation, the only remaining means for her to see herself as in a portrait. At the end of Act I and at the beginning of Act II she experiences extraordinary happiness, as happy as what follows is unhappy. That is characteristic of opera, especially Italian opera: an ecstatic rising of things only to fall the more violently, always with this idea of sacrifice, like Tosca after all. Act II of Tosca is an act entirely about sacrifice, and even more violent since Tosca sacrifices herself by killing whereas here, she sacrifices herself by killing herself.

What colour did you decide to give to this production?

The arbitrary idea which consists in transposing the period of a libretto that produced a work as monumental as this one never occurred to me: there is a kind of “red herring” effect that displeases me. The action, therefore, takes place in the original time period. There are no visible anachronisms, within a few years or so, since I was inspired, for certain elements of the set, by the films I mentioned earlier: there are illicit love nests like in Foolish Wives, monumental staircases from luxurious town houses as in Nana and the almost military way in which the idle rich behave. The same costumes, the same headgear: there is a painting by Manet of the Jardin des Tuileries in which one can make out Baudelaire amongst a uniform crowd of men in top hats and tails. What counts for me is to try and reduce each tableau to one element which would be like the part that represents the whole: one part of a hypothetical decor that takes the place of all the rest and becomes what in grammar is known as metonymy, the sum of all things. In Act I, in Violetta’s apartment, there is a gigantic bed, monumental, which takes up all the space, besides which the rest, beginning with the actors, is out of proportion, that is, of normal size and appears small. The first scene in Act II is set in the country, and on stage we see an enormous tree that dominates the entire stage beside which there is a bench, also of normal dimensions. In the second scene the staircase is gigantic … I would add that, for the women’s costumes, essentially those of Violetta and Flora, the dresses have undergone a slight augmentation, a slight disproportion: they are enveloped, as was the case at the end of the 19th century, by a huge crinoline. I was trying to play with disproportion, false proportions, falsified, “travestied”.

La Traviata, Opéra de Paris, 2014
La Traviata, Opéra de Paris, 2014 © Elisa Haberer / OnP

Why did you place Manet’s Olympia at the centre of the stage in the first act?

When I was asked to direct La Traviata, before any literary or cinematic work and before any other painting, I immediately and intuitively thought of Manet: of his realism, scandalous at the time, a realism brought to a point of condensation, almost of obscenity – indeed, Georges Bataille wrote a very beautiful book on Manet – which evokes for me what is important in La Traviata. It didn’t begin with this painting but with the men in black in the Tuileries. The first image that came to mind were the crowds that turn up at Violetta’s apartment to have a good time, beside her bed, not even taking their hats off, which immediately indicates that they are in a prostitute’s boudoir, whereas she, on the other side of the bed, of her room, during the prelude, at the very beginning, is being examined by the doctor whom we see later. As for the Baron, he waits alone in the room where, with the opening notes, everybody rushes in in tail coats, like a sort of army. It’s not very clear, but the action takes place entirely during carnival and this creates the impression that carnival is a duty and that they are all on duty: obliged to celebrate. We are familiar even today with the constrained reveller, he who, in any case, must go and make merry. This is also what kills her.

For a while she believes that Alfredo is different from the others…

It has to be said, he does sing wonderfully! She sees him, in reality or in a dream; she hears him, then she goes off with him to the country. It’s a mirage! One always sees, from the male perspective, how a woman can be a mirage for a man. Now here, it’s the opposite. He is a mirage for her, a reverie, an obsession – to such a point that she will sacrifice herself.

Conducted in 2014 for the Paris Opera magazine En scène no. 20

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