Backstage

Vautrin stripped bare

A glimpse into Trompe-la-Mort — By Oriane Jeancourt-Galignani

Trompe-la-Mort, a contemporary opera based on the classic character Vautrin is currently playing at Garnier. The superb libretto and score were written and composed by Luca Francesconi. Novelist and literary critic Oriane Jeancourt-Galignani slipped behind the scenes during the work’s creation to file this insider’s report on the preparations for the World Premiere production.


It’s all a question of imagination: forget the basement at Bastille, the long dance floor, the simple piano, the everyday clothes, the sketches on the ground… Instead, project yourself into the auditorium of the Palais Garnier, with its pit for the ninety musicians of the orchestra, the ball costumes, the videos and living tableaux as the soloists and the chorus appear on stage. Imagine Trompe-la-Mort as it will be performed in a few weeks for the very first time in the world. Francesconi applies himself to the exercise with concentration and fiery impatience: “I can’t stand that piano anymore!”, admits the composer at the end of the rehearsal. The voluminous score he carries under his arm indeed seems inconsistent with the simplicity of the chords. The focused gestures of the conductor, Susanna Mälkki, change nothing in it: here, the only thing that is discernible is the subtle inspiration of a production conceived by its creator as “a super-powerful multimedia machine in which the forces of perception are brought together in their entirety in a single space. Trompe-la-Mort is an opera about the identity crisis which followed the parricide of the Revolution, and it is a question that is just as pertinent today”. The director, Guy Cassiers, does not disagree. For him, the opera is “the most complex production I have ever been asked to do. The staging has numerous facets on several levels and has to combine the language of Francesconi with that of Balzac. It is a language in perpetual motion where people can become still-lifes and the wings, places for all to see.” 

Here, the only thing that is discernible is the subtle inspiration of a production conceived by its creator as a “super-powerful multimedia machine.”
       That same evening, the troupe heads over to Garnier, where, after three months’ work, the costumes and sets are now ready. Francesconi goes there as soon as the rehearsal is over, and in doing so exhibits a relentless energy worthy of Balzac. Francesconi became a composer in Milan—“I played jazz and rock in the evening to earn a living, and during the day, I went to the Conservatory”—and then went on to collaborate with IRCAM the Paris-based centre for musical research. One of his most notable achievements is the opera Quartett which was performed for the first time at Milan’s La Scala in 2011. Here in Paris, he brushed aside his memories of Müller to delve into the furious passion of French capitalism, its intrigues and its silent dramas, just as Balzac depicted them until his death. There is a very specific notion of modernity inherent in this production: the fragmented narrative. Reality that is both in decomposition and in metamorphosis. Just as the character Trompe-la-Mort changes his name his accent, and even his facial appearance during his life to reinvent himself in different roles within a corrupt society to the point where he becomes chief of police at the end of the opera. The same is true for Rubempré who at the very beginning, wants to kill himself over a debt of 13,000 francs, and in the final denouement ends up taking his life for far less. This endless dance-macabre comes to life thanks to the moving stage elements created by Cassiers. Today, they are rolling wagons in which the singers appear and disappear. Tomorrow it will be conveyor belts, flatbeds and cameras. To imagine, or not to imagine… Since we have been allowed to witness the preparations, why not instead describe what is never seen by the uninitiated: the performance in its simplest form: the songs, the movements, the piano. The foundation of the illusion. The story, the characters will only appear when the singing begins. As the rehearsal starts, a cheerful array of men and women of various ages, gather in jeans, and T-shirts—or skirts in the case of the most stylish ladies—handing out caramels and slipping into clownish petticoats. Quite rare for Opera these days, almost everyone speaks French. In these brief moments of preparation, the infancy of the production shows through as never before: in the improvised wings, they prepare to clutch invisible daggers, roll in wooden carts, and partially dress up. There is also a youthful freshness to the exuberant faces of the players who are delighted to be there as they embrace their characters with enthusiasm. “It’s very exciting not to have a model to work from”, says soprano Julie Fuchs (“Opera Revelation” at the 2012 Victoires de la Musique) who is participating for the first time in a world premiere. She also acknowledges that today’s ebullience is the result of several weeks of preparation with a vocal coach at Bastille: “The hardest part is the contemporary music. It’s structure is less natural than others and it requires a great deal of mental acuity. It also needs to be accompanied by an ability to let go that is not always easy to attain”. Her acolyte, the tenor Cyrille Dubois (“Opera Revelation” at the 2015 Victoires de la Musique), who plays Rubempré, and who was a fellow student at the Conservatoire de Paris, and who is proving to be one of the great voices in the show, is all smiles: “You rarely get the chance to leave your own mark on a score. For a classical musician, it’s an amazing opportunity.”     
Cyrille Dubois (Rubempré), Julie Fuchs (Esther) and Laurent Naouri (Carlos Herrera)
Cyrille Dubois (Rubempré), Julie Fuchs (Esther) and Laurent Naouri (Carlos Herrera) © © Elena Bauer / OnP

Do the singers know the responsibility that is theirs today? Do they realise, that under my gaze, through the mere force of their breath, they are about to bring to life Rubempré’s dreams of grandeur, the collapse of his ambitions and his absurd sacrifice orchestrated by Vautrin, the very man who desires him? Through their singing, this game of fake knives and rolling wagons, assumes the guise of a sacrifice: the sacrifice of a young generation to money. They will replay the archaic ritual of youth being abandoned to the Minotaur: in this case, the indomitable power of capitalist society. And today, it does not require costumes or an orchestra to grasp that message. A collective creation. During a break, Guy Cassiers takes aside the Chorus, Francesconi, the Chorus master: staging and music develop in tandem. A collective creation emerges between these acclaimed professionals. The highly autonomous soloists play a part in creating their own roles, seeking to build them through self-reflection, all the way to Laurent Naouri, the opera’s dark heart, Trompe-la-Mort, alias Vautrin. Naouri is known for playing the devil in countless roles, be it Berlioz’s Mephistopheles or Stravinsky’s Nick Shadow. His tall stature and bright gaze certainly lend him a demonic quality, and he definitely adores his Vautrin: “I’m comfortable playing the evil character who proposes a Faustian pact. He has a devilish sense of humour just like the Devil himself. And there’s an additional aspect too, the fascination my character has for Rubempré’s beauty with all the homosexual ambiguity of the mothering-loving relationship that exists between the two men. The technical challenge is unique: I have to affect a Spanish accent in the middle of the performance.”

Guy Cassiers and Béatrice Uria-Monzon (la comtesse de Sérisy)
Guy Cassiers and Béatrice Uria-Monzon (la comtesse de Sérisy) © © Elena Bauer / OnP

On arriving at the Opera, I had in mind the legendary Homeric wrath of renowned directors a few days prior to a premiere. Here, though, calm reigned. Perhaps it is the warm and slightly stooping Guy Cassiers, who provides the “yin” in this serene combo, or the more spirited and fun-loving Francesconi. He explains to me that his self-assurance comes from the certitude that he is following in a tradition that he knows well, after having studied the history of Western music for many years, and that he stands out in the same movement. He opposes what he calls the nihilism of the musical avant-garde, choosing to continue to “convey”, and construct his vision of Balzac on several levels, with multiple interpretations which call for a rigorous, political analysis of the work. Francesconi and Cassiers are both readers of Piketty, Zygmunt Bauman, and other contemporary thinkers. But how much impact can a performance have, however Balzacian that it may be, when it is given in such a temple of elitism that the Opera represents? “Do you know why I continue to believe in what we are doing? It’s very hard to compete against television where someone can say something in thirty seconds to millions of people. But I believe that if we think that by inverting the terms, by relying on the performance and on a pedagogical message in the way that I do, we can take a great deal of time to speak to a very small number of people. And then, by Rhizomatic expansion, each person will pass on the knowledge that they have learned. Television, on the other hand, always seems to contradict or refute what it said the previous day.” Francesconi leaves me and the singers take off their petticoats. It is time to go back to Garnier, the orchestra, the sets, and the technicians who will sublimate this initial version that we were allowed to witness: The solemnity of a performance stripped bare.

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