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Opéra Bastille - from 02 to 25 November 2015
2h45 with 1 interval
Language : Italian
In few words:
"Would you have… by chance… the love potion of Queen Isolde?
- L’Elisir d’amore, Act I, scene 6
L'Elisir d'amore is to Donizetti what Il Barbiere di Siviglia is to Rossini: his passport to eternal fame. Like his triumphant senior's comic masterpiece, the score was completed in less than two weeks. However, success was by no means assured: the composer was still recovering from a resounding flop at Milan’s La Scala with Ugo, conte di Parigi. More importantly still, Alessandro Lanari, impresario of the rival theatre, had nothing better to offer him than “a German prima donna, a stuttering tenor, a buffo with the voice of a goat and a fairly useless French basso, but whom we must thank."
Verdi’s music, his “vocal line sometimes brilliant, sometimes lively, sometimes colourful”, to quote the fawningly sycophantic critic of the Gazzetta di Milano, must have had a magical effect on his mediocre singers, rather like that of Doctor Dulcamara’s famous elixir (in reality, a bottle of Bordeaux) on Nemorino! Or perhaps the cast were not really as bad as all that! Or were audiences immediately won over by that master alchemist's mix of comedy and poetry whose charm has never ceased to work, particularly in the tenor’s aria “una furtiva lagrima”. Besotted with Aleksandra Kurzak’s Adina, Roberto Alagna is performing one of his favourite roles for the first time in Paris in this production staged by Laurent Pelly.
Melodramma Giocoso in two acts (1832)
After Eugène Scribe's Le Philtre based on Auber
Assistant stage directorMichel Jankeliovitch
Costume designLaurent Pelly
Set designChantal Thomas
Lighting designJoël Adam
Chorus masterAlessandro Di Stefano
L'Elisir d'Amore - Gaetano Donizetti
Profession : Entertainer
A theatre made of hay from L’Elisir d’Amore
Podcast L'Elisir d'Amore
The Magic of Love
© Polo Garat, Odessa Photographies
Profession : Entertainer
A portrait of Pelly
apart from the controversies that periodically stir the world of opera, Laurent
Pelly’s productions are fully integrated into the repertory of the Opéra de
Paris and define one facet of his identity over the past fifteen years. This exceptionally prolific French stage director regularly
frequents the greatest opera houses of the world. Averse to methods and concepts, he gives priority to the pleasure of
giving new life to otherwise forgotten works.
Laurent Pelly is the kind of stage director who does not trouble himself with any notion of a hierarchy between repertories. He has staged all the major works of Offenbach, makes no secret of his affection for Donizetti, likes flirting with baroque music and has worked harder than any of his colleagues for the rehabilitation of Massenet. In the public theatre circuit, he is one of the few who dare to defend a repertory that is usually viewed as light comedy, that of Labiche, Feydeau, Marivaux, Goldoni, which he connects to the great tradition of popular theatre, that of Shakespeare and Hugo. For it is here that his artistic adventure begins, through contact with these texts whose public support has been unwavering, even when they seemed out of fashion and neglected by directors, and which he took up in 1980 with his company - the Pelican (!) - founded at the age of eighteen. The team that he assembled here quickly brought together accomplices who have worked with him ever since, notably the playwright Agatha Mélinand and the stage designer Chantal Thomas.
It is this affection for popular theatre of a man of both writing and the stage that has subsequently won over opera audiences. On all the Parisian and regional stages, and now those around the world, plus the DVDs that preserve the memory of almost all of his opera productions, Laurent Pelly offers an accessible and laughing face to lyric art. Always with the same lightness, his staging brings classic works up to date, but without fanfare, nonchalantly, with an intent that is playful rather than controversial. He is surprised that his version of L’Elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) is seen by some as a transposition loaded with references to Italy in the fifties, whereas he was basically seeking to subjectively bring to life the universe of his own rural childhood. He trusts the music on which he works without any preconceptions or theories, and in his productions tries to convey what it evokes in him, intimately, personally, thus hoping to open its doors to an uninitiated audience. He works by ear, whether for a recording or for a rehearsal. Rather like Patrice Chéreau, to name another theatre director who has worked in opera, and who also was obsessed by ways to "tell stories" through music.
Even though the productions of Laurent Pelly struggle with today's world and the human being in its elementary complexity, they seek neither political provocation nor metaphysical meditation. He makes no secret that The Threepenny Opera and The Seven Deadly Sins attract him more for Kurt Weill’s jazzy humour than for Bertolt Brecht’s writing, and his interpretation of Pelléas et Mélisande puts the emphasis on human drama, expressed by Debussy’s supremely natural prosody, rather than the metaphysical hidden-worlds that fascinated Maeterlinck. His most fundamental instincts alienate him from Wagner: he prefers lighter voices, extolling their greater scenic versatility, epitomised by his fruitful collaboration with Natalie Dessay, the heroine and instigator of a world-famous Fille du régiment. His work with choruses, not to mention the care he takes in himself designing the costumes for his productions, everything points in the same direction: celebrating the stage as a place of life and movement, of play in all the many senses of the word. Under his direction, the posture and demeanour of the singers, so often static, stilted by the conventions of the genre and the physical constraints of vocal delivery, seem to be freed of inhibitions, evoking an explosion, a climax of a jubilant disarticulation.
This practice of directing actors, sometimes difficult in the format of opera, is only possible thanks to the trust of conductors with whom he works. In 1997, his collaboration with Marc Minkowski started with their work on Orpheus in the Underworld, the first of a long series of Offenbach operas they approached in tandem. It was also Minkowski who invited him to take an interest in Rameau’s "comic ballet", Plataea, which in 1999 resulted in one of the longest running productions at the Opéra de Paris.
It is not surprising to find the director at ease in such fairy-tale worlds, even and especially when they are somewhat disturbing, for he takes a consummate pleasure in bringing the great fables of the repertory to life: Cindarella by Massenet, L’Enfant et les sortilèges (the Child and the Spells) by Ravel, or in the theatre L’Oiseau vert (the Green Bird) by Gozzi and A Midsummer Night's dream by Shakespeare are inevitably the fundamental touchstones for someone who likes to construct large scenes of visual richness and extravagant choreography and for whom the supernatural is a way of reminding the adult spectator - who might tend to take his stature of enlightened enthusiast a little too seriously, especially in opera – of the muddled pleasures of childhood imagination. The term that occurs most often in reviews of his productions, whether or not their overall verdict is positive, is the noble word "discovery".
This is undoubtedly what motivates a director who is as forthcoming and as strongly attached to stage work to constantly come back to pit himself with the same determination against the heavy and slow mechanics of opera: it is here where the finest machinery is to be found. It is here where a hundred people, each clad in different costume, can together make up a gigantic living picture within lavish decors, which moreover the director enjoys setting in motion on a revolving stage to show off every angle. The visual ideas developed within the framework of the theatre, a medium more conducive to experimentation, find a place of expansion and fulfillment on the monumental stages such as the Bastille - thus the threadlike architectures of Mille francs de récompense (Thousand francs reward) by Hugo is subsequently dilated inside the gigantic backdrop of Bellini’s Il Puritani (the Puritans): the scenographic idea lends itself to the game and comes to life on stage. Conversely, the style of big images devised at the opera in turn leaves its imprint on the more intimate creations for the theatre. Such is the case in Macbeth in which the actors seem lost in the oversized architecture and furniture. Like all creators who are excessively fertile, Laurent Pelly and his collaborators adapt and develop the subject matter of each production in the following one, in effect building links between forms and genres that seemed doomed to exist in their own world and for their own audience, without ever meeting.
Despite his constant presence on major opera stages, Laurent Pelly was at the helm of the National Theater of Toulouse, alongside Agathe Mélinand, from 2008 to 2017. It is not enough as the saying goes, to "keep a foot" in the theatre. He needs to maintain a direct relationship with the public, one that is as authentic as possible. He uses this connection, paying constant attention to it, so as to continue the adventure that started within him thirty five years ago. Do "professional opera directors" exist? Despite his obvious profession, Laurent Pelly does not intend to become one: he prefers to envisage, non-exclusively, his work in the lyric medium as a natural extension of his activity as a man of the theatre, in an approach of imperturbable regularity and versatility. Whether he devotes himself to the world of drama or that of opera, he tries to push their known boundaries with the same curiosity, undertaking the least-staged works of Hugo, Goldoni, Rameau, Massenet, Chabrier and Bellini.
These efforts demonstrate that the entertainer who loves to address the general public does not see “the spectacular”, in its superficial virtuosity, as an end in itself. His obsession with romanticism is rooted in an awareness of the twin nature of the grotesque and the sublime as formulated by his master Victor Hugo - himself inspired by Shakespeare in this respect -, in the ability of a Donizetti or a Massenet to instantly transform comedy into melodrama and vice versa. The early attraction of the director for the theatre of Strindberg is eloquent: behind the light comedy material of a love triangle or a marital crisis hides a dark side, fed by loneliness and death. Copi and Ionesco, who are among his favourite authors, claimed to have simply used the magnifying glass of surrealism to reveal that which was already present in Feydeau’s farces. Comedy is no less cruel than tragedy; on the contrary, it is all the more cruel because we laugh. The story of the ugly marsh nymph Plataea who deludes herself that she is pretty, and who becomes the victim of a humiliating baroque prank, uncompromisingly reminds us of this, and moreover the stage director of this "amusement" does not diminish the malice of satire, quite the opposite. La Vie Parisienne - to name just one other highly acclaimed work that nonetheless offers its audience a quite unflattering reflection of itself -, the improbable ball with the bourgeoisie dressed in present-day suits, clearly shows that behind the perfectly oiled theatrical mechanics and the invitation to sing along with the popular song chorus, the mirror held up to our society is cracked.
Like the brightly-coloured street entertainers, who in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (staged at the Paris Opera in 2003) have no doubt that they deserve to perform on the same stage as the pretentious and conceited opera singers, Laurent Pelly throws himself into opera scenes with no regard to labels and protocols. Neither is he seeking to be revolutionary. He constructs his theatre from the music, elaborating his concept with the singers by suggesting images, spaces, and even directing them in the costumes he insists they wear so as to constrain and liberate them. It is the only philosophy that he lays claim to, and it is an appealing one. As for the result, he accepts, always, one sole judge: the audience.
Aleksi Barrière is a playwright, director and translator. Co-founder, with the conductor Clément Mao Takacs, of the company La Chambre aux échos (the Echo Chamber), which is dedicated to musical theatre located between repertory and contemporary creation, he is the instigator of many educational and editorial artistic projects.
© Eléna Bauer - Opéra national de Paris
A theatre made of hay from L’Elisir d’Amore
A production remembered
Didier Valentian - deputy head of the painting studios, Bastille.
“Among the 1950s-style illustrations and country visuals that Chantal Thomas brought us to create the sets for L’Elisir d’amore in 2006, the sketch of a pyramid of hay took pride of place. To bring the idea to life, we began by working with real hay stacks: it was a case of the countryside invading the workshops. From there, we initiated a dialogue with Chantal to respond to two specific needs: this particular set component had to be mobile and easy to dismantle. The pyramid of hay was built in several stages with a metallic frame forming the base. Next a wooden terrace-like structure was added composed of a succession of crates arranged in steps. Finally, the top of the pyramid was not made of wood but sculpted in a laminated, resinated composite material. Obviously, it was impossible to cover such a volume with real, perishable hay—not only is it inflammable and slippery but it can trigger allergies among the actors—so we looked for a durable product capable of giving the visual appearance of hay. The best solution seemed to be sisal, an extremely robust plant, the fibre of which is used to make rope. When the strands of sisal are intertwined, dyed and cut to the right length, they look just like wisps of hay. Even though it is a trompe-l’œil, it is no less natural. We worked the material into different shades and thicknesses, so that each wisp looked different from another and each bale appeared authentic. We used around 400 m2 of the material, and since the studio measures 700m2, it gave the impression of walking into a barn. To reproduce the texture of the hay, we had to cover the angular wooden structure with considerable amounts of foam which also involved a significant amount of modelling work to give each bale a specific roundness. In this haystack there’s no needle but there are fifteen kilos of staples!
Practically all the workshops were mobilised to build this pyramid of hay, and the decorating and painting phase alone, carried out by my team of five, required six weeks’ work. Paradoxically, it is often the sets requiring natural or realistic-looking components that demand a greater inventiveness on our part. In return this type of scenery and the challenges it poses give us a great deal of pleasure because reality and the illusion of reality are at the very heart of our profession. However, on stage, it’s a question of reality reconstituted and redirected to dramatic ends. In Chantal’s mind, this wasn’t just a mundane stack of hay bales but a rural theatre serving the idea of a performance within a performance dear to Laurent Pelly. We are even more delighted when sets are conceived to complement the staging: seeing the singers moving about and having fun in this environment is extremely gratifying.
Each of us grew attached to the set during its conception, but we could never have imagined to what extent it would captivate the public. Its pastoral appearance, the rural charm it exudes won us over from the start and I’m not at all surprised that it has become emblematic of this production. Its very success means that it has travelled extensively, but only we possess the secrets of its fabrication and the know-how to maintain it. As a result, it returns regularly for a "tidy up" and each time we are happy to work on it again since it invariably provides an invitation to have fun.”
Interviewed by Milena McCloskey
© Vincent Pontet / OnP
Podcast L'Elisir d'Amore
"Dance! Sing! 7 minutes at the Paris Opera" by France Musique
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" Dance! Sing! 7 minutes at the Paris Opera" offers original incursions into the season thanks to broadcasts produced by France Musique and the Paris Opera. For each opera or ballet production, Judith Chaine (opera) and Stéphane Grant (dance), present the works and artists you are going to discover when you attend performances in our theatres.
The Magic of Love
A reading of L'Elisir d'amore
It is Donizetti and, through him, that charlatan Dulcamara who were right: love potions do exist! And when an ethno-psychiatrist as charming as Tobie Nathan affirms it, there is every reason to believe him.
I’d like to begin this interview with a paradox that intrigues me: you pursue a highly serious vocation – that of ethno-psychiatrist – and yet you have entitled your book Philtre d'amour. Comment le rendre amoureux? Comment la rendre amoureuse? (Love philtres. How do you make someone fall in love?)
Tobie Nathan: For centuries people have believed that love grew naturally between two beings mutually charmed by their harmonious bodies, pretty faces or noble souls. The idea of the love potion, which is the starting point of both Donizetti’s opera and my research, suggests the opposite: that desire can only be aroused by a deliberate act. Mind you, I’m referring here not so much to love as to passion. In Greek there are two words to denote love: Philia and Eros. Philia is the serene love of those who have shared their existence for twenty years. Eros is passion with all that that implies in terms of bliss and suffering and it is this passion one aims to arouse with a love potion. Indeed, it is worth noting that, in Donizetti’s opera, the creator of the elixir is called Dulcamara, which means bitter-sweet.
Do you really think one can arouse romantic passion with a love potion?
Tobie Nathan: The idea might seem contentious to some, over-the-top even, but the fact remains that it has haunted our culture since Antiquity. The Greeks had an expression to refer to any object used to manipulate someone: they spoke of “objects of constraint”. If you find it ridiculous that an object could be used to control someone, consider the telephone you have placed on the table: there’s an object you keep permanently with you, which links you to another person – to a multitude of people in fact! – and which constrains you to carry out numerous actions. It’s an object of constraint.
When did these ‘objects of constraint’ first appear?
Tobie Nathan: We have found evidence of these famous objects, often ceramics, dating back to Antiquity. The Greeks, whom one imagines as being fascinated by rationality, believed strongly in this kind of manipulation: there were numerous cases of trials in which people claimed to be victims of one of these objects. Some of those accused even went to prison. The Greeks had doubtless borrowed the idea from the Mesopotamians who had in turn taken it from the Egyptians. One should add that these are “techniques” and techniques are what flow most naturally from one culture to the other. In the Middle Ages, such objects enjoyed huge popularity. In the 12th century, a certain Albertus Magnus wrote an official treaty on magic spells which has survived until our times: it’s the sort of book you can still pick up from the second-hand book sellers on the banks of the Seine. It contains a celebrated recipe for making anyone you choose fall passionately in love with you…
This form of message is in every way comparable to the love potion except for the fact that it directs desire not to a human being but to a material object.
The moment has come to ask you for the recipe for one of these famous potions…
Tobie Nathan: Yes, of course. Do you know what a “love-apple” is, not the sort you eat at the funfair, but the real apple of love according to Albertus Magnus, the one that will make absolutely anybody fall in love with you? Take an apple, cut it in half and scoop out the core. Take three hairs from the head of your beloved and plait them together with three hairs from your own head and place the plait in the centre of the apple. Add a slip of paper bearing your own name and that of your beloved, written in your blood. Address your prayer to Sheva – doubtless a corruption of the Hebrew name Bathsheba! – close the two halves of the apple and bake it in the oven. All that remains is to activate the spell with myrrh and place the baked apple under your beloved’s bed. During the night, the apple will release its essence and in three days the person will fall madly in love with you: Albertus Magnus is quite categorical.
In The Elixir of Love, Dulcamara doesn’t bother with all those precautions…
Tobie Nathan: Maybe Donizetti’s knowledge of potions was somewhat hazy: his quotation from "Tristan and Iseult" at the beginning of the opera is very approximate! There is, however, one aspect of the question that he grasped perfectly: that of the principle of “activation”. In every culture, the object destined to arouse desire is an automat, an inert object which must be brought to life if it is to be effective. Now, how do you give life to an object? First of all, with blood of course. But not just any blood: blood that is still active: the first drops of blood to be shed and which therefore still contain life, hence the use of animal sacrifices in numerous spells… but when you don’t use blood, you can fall back on other substances: perfume, as in Le Grand’s treaty, or wine, which is a symbolically weaker version of blood. It is Bordeaux that we find in Donizetti’s opera.
When did people stop believing in love potions?
Tobie Nathan: As of the 19th Century, with the advent of mass advertising. But I wouldn’t say people stopped believing in them. It’s more that the belief was displaced, swallowed up by the consumer society. What, after all, is advertising but an attempt to create desire in consumers in the most artificial way possible? When you go to the supermarket, why do you take a fancy to one washing powder more than another? Because you’ve been exposed, or rather over exposed to advertising messages! Now, this form of message is in every way comparable to the love potion except for the fact that it directs desire not to a human being but to a material object. Advertising subverts sexual urges and redirects them towards consumer products. In this way, the societ we live in today subverts a large part of our sexual potential. In reality, we pretended we no longer believed in actively magic objects in order to develop infinitely more active forms of manipulation. Donizetti was well aware of this. His opera ends with love’s triumph, but it is Dulcamara who has the last word and for whom the happy denouement provides an unexpected advertising spot. His final words are: "Get rich!" That was the motto of the July Monarchy! Consumerism is the order of the day!
When it comes down to it, didn’t we invent love potion to satisfy a need, because we understand nothing about the nature of our desires?
Tobie Nathan: It is interesting that you refer to “the nature of desire” because there are two schools of thought on that issue: one questions what desire is and the other asks how it functions. The first, Plato, looks at desire and defines it as a feeling of longing. He is not wrong. The passion of love is above all a feeling of lacking something: even when I make love with the person I love, I yearn for them. You want to fuse with them completely but such a fusion never really takes place. One just experiences flashes of intense feeling. The psychoanalysts are on Plato’s side. Magic, on the other hand, is Aristotle’s province. Aristotle isn’t interested in the nature of love but in the way it works, in “how you do it” if you like. It’s from this second tradition that we get love potions and, as I’m sure you’ve realised, it is this tradition that I prefer.
Donizetti is in fact heir to both…
Tobie Nathan: Absolutely, because one can have two different readings of his opera. If one takes it literally and considers that Dulcamara’s love philtre works, The Elixir of Love is Aristotelian. However, if one has a more psychological reading and takes into account the fact that Adina’s interest in Nemorino is awakened when he shows indifference to her, when she seems to be losing him and misses him, then it is Platonic. Allow me to pause over the name Nemorino, which signifies “nobody”: it is through love that he becomes someone, that he becomes himself.
To the fundamental question “Who am I?”, The other person then intervenes by giving me the answer, “You are the one who loves me.”
Isn’t that something of a paradox, given that we are more accustomed to associate love with a loss of self?
In literature perhaps, but not in philosophy. As I am incapable of defining myself on my own, I have to define myself by the links that bind me to other people. To the fundamental question “Who am I?” philosophy provided an answer very early on using objects, in the psychoanalytical sense of the term. The scenario goes as follows: when I fall in love, I change, and this change prompts me to question who I am. The other person then intervenes by giving me the answer, “You are the one who loves me.” This is also true in social terms. We live with our parents until we encounter a love that allows us to detach ourselves from them. We then cease to be our parents’ child and become a fully-fledged social being. Love is a constituent of our autonomous beings.
In your book, you state that love is the fruit of manipulation. Aren’t you afraid that the love potion could be a golden opportunity for manipulators and other narcissistic perverts - the whole spectrum of horrors exposed by modern psychology?
Tobie Nathan: There is a fundamental difference between the love potion and the kind of manipulation practised by a narcissistic pervert. In order to dominate his victim, the pervert seeks to isolate them, cut them off from the rest of the world, from friends and family, from everything that constitutes his or her social life. A contrario, the love philtre always requires the intervention of a third party: the person who provides the potion, to be exact: Bragnae in Tristan and Iseult, Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet and Dulcamara in The Elixir of Love. Through the presence of this third party, society retains a foothold in the love relationship and the couple remains firmly rooted in a social existence. In any case, when you think about it, there is always a third party in a amorous relationship.
Are you still referring to mythology or to real life?
Tobie Nathan: Real life. At least, for my part, there is always a third person in my love relationships. I remember my very first love. I must have been eleven years old. She was called Danielle and she was fourteen. One day, a girl I didn’t know came up to me and asked me: “Do you love Danielle?” I replied that I did and, from that moment on, I loved Danielle. I don’t know what was going through the mind of that little girl, but by asking her question she became the originator of my first love affair.
Propos recueillis par Simon Hatab
Tobie Nathan est professeur émérite de psychologie à l’université Paris VIII. Il est le représentant le plus connu de l’ethnopsychiatrie en France. Il est l’auteur de Philtre d’amour. Comment le rendre amoureux ? Comment la rendre amoureuse ? dans lequel il explore la thématique du philtre d’amour de l’Antiquité à nos jours, partant du principe que l’on tombe amoureux non pas au gré des rencontres, charmé par un corps harmonieux, mais parce que l’on a été l’objet d’une « capture » délibérée.
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