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Palais Garnier - from 16 September to 15 October 2016
3h40 with 2 intervals
In few words:
"Eliogabalo is languorous, effeminate, lecherous, lascivious; watch, observe, may heaven preserve you."
Lenia, Acte I, scène 11
Violent, terrifying and fascinating, Caligula, Nero and Elagabalus led lives so short, ambivalent and cruel that they inspired numerous writers. “Anarchy, to the extent to which Elagabalus pushes it, is genuine poetry”, wrote Antonin Artaud, exalting a man’s battle against conventions and order. Cavalli’s last-known opera, dating from 1667, focuses on the perverse young emperor who neglected affairs of state in favour of sensual pleasures. Systematically overturning accepted morals, Elagabalus dresses men as women, and names women to the Senate, favours sinning servants and humiliates generals. Baroque and carnivalesque, Eliogabalo is not, however, an opera that advocates a return to order. Leonardo García Alarcón, a finder of baroque gems, and Thomas Jolly are careful not to transform Eliogabalo into a sublime icon who would abase virtue. On the contrary, the conductor and young director, who are presenting their first production for the Paris Opera, accept the character’s contradictions and ambiguities.
Eliogabalo: Emperor of Rome
Alessandro: Eliogabalo’s cousin and heir
Gemmira: Giuliano’s sister, engaged to Alessandro but coveted by Eliogabalo
Giuliano: Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, in love with Eritea
Eritea: A young woman dishonoured by Eliogabalo and in love with Giuliano
Zotico: A confidant and favourite of Eliogabalo
Lenia: Eliogabalo’s nurse
Nerbulone: Coach driver, Lenia’s fiancé
Atilia Macrina: A young woman in love with Alessandro
Tiferne: A gladiator
Opera in three acts (1999), posthumous creation
ConductorLeonardo García Alarcón
Artistic collaborationAlexandre Dain
ChoreographyMaud Le Pladec
Set designThibaut Fack
Costume designGareth Pugh
Lighting designAntoine Travert
Chorus masterThibaut Lenaerts
Eliogabalo - Francesco Cavalli
— By In partnership with France Musique
Thomas Jolly: Portrait of a rock star director
Eliogabalo sewn with gold
© Olivier Metzger Modds
Interview with Eliogabalo's stage director
© Nan Goldin
"Dance! Sing! 7 minutes at the Paris Opera" - by France Musique
In partnership with France MusiqueRead more
"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.
© Olivier Metzger
Thomas Jolly: Portrait of a rock star director
The stage director makes his operatic debut
From 14 September to 15 October, Thomas Jollymakes his operatic debut with Eliogabalo, a rare Baroque work by Francesco Cavalli. In 10 years and with two major Shakespeare productions, the stage director has been propelled to stardom and is now considered one of the key figures of the new generation.
Thomas Jolly is enthusiastic in these first days of rehearsals: opposite Franco Fagioli, Paul Groves and Nadine Sierra, he can barely stand still. He never ceases to bound across the space separating the stage from the worktable where he is installed with his studiously attentive artistic team, to perfect a gesture or clarify an intention. He passes out his instructions with his characteristic humour and joviality. When I met him almost a year ago, he declared: “First and foremost, I am an actor. I direct using my own personal experience of the stage”. At the time, I asked him if, by switching from theatre to opera, he felt he was missing something by not being able to perform in his own productions. These first days of rehearsals answered our question.
At the age of 34, the man making his debut at the opera would be wrong to conceal his delight. In less than ten years, he has come out of the shadows and into the limelight—from a bright young hope to a director coveted by all: a meteoric rise for a “child of public theatre”, or, as he likes to reiterate: “I opted to study theatre at high school and went from there to the conservatory and then the school of the Théâtre National de Bretagne: I never paid a centime to learn my profession”. The time spent at the TNB led him to attend the classes of Claude Régy, Jean-François Sivadier and Stanislas Nordey: three generations of directors, each of whom in their own way embody a particular notion of French theatre which Thomas Jolly does not disavow: “They awakened me”.
After leaving the TNB, Jolly returned to his native Normandy. The year was 2006. With the help of a few friends from his year, he decided to set up his own company. La Piccola Familia was born. The name was the brainchild of one of his favourite actresses, Charline Porrone: “It was only later that we realised just how programmatic the name was” says Alexandre Dain, his artistic collaborator from the very beginning. “The work carried out in the company laid the foundation for our artistic project: continuity, constancy, the need for good working relationships, the co-responsibility of the narrative, even if Thomas remains responsible for the production’s overall aesthetic”
After completing his first production – Marivaux’s Arlequin poli par l’amour – he worked on a version of Sacha Guitry’s Toâ at the aptly-named Impatience Festival, which Olivier Py had just created at the Odéon. The director of the Théâtre de l’Europe was won over by the young director’s imagination. The rest is history: Henry VI, the monumental trilogy, had its debut performance at the Avignon Festival—a festival which Olivier Py had since assumed responsibility over. It was a vast, extravagant production: eighteen hours of feverishly declaimed Shakespeare. The audience entered the theatre at 10am and came out again at four in the morning, stupefied by the dramatic mastodon. Everyone was talking about Thomas Jolly. The following year Richard III closed the Shakespearean cycle and set the crown upon the director's brow.
The eighteen hours of Henry VI at Avignon couldn’t fail to evoke the twenty-four hours of La Servante, directed by a certain Olivier Py twenty years earlier. Their aesthetic affinities have not escaped some, who talk of Thomas Jolly as Py’s worthy successor. But does it irritate the young director to be already categorised? “There are worse references, says his dramatist Corinne Meyniel. “As for the rest, they do in fact have a lot in common: the same love for the excessive, the same compulsiveness to work, and above all, the same visceral connection to the text: Thomas doesn’t know it but he is Villarien. His primary concern is to tell a story and ensure that it is understood by the audience. He doesn’t believe in the notion of the author-director which developed in the second half of the 20th century: he sees his role more as that of a performer whose duty is to organise the encounter between the author and the audience.”
The fans who follow him production after production, spontaneously evoke the electro atmosphere of his Shakespeare.
Even though Thomas Jolly’s attachment to the text is undeniable – in his productions, it is rare for a phrase not to end up being displayed downstage, preferably in gaffer tape and extra-large characters – that same text will never supersede what forms the originality of his aesthetic. If you question any of the many fans who follow him production after production, they will no doubt spontaneously evoke the electro atmosphere of his Shakespeare. That atmosphere is primarily created by the lighting which has taken on increasing importance with each successive production. Already, in Arlequin poli par l’amour, particular attention was paid to the lighting, with bulbs that faintly illuminated the shadows of the stage and ended up criss-crossing around the embracing couple in the final scene with the Hollywood-style kiss. For the first time, with Piscine (pas d’eau) , he used the Servomotors which would become his trademark: these remote-control projectors that create laser-like beams of light are traditionally used for rock concerts. As he puts out, his lighting designer Antoine Travert uses them to “sculpt, chisel, and cut through the space”. In Eliogabalo, he skilfully sets the light—symbolising the moral subversion conveyed by the Emperor (the god Hélios is also the sun god)—against a sombre scenography representing the established order.
Jolly is a staunch proponent of mixing genres: “Thomas has a desire to revitalise the theatre and appeal to different audiences by importing the codes of pop culture says Alexandre Dain. He comes from a generation that grew up with television, mangas and video games and he fully embraces it. When he explains his intentions to the performers, he loves to draw on these mainstream references”. If you visit the Piccola Familia website, you can also play Richard III Attacks! This hilarious video game, developed by the company, allows you to morph into the monstrous king of the Shakespearian drama in a Pacman-style labyrinth where the objective is to accede to the throne by liquidating all the enemies who stand in your way.
This capacity to look beyond core theatre enthusiasts and appeal to a wider audience has now earned him the distinction of being wooed by television – a rare privilege which he shares with a few colleagues like Olivier Py and Joël Pommerat. This summer, his Avignon chronicles were broadcast each day on France 2 for the duration of the Festival and watched by several million viewers. Prior to that, last February, he was invited to present Richard III on the French TV show On n’est pas couché – a Saturday night infotainment programme– during which he shared the bill with Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Pascal Obispo. Aside from the unaccustomed praise from the columnist Yann Moix – “You have genius!” - the interview earned him this double-edged question from the journalist Léa Salamé: Who, in your opinion would the monstrous Richard III be today? » But since cannot know Shakespeare intimately without being versed in the tactics of political debate, Thomas Jolly answered the question with another, leaving the text to speak for itself: “The real question that Richard III poses is this: - Who is coarse enough not to see the palpable artifice, but who is brave enough to say who sees it?” It was a response which served to crucify the audience.
In 2006, as La Piccola Familia was being formed, Thomas Jolly summed up his notion of collective work in a poetic phrase: “Work together, separate for a while, keep in touch, go somewhere else and send yourself a post card.” Ten years later, the company is still there and continues to support the majority of his projects. According to Alexandre Dain “Time has a predominant place in Thomas’s work. “He believes strongly in “theatrical laboratories”. They enable us to work together long before the premiere, to take a break to allow the project to develop and then come back together again.” Switching from theatre to opera, he has tried to recreate a little of that family spirit: for Eliogabalo, he maintained a continuous dialogue for a year with the conductor Leonardo Garcia Alarcon. He also asked to organise a reading of the libretto last May with actors from his company playing the roles, in order to identify the challenges and compare his point of view with the point of views of the conductor, the dramatist, the scenographer and the translator…
Back to the rehearsals: it is the scene in which the Emperor plans to poison Alessandro and take advantage of Gemmira. One wonders how Thomas Jolly’s “solar” character – as his former mentor Stanislas Nordey describes him – can come to grips with characters as dark as Richard III or Eliogabalo to whom he has devoted himself these last few years… Darkness, anxiety and disquiet need to be sought out elsewhere: “We live in troubled times. It is an era marked with fear and division. We are seeking to create new political hope. These are the questions I pursue through these heinous political monsters”.
© Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce
Eliogabalo sewn with gold
Interview with Gareth Pugh
You are designing costumes for an opera for the first time. Was designing for the stage something that you’d always wanted to do?
Gareth Pugh :I’ve always had an appeal for the stage. Through ages fourteen to sixteen, I attended costume courses during the summer break from school, at the National Youth Theatre’s ateliers, in London. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that it was my first experience in fashion design because it was more about facilitating another designer’s ideas rather than designing myself. It wasn’t until I went to Saint Martins College that I started to design, but my education in theatre really marked my formative years.
How has this teenage theatre education since nourished your work?
Many show business artists have worn your designs: Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, etc. Beyoncé Knowles said she felt empowered to impersonate her on-stage persona Sacha Fierce by wearing your designs. Would you say that is because your aesthetic is theatrical?
How did you meet Thomas Jolly and how did you join the artistic team for Eliogabalo?
What persuaded you to get involved in this project?
G. P. :I’m fascinated with opera and ballet because both these art forms represent a freak of nature. I mean, the way ballet dancers can move and what opera singers can do with their voices is simply incredible. The way they express emotion is so singular and specific to their particular art form that being part of it is a great joy. When my involvement in the project was still in discussion, a friend of mine suggested I read Antonin Artaud’s first-person novel about the young Emperor’s life. And I’ve been carrying it around with me ever since. I found the story absolutely captivating and thought it had a lot of contemporary echoes.
Was the concept of chaos the main element in your understanding of the piece?
For the costumes for this production of Eliogabalo, were you more inspired by the flamboyant baroque era in which the opera was composed or by the immaculate and sculptural Antiquity in which the opera is set?
Did you also decide to emphasize Eliogabalo’s sexual ambiguity?
In Eliogabalo, not only are the sexual boundaries broken but also the boundaries between men and gods…
G. P. :Absolutely. Another important idea that comes across in the costumes and that crosses over with my upcoming show is Eliogabalo being a self-proclaimed sun god. Being British, Elizabeth the First comes to my mind. She used to paint her face and wear very austere silhouettes, representing herself as something more than human, like a deity on Earth, to justify her domination. I worked with the Royal Gallery in London on an exhibition about the Tudors; they were the first “power dressers”, an historical version of Thierry Mugler I guess! The triangular silhouettes of the Tudor era were an inspiration for Eliogabalo’s costumes. You just have to look at the Eiffel Tower to know how important triangles are! they are the strongest shape in physics. How a triangular silhouette directs all the attention to the face and a dynamic towards the sky – hence towards the gods – creates an impression of power and of being untouchable. But people eventually see though the veneer. And very fittingly, the libretto sets the scene of Eliogabalo’s downfall when he’s bathing. Because when he’s the least dressed is when he is the most vulnerable. The production ends on Eliogabalo stepping into a pool, and stepping out the body covered in gold, and then getting killed. As if he’d condemned himself by wanting to become immortal.
How collaborative was the creation process with Thomas Jolly?
How would you describe the process of designing the costumes for this production at the Paris Opera?
G. P. :It’s been an incredible experience. For the ballet, it was very different. Because I did a lot of the work myself: they gave me mannequins and it was very to the body. With Eliogabalo, it’s been a very different process. It was split between my studio in London and the opera. We’ve been creating ideas and trying to figure out over here how best to make them a reality. Obviously there were limitations, in concern for the performers. Accessories I love like masks were out of the question. But we push it as far as we can while keeping the clothes reasonably easy to evolve with on stage. And not every costume is so visually impactful or crazy. You work around the performers and in the constraints of what needs to happen on stage. For example, for the Gladiators scene, we created those big arm-pieces but when everyone comes together and starts working on stage, it ultimately informs your choices and we adjusted the design according to the choreography. I have to remember it’s not all about the costumes! With my show, my boys and girls just have to walk up and down, there’s a little bit more to it here! (laugh) But don’t get me wrong, it’s a good problem to have, constraints stimulate the imagination. Another difficulty is that there are so many people that I need to please. It’s like working for a client I guess. It was quite difficult sometimes because I’m not used to working with so many departments and so many people. It’s been a steep learning curve but everybody in the Ateliers who has been working on the project is very talented, with magic hands. It’s been a privilege to be part of this.
How does your collaboration with artists invited at the Paris Opera nourish your personal work?
G. P. : It happens quite naturally. For example, I had the chance to meet Marie-Agnès Gillot last year through Wayne McGregor at the Palais Garnier and we struck an artistic friendship. She is a formidable character, I asked her open my last collection. As I said before, it was all about strong, powerful women, so she was perfect for it. The fashion industry can be very cynical and someone like Marie-Agnès, who is so inquisitive, so willing to push herself is very inspiring to me. I feel like it’s much more my world. And as for my next collection, since I’d never designed costumes for an opera before, the way I approached it was very much the way I would design a collection. So there are a lot of things that we (my studio’s team and I) have created for the opera and then adapted in using for the fashion show. I guess my new collection and the designs for Eliogabalo sit together but are nonetheless very different things. My show for the London Fashion Week opens exactly 24 hours after the premiere! It’s going to be quite a logistical mind-mess to get me back to London in time and ready for the show, but it’s also very exciting!
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Une co-production Opéra national de Paris et CLC avec le soutien du CNC et la participation de France 2, réalisée par Julien Condemine et Roberto Maria Grassi.
Diffusion en direct sur Culturebox le 7 octobre.
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