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Palais Garnier - from 16 March to 05 April 2017
2h00 no interval
In few words:
"I am the author, you are the play: if you fail it is I who shall be jeered at."
Trompe-la-Mort (Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, Honoré de Balzac)
For this new opera, Luca Francesconi has seized upon one of the guiding figures of La Comédie Humaine: Vautrin alias Jacques Collin, alias the Abbot Carlos Herrera, alias… Trompe-la-Mort. An impressive masked figure, Trompe‑la‑mort reveals his true character through his impalpable latent energy and a plot abounding in tragic twists of fate. An ambivalent character, both regal in bearing and warmly protective, cruel and yet loving, rapacious and indomitable even in the face of madness, this ’Machiavelli among miscreants’ destined to become chief of police, uses his conquests to advance relentlessly in the pursuit of his aims whilst keeping his hand closely hidden. A consummate opportunist, the implacable Trompe-la-Mort exploits each turn of events with masterful subterfuge in his plot to subvert the social and economic order. He nonetheless remains fiercely devoted to those he has taken under his wing. Directed by Guy Cassiers, working for the first time with the Paris Opera, this portrait of a three-tiered society where some rise and others fall takes up Balzac’s question: “Is not the world a stage? The ’Troisième‑Dessous’ is the bottommost cellar beneath the stage of the Opera accommodating machinery, stagehands, the ramp, apparitions, blue devils spewing out of hell, etc.”
Opera in two acts (2017)
After Honoré de Balzac
Vautrin / Trompe-la-mort / Jacques CollinLaurent Naouri
Lucien de RubempréCyrille Dubois
Le Baron de NucingenMarc Labonnette
Eugène de RastignacPhilippe Talbot
La Comtesse de SérizyBéatrice Uria-Monzon
Clotilde de GrandlieuChiara Skerath
Le Marquis de GranvilleChristian Helmer
Les EspionsFrançois Piolino
Les EspionsRodolphe Briand
Les EspionsLaurent Alvaro
Trompe-la-Mort - Luca Francesconi
A Striking Aesthetic Freedom
Balzac in motion
Vautrin stripped bare
What can Balzac tell us today?
© Simon Fowler
A Striking Aesthetic Freedom
Interview with Susanna Mälkki
conductor of the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki is particularly
keen to promote the contemporary repertoire. She will be at the Palais Garnier
to direct the world premier of Trompe-la-mort
by Luca Francesconi and, in concert, the French premier of Pascal Dusapin’s
Concerto for cello, Outscape.
In 2011, you conducted Quartett by Luca Francesconi at La Scala Milan. When did you first meet him?
Trompe-la-mort is the second of Luca Francesconi’s operas that you have conducted. On first looking at the score, what struck you particularly about it?
The creative process is one you are familiar with: you spent several years at the head of the Ensemble Intercontemporain; you have worked with numerous 21st century composers and premiered a number of their works. Where would you place Luca Francesconi’s music within this contemporary landscape?
On 6th April you are conducting the French premier of Outscape, Pascal Dusapin’s second cello concerto. According to the composer, the title evokes “the way, or the opportunity to escape, to invent one’s own way forward”. How do the two works that you have chosen to add to the programme fit in around the cello concerto?
Interviewed by Sarah Barbedette
© Vera Frankl / Millennium Images, UK
"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.
© Kurt Van Der Elst/OnP
Balzac in motion
Trompe-la-Mort Round Table
On the occasion of the world
premiere of Trompe-la-Mort, a round table held at the Palais Garnier brought
together Luca Francesconi (composer, libretto), Susanna Mälkki (conductor), Guy
Cassiers (stage direction), Andrea Del Lungo (University professor, specialist
in fiction and the links between literature and knowledge in the 19th century).
Presented by Sarah Barbedette (Director of Dramaturgy, Publishing and
© Elena Bauer / OnP
Vautrin stripped bare
A glimpse into Trompe-la-Mort
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.”
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.”
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.
© Pauline Andrieu / OnP
What can Balzac tell us today?
Reflections on Trompe-la-Mort
To portray “the illicit classes”, the milieu “of spies, kept women and people at war with society that swarm through Paris”: that was Balzac’s project in writing a novel with the suggestive title, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. At the heart of the plot: the ex-convict with multiple identities, Vautrin / Jacques Collin / Carlos Herrera, king of the criminal classes, chief among gaolbirds, he who, by means of stratagems, subterfuges, evasions and resurrections, finally earns the nickname Trompe-la-Mort; and Lucien de Rubempré, the Adonis through whom he exacts his vengeance on the world, and with whom Collin maintains a passionate and highly troubled relationship, concealed, in high society, by the modest veil of euphemism. Daredevil existences, a thrilling plot, unpredictable digressions, an odour of sulphur… pure page-turner? Doubtless – and by Balzac’s own admission, given that he entered the literary arena during the 1840s in an attempt to usurp the throne of his rival Eugène Sue. However, it would be a mistake to limit our definition of this dark and powerfully subversive novel to a flash of brilliance as ephemeral as the newspapers at the bottom of which it appeared. The exploration of low life, as announced in the title like a fanfare, misled readers in search of facile exoticism or a convenient source of titillation. By plunging into the “underworld” of the social state, Balzac was farther than ever from renouncing his project of depicting the present time, of stripping bare the social mechanisms, “revealing the hidden meaning” in his immense frieze of the figures of an era – his era, which is without doubt still somewhat our own. For in his desire to provide “History revealed in its nakedness”, Balzac took the risk of unveiling its skeleton – and that skeleton still haunts us.“The Charter proclaimed the reign of money, success becomes, then, the supreme rationale of a godless era”. It is within this diagnosis of general vacuity that Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes belongs: religious vacuity, absence of legitimate power, absence of meaning, a void filled only by sheaves of banknotes. It is no coincidence, therefore, if the other couple in the novel brings together the banker, Nucingen, “prince of Speculation”, that is to say, as Balzac explains, “legalised thief”, and the courtesan Esther, queen of the “female pariahs”. The ignoble and necessary link established between them reveals with disturbing and overweening impudence the two mainsprings of the emerging capitalist system: sex and money, or, as Balzac put it, “gold and pleasure” – the hidden motors of the great social machine, - all-powerful motors, invisible and undecipherable, the objects of all desires and all fantasies. Esther is therefore right to affirm with heavy irony: “Harlots and thieves all well-assorted.” So much so that the banker and the courtesan symbolise the strange mechanism that regulates the life of society: to the elephant, Nucingen, so bloated with his “millions to manage” that he finds himself afflicted with impotence, the unfathomable Esther, incarnation of desire and profligacy, who wastes everything including her life, provides the ideal counterpart. Accumulation, dilapidation; systole, diastole: thus beats the gangrenous heart of the new society.
In Le Capital au XXIe siècle, Thomas Piketty claims to have found the source of the analyses he develops concerning economic inequality in reading Le Père Goriot.
With astonishing lucidity, the novelist takes hold of the process establishing itself before his eyes; at its very origin and at close quarters, he grasps the logic underpinning the rise of capitalism. It comes as no surprise that Thomas Piketty, in Le Capital au XXIe siècle claims to have found the source of the analyses he develops concerning economic inequality in reading Le Père Goriot. In this novel, published in 1834, Jacques Collin (already) teaches the young Rastignac the rules of the worldly theatre, and gives him the following cynical and bitter lesson: there is no point in working in the hope of one day making your fortune, for no effort, no profession can ensure the affluence provided by a rich inheritance – the only worthwhile option for a penniless young man is therefore artfully to court a wealthy party. No more the meritocratic ideal: thus tolls the death knell of the ideals propounded by the Revolution. In a masterly exposition, Balzac reveals, according to Piketty, fundamental mechanisms highly comparable to those that characterise our economical situation today.
What the economist does not mention, but which is also part of the novelist’s vision, is the corrosive effect of money on social relationships, the development of individualism, generalised swindling, man reduced to merchandise. Nobody escapes, no emotion survives: madly in love with Esther, Nucingen may well, in his characteristic pidgin, fire at Asie (Jacques Collin’s sidekick who plays the role of the Madame) that she is a “vicked seller off human flesh”, he knows, when necessary, how to bargain for the delivery of the woman he loves and is flattered to hear it said that, in Esther, he has made “an excellent acquisition”. As for Lucien, who likes to think of himself as a poet: his “poetry” is but “paltry”, as Jacques Collin abruptly retorts; here, “we stick to prose”.The school of disenchantment that Balzac portrays is not without moral, social and political repercussions. Far from the simplistic black and white vision of melodrama and therefore also from any reassuring conformism, Balzac does not separate the goodies from the baddies, the pure from the impure. On the contrary – and it is here that the plurality of the title shines out in all its subversive irony: given that Esther is the only official prostitute among the main characters of the novel, the reader will search in vain for others and will quickly discover that prostitution taints the whole of society: here, one bargains and sells at every level, and even if one doesn’t necessarily barter one’s body, one peddles one’s soul wholesale; one hawks one’s conscience without a qualm. The filth of crime often stains, therefore, the ermine of the aristocracy. Not only do “the grand ladies whose days are spent in the art of style and noble sentiments write like the girls act” (to quote the author: “Philosophers will find the reason behind this reversal of roles”), but in depicting a society of courtiers, the novelist reveals them to be just so many courtesans in the making. Judge Granville, that noble hero who poses as a paragon of moral integrity, does not vacillate for long before bestowing his favour upon Vautrin who, in effect, holds in his hand “the honour of three great families”, aristocratic families – which is to say that the interests of the State are involved. So one tosses off a speech or two on charity and religion and smothers the affair as fast as possible: appearances will have been kept up. Rather than condemn him to death, in an ultimate coup de theatre, and a grim joke, they offer Vautrin the post of … chief of police: the Balzac novel is also that “horrible farce” indicating a total inversion of values, and in which the criminal, that “figure of popular rebellion”, is ever prone to “cut the executioner’s throat”. The twilight of idols, the sovereignty of the Stock Market, a corrupt elite, the spectral figure of terror… But rest assured: “Splendeurs et misères” was written about a hundred and fifty years ago – any resemblance to contemporary situations or existing persons is, clearly, a coincidence.
Once the illusions have been lost, the masks fallen, what remains? First of all, ledgers and figures: an embezzled heritage, but also –the moral order is preserved! – a large sum of money miraculously restored to some thoroughly good people, Mr and Mrs Crottat (one admires the choice of name). Is that all? No. The flames of an irresistible and irrational desire, the only force capable of pulverising normality, imposing its incandescence and resisting the flatness of the world. Memories of the “monumental existence” that Trompe-la-Mort offers to Lucien, an existence that radiates the “poetry of evil”. Fragments of a sumptuous feast, worthy of the Opera masked ball, at which dubious loves shine, identities are exchanged, where lights blaze in an attempt to obliterate for a moment the disturbing figure of the “blank domino” – the omnipresence of death.
“The literature of dying societies is mere raillery” stated Balzac in the preface to La Peau de chagrin, which is why “today we can only laugh at ourselves”. It is hardly surprising, then, that Jacques Collin, the hero of a disintegrating world, is described as “that cold-hearted scoffer”. But to outwit death is to embark upon an eternal pas de deux with it. We can’t be sure that we have finished with “the cadaverous stench” of a dying era; or that we today are not still the children of the century that dawned in 1800 but which, from the day of its birth, gave its contemporaries the impression that it was endlessly dying.
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