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Opéra Bastille - from 02 to 28 February 2018
3h10 with 2 intervals
Language : Italian
Surtitle : French / English
Opening night : 2 February 2018
Due to illness, Anna Netrebko will not be performing the role of Violetta Valéry in La Traviata on Wednesday 21, Sunday 25 and Wednesday 28 February. The role will be performed by Marina Rebeka.
In few words:
Who does not know the story of La Traviata? Inspired by the life of Marie Duplessis in La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas, Verdi composed the grand opera of feminine tragedy: a drama where, in the name of debauchery, society authorises extremes of sentiment and affronts the modesty of the most fragile emotions with an unhealthy voyeurism. Torn between love and moral duty, the heroine succumbs to the disease that corrupts both her body and her soul, a soul inured to self‑sacrifice. Like Manet’s Olympia, in Benoît Jacquot’s production the character of Violetta is exposed to the predatory gaze of spectators who have come to denude her.
Opera in three acts (1853)
After Alexandre Dumas Fils, La Dame aux camélias
Violetta ValéryMarina Rebeka
Flora BervoixVirginie Verrez
Alfredo GermontRame Lahaj
Alfredo GermontCharles Castronovo21, 25, 28 feb.
Giorgio GermontVitaliy Bilyy
Giorgio GermontPlácido Domingo21, 25, 28 feb.
Il Barone DoupholPhilippe Rouillon
Il Marchese d'ObignyTiago Matos
Dottore GrenvilTomislav Lavoie
DomesticoChristian Rodrigue Moungoungou
On the Wrong Road
I’m watching you
Octave's winter playlist
© Elisa Haberer / OnP
On the Wrong Road
Benoît Jacquot’s La Traviata
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…
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.
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”.
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
© Elisa Haberer / OnP
I’m watching you
May my appearance preserve me from all sentimentality
And yet he'd promised to marry me, sworn it even; he had said, word for word: my love, I swear it.
As if I’d asked for anything.
He knelt down solemnly, took from the breast pocket of his jacket a little domed leather box containing this ring studded with gems that sparkled on my downy finger.
He didn’t say exactly when but added that very soon, as soon as possible, in the spring certainly, we would get married in the country; he spoke of poppy fields, of barrels of well chilled Arbois wine, spit-roasted pigs, an orchestra under a pergola, and I believed him, a perfect stranger.
He wasn’t the first man to have designs on me, I was used to it by that time, I had seen perverts and sadists come and go, I thought I could spot them a mile off now, but him, why I don’t know, I trusted him, I let down my guard; perhaps I fell in love with his diffident air, fell under the charm of his awkward manner, a courteous man, delicate, with beautiful, feline eyes, wide and flecked with amber.
He came every Sunday at eleven o’clock, sometimes bringing me a flower or a bag of violet comfits which he placed at my feet without a word, merely blushing – out of pleasure? Or shame? We barely spoke – visitors pay to pass through the heavy red velvet curtain and look, that’s all – he murmured a compliment – you look radiant this morning, your rosy complexion lights up my day.
I should have been on my guard: how could the man have admired my complexion with a huge red beard devouring my face?
It started at puberty, first a light feathering over my upper lip – nothing to worry about – then a few bristly hairs on chin and cheeks – it was unattractive but it could still pass muster, we pulled them out with tweezers one by one – and towards the age of 15, the village doctor diagnosed irreversible hirsutism. Not satisfied with being a redhead, I had become a bearded lady, with a beard worthy of a Viking, thick and mossy, like a climbing plant little by little invading my face. At first, I cut it, trimmed it and shaved it each day, but seeing it grow back more luxuriant and become thick, a real bush of fire and honey-coloured hair, I gave up.
Then my father sold me to a fair. Having declared me unfit for marriage, ill-suited to having children.
This didn’t come as such a blow: I was to escape working in the fields, escape from a back-breaking life of misery and frustration on the farm as well as from my cantankerous mother and three shrewish sisters; and I hope that the bag of gold pieces my father obtained in exchange for his monstrous daughter improved the lot of my family. Above all, I was to see the big city, my owner – a paunchy man who sported a boater, venal but considerate – being the owner of thirty or so fairground stalls on the Champ de Mars in Paris, an excellent location.
I was installed in a well-appointed caravan – lace curtains, wool mattress, Afghan carpet and a small armchair -, in the section reserved for freaks, in the company of the dwarves, Hans and Frieda, Krao the monkey child and two pairs of Siamese twins from Belgium – all noble souls and pure hearts within the casket of their deformities.
I work from Thursday to Sunday, offered up to all eyes and fantasies; the rest of the week I laze around in bed or wander around Paris, my face hidden by a dark veil; the few pence I have earned throwing myself to the wolves I spend on illustrated magazines, amber to perfume my beard, kohl for my eyelids and boxes of marzipan sweets.
It took me a month or so to accustom myself to the reactions, often vehement, of the spectators: the stupefied, sometimes disgusted, cries of the children who often wriggle out of their parents’ arms to pull on my beard; women who insult me; embarrassed men who are seized with pity for me or slap their thighs on first seeing me; the condescending, scornful or sometimes kindly and tender looks, and even dogs who sniff me with interest, wagging their tails.
I realise that I am eminently exotic in their eyes, a prodigy, one of nature’s rejects that excites their imagination and their senses. Attractive and repulsive, an object of fear and delight, I have been asked by some of them for my autograph, by others to lift up my skirts, nobody remains indifferent to my sexual ambiguity, to my physical deviances.
It took me some time to become aware of the erotic charge I carried within me like a small bomb. I was desired with an inadmissible, brutal desire, by women too, who longed to bury themselves in my beard and seize my breasts.
I am the most sought after woman at the fair.
Only the celebrated Hottentot Venus overshadowed me for a while; the news of her arrival spread throughout the town and the very next day, an hour before the doors opened, a troupe of feverishly excited men had congregated. How could I compete with the woman scientists considered to be the missing link between humans and animals? My beard paled into insignificance beside her spectacular morphology: a magnificent steatopygia, hypertrophy of the hips and buttocks doubled by an extraordinary macronympha, resulting in protruberant sexual organs. The Hottentot Venus fired the imagination, aroused the impulses of even the most apathetic men, and, I who cannot bear anyone to touch my beard, I fumed as I watched people shamelessly squeezing the Venus’s buttocks; she seemed oblivious to everything, so resigned that I was seized with the desire to save her, to take her far away from here. A longing to escape I had never formulated for myself.
A month later, the black Venus had disappeared, no doubt delivered up to other ravenous eyes.
After her departure, the men turned their attention back to me. Was I expecting love? I never perceived it in the shifty-eyed, fleeting glances of the visitors queuing up like dealers at a horse-fair.
There was no lack of propositions however, some of them explicit, crude, backed up by large sums of money, others more circuitous, timid, indirect. Billets doux slipped into my beard or official requests whispered furtively into my ear; from the more churlish the smacking of lips, a wink or an obscene gesture.
I systematically refused, I rejected them, one after the other, even the wealthiest of them: I was determined to give my virginity, not to the highest bidder but to the most delicate.
For I follow in the footsteps of Saint Wilgefortis, the protector of bearded women. She had made a vow of chastity and, when her father wanted to marry her off by force, she implored God’s help and a miracle happened: the very next morning, the young woman found herself with a beard, which immediately discouraged her suitor. Saint Wilgefortis, however, paid dearly, crucified for witchcraft.
And then Rodolfo appeared on the scene, with his gracious manners, his attentions and a sudden proposal of marriage. Perhaps I was tired of that life, I timidly accepted, not really convinced, but over the days that followed, something took shape, densified; I let this new-born love flourish and within a week it had become all-important. I was going to give my maidenhead to a stranger who had not even suggested a romantic meeting outside the fairground. Of course, I ought to have found that suspicious.
The following Sunday I put on my most beautiful dress with a bodice of yellow organdie, made up my eyes, rubbed my beard with oil to make it shine then stuck it with scented rose buds – I was ready, my heart pounding, my resolve taken.
I waited for Rodolpho in vain, it was the first time in months that he had not come. Towards five o’clock in the afternoon, an old woman, gaunt and elegant, in a lilac costume, came through the curtain. She bent down towards my ear and, in an expressionless voice told me that her son Rodolpho was not coming, would never come again, ever. After which she left, without a glance, without the slightest hesitation.
Had he been toying with me or had he taken fright?
I had been very naïve; no point lamenting my plight in spite of the pain that grips my stomach, the searing iron of wounded pride, the loss of love, a miserable sentiment that makes us weep for something we barely possessed.
Was Rodolpho just another well-to-do young man, lacking in courage and audacity, drawing back at the last moment, repressing his desire for the sake of propriety, his joie de vivre to his reputation?
I will not be a victim. Sentiments should be sacrificed, not women; I did not live for love and I shall not die of it. Let my beard preserve me from all sentimentality!
Must I then marry the Elephant-man, a man with no legs, or a sword-swallower? Are freaks and fairground artists doomed to form their own little world, isolated from the properly born, from those who look at us without seeing us?
You need us, you need monsters in order to feel alive; we harlots and dwarfs, the atrophied, the amazons, we bearded women and black Venuses, we make your lives bearable, sometimes beautiful, we people your dreams, being both witch and fairy, protector and temptress.
During the nights that followed, I dreamt a lot about Rodolpho – Rodolpho in a cage, Rodolpho lashed by a whip, Rodolpho tattooed from head to toe, a Lilliputian fitting in the hollow of my hand or tucked into my long beard as if in a nest of ferns. And in the morning I combed that cursed and venerated beard with yet more care than usual, with rage even, perfuming it excessively – magnolia juice, incense sticks and blackcurrant extract, smoothing it for hours or twisting it into little plaits tied up with silken ribbons.
In the mirror I saw that russet fleece wet with tears; I would then draw myself up, assuming a haughty demeanour, a distinguished, theatrical air, before slipping through the curtain to take my place on the little platform, on my padded seat, haloed in the murky light of the oil lamp.
© Brodbeck & de Barbuat / OnP
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Timepiece of the Paris Opera
Ce spectacle sera retransmis sur France Musique le 11 mars 2018 à 20h.
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