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The director Laurent Pelly returns to La Monnaie this December with Don Pasquale. We were able to interview him at the end of the summer, a few days before he left for Philadelphia where he presented a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor in September. A conversation devoted to Donizetti.
Would you say that Laurent Pelly and Donizetti work quite well together?
Yes, Pelly and Donizetti “comedies”, anyway, since it’s only now [in September 2018, Editor’s note] that I’m taking on a Donizetti “tragedy” with Lucia di Lammermoor, in Philadelphia. You see, the four works by Donizetti that I have staged are all comedies: L’elisir d’amore, Don Pasquale, La fille du régiment and, just last year, Viva la mamma. And it just so happens that all those productions are to be presented again starting from this autumn: L’elisir d’amore at the Bastille in October, Viva la mamma in Geneva, Don Pasquale in Brussels, Lucia in Vienna, and, at the end of the season, La fille du régiment in London – an entire season of Donizetti!
What is it that appeals to you about this repertoire?
Donizetti’s comedy genius, of course. His genius can be compared to that of Offenbach for example. And Don Pasquale is the best of all; it’s a masterpiece. Everything in the music drives the action. When a work like this is well “interpreted” in every sense of the word, time has no effect on it. It’s one of the last operas that Donizetti composed. He was a mature man and was nearing the end of his career, though he couldn’t have known it. A late work, like Verdi’s Falstaff or Massenet’s Don Quichotte. Don Pasquale is neither a Falstaff nor a Don Quichotte, but those characters have something in common: all those old men have a desire to live again. I find that very touching. Besides, staging an opera like Don Pasquale is pure theatre!
With Donizetti, every note, every chord has a dramatic significance, drives the plot, and breathes life into the comedy.
Is that more challenging when you are returning to a work with different singers?
That really depends on the singers: with each production, you have to redo the work with them, develop the characters in accordance with their own personalities, give them inspiration for the characters, etc. If they don’t make the story completely their own, you have already half failed. You need singers who have the necessary skills, just as you would for the commedia dell’arte. Because the production itself is, in fact, relatively simple: there’s a box made up of three walls, just a few pieces of furniture, a few doors to allow the singers to move around, etc. The box gets turned back to front, a clear symbol of the trials Don Pasquale undergoes. What I love about this work is its simplicity, the economy of means employed to tell a story that gets straight to the point. In Brussels, we’ll have Michele Pertusi, with whom I have already worked – albeit in a different type of production – who recently sang the title role in Paris and has all the right skills for the part. At the moment, I don’t know yet how I will get on with Lucia and the tragic canon, but in his comedies, I “hear” Donizetti’s music very clearly. What works well is integrating the ensemble of singers into the movement, into the music.
What do you mean by that?
With Donizetti, every note, every chord has a dramatic significance, drives the plot, and breathes life into the comedy. You have to stick to the music. In Don Pasquale, everything is condensed as much as possible: there are only four main characters, things are concentrated, the story cuts right to the chase. There’s nothing in it that you could take out, nor could you add anything to it – it really is brilliant. And the proof is that it works very well as a simple production, using simple devices, without effects.
For the premiere of his opera in 1843, Donizetti himself strongly insisted on the costumes and sets being modern: he wanted “contemporary” costumes and, above all, nothing that was suggestive of the eighteenth century…
Our approach in this production follows that idea. I’m not inspired by one specific era, even though post-war Italian cinema, for example, has always been an important source of inspiration for me. But I prefer to emphasise the timeless aspect of the situation.
I have always thought that for a director, comedy in opera is harder to achieve convincingly than tragedy… What do you think?
For me, the comedy in Donizetti’s work is something natural. I’m thinking too of The Golden Cockerel – hey, another story about an old guy! [laughter] That opera was a revelation for me. In the story, which is not a very happy one, there is an undercurrent of comedy. That’s really what I prefer to do: even with a tragedy, I like to find what is comic within it.