“It is the genius of Ravel that inspires me”, says Pelly, his face animated with expression. “I adore Ravel, I love the whole musical movement of that epoch, from Chabrier and Offenbach to Massenet, to Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc. That whole period, from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century was full of artistic riches”, he adds, enthusiastically.
Pelly’s iconic Glyndebourne Hansel und Gretel is only one of many triumphs. His Massenet Manon (with Anna Netrebko) was well received at the Met and at the Royal Opera House. His Massenet Cendrillon i(with Joyce DiDonato) was a hit in London and at the Opéra Comique, Paris. His Donizetti La Fille du regiment and L'Elisir d'amore are greatly admired.
Glyndebourne presented Ravel’s L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges as a double bill nearly 25 years ago, with visuals by children’s author Maurice Sendak. Pelly, however, is an all round man of the opera. He not only directs and designs, but has extensive practical experience as an actor in theatre. Pelly directed L’heure espagnole nine years ago with the Opéra de Paris, but this time it will be quite different, since it’s paired with L'enfant et les sortilèges, an even more daring and innovative piece, Doing both Ravel operas together will enhance the way Pelly can present the scope of Ravel’s vision. “These operas are very theatrical and very well written musically. When Glyndebourne offered them to me, I said 'Yes! Yes!' The conditions here are marvellous, we’re surrounded by nature”.
“These operas come from a time when there was so much imagination. They are full of poetry, drollness and also gravity, intelligence and spirituality, profoundity and madcap silliness at the same time. The two pieces are very different though they are both surrealist fantasies”. In L’heure espagnole a woman juggles lovers while her husband is obsessed with clockwork mechanisms. “It is set in Spain, but it’s very French”, says Pelly. Ravel could write farce about sexual mores by disguising it in an exotic situation.
“L’enfant et les sortilèges is a work that makes us understand what it’s like to be a child, maybe 6, 7, 8 to 10 years old. I was 14 years old when I first got to know it, and I was very moved. It lasts about 45 minutes, but it has the depth of an opera of three or four hours. There are so many images, so many personalities, and so many ideas! When I think about the music and its freedom and inventiveness, and the poetry in the text by Colette, I’m so happy that I’m doing it at Glyndebourne.“
“L’enfant is about a nightmare, but the nightmare is the child’s vision of the world of adults. For me, the teapot, the teacup and the shepherdesses represent adults”. The child doesn’t understand the adult world, so he sees familiar objects come to life and threaten him. It’s fantasy but at the same time understandable “You see the world through the eyes of a child”, says Pelly.
There are parallels between L’enfant et les sortilèges and Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel. In both operas, children are dealing with traumatic situations by projecting their anxieties onto fantasy objects. When they defeat these things, they learn to deal with their fears. Of Hansel und Gretel, Pelly says “it’s difficult today to stage a story about poor children who have nothing to eat. Especially, when the audience looking on is wealthy”, he adds with a grin, a reference perhaps to Glyndebourne and its tradition of fine dining. “So I decided to transform it to make it more interesting, and make references to conservation”. Humorous as Pelly’s production was, it was a pointed commentary on consumer excess and emotional impoverishment.
“In L’enfant, it’s necessary that the audience rediscovers the soul of childhood, and thinks through a child’s feelings. The music is magic, it describes so much. Technically it’s very difficult to stage. You need to get everything right, the costumes, the décor, the lighting”. Some of Ravel’s concepts are abstract, like the arithmetic the child rebels against. Pelly has long been fascinated by experimental and surrealist film, like the films of Cocteau and of Buñuel . “Un chien Andalou” he adds, a film from the same period. . Speaking of film, Pelly says “Today we have a wider variety of techniques we can use”, which may come in handy with Ravel’s surrealist fantasies.
Film and live opera are different disciplines, though. “We work in the same direction but we aren’t the same”, he says of film directors. Live opera is a unique experience “After my Manon in New York”, he says, “I went home to Toulouse, and watched it in the cinema there, sitting with the audience. They used at least 15 cameras to make the film, to make it lively, and the audience loved it. But filming and stage are not the same at all”.
Laurent Pelly’s great passion is French opera. He has directed in other languages, such as Mozart and Verdi and an interesting 2009 Janáček The Cunning Little Vixen (Saito Kinen and Maggio Musicale Fiorentino) but French repertoire is his first love. “These days there’s so much more choice with singers”, he says, since more are coming to appreciate the unique aesthetic of French style.
This suits Pelly, for he’s keen to explore less well known repertoire. “La Traviata and Carmen, everyone knows”, he says, “and you have to find something to say. But there’s so much else that needs to done. Pelly has directed a great deal of Offenbach, for example, including Les Contes d'Hoffmann, La Belle Hélène, (Santa Fe), La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, La Périchole, and La Vie parisienne. “I adore Massenet”, he says. He’s had such success with Manon and Cendrillon that the prospect of more Massenet intrigues. “Don Quichotte”, he smiles, “Hérodiade, or Le Jongleur de Notre Dame”.
In December, Pelly is directing the first Meyerbeer Robert le Diable to be staged in London for decades. It’s quite a challenge as tastes in Meyerbeer’s time and in ours are different. So if anyone can present a superlative Ravel double bill, it's Laurent Pelly. The production starts 4th August 2102. All ears and eyes on Glyndebourne!
Glyndebourne's Ravel Double Bill is reviewed here in Opera Today.
For more information please see the Glyndebourne Festival site.