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Interview: Christophe Rousset on Antigone

published on 25 November 2004

Penny Martin discusses Antigone with conductor Christophe Rousset.

Penny Martin discusses Antigone with conductor Christophe Rousset.

Penny Martin: This staging of Antigone has been discussed in terms of a renewed interest or 'revival' of its composer Tommaso Traetta. Can you say what which aspects of his work have contemporary appeal?

Christophe Rousset: Traetta, like many other Neapolitan composers, had a peculiar genius for melody, a dazzling dramatic sense, and a remarkable palette in his orchestration. It makes Antigone especially attractive. The aspect that is probably more convincing for contemporary audience is the theme: a young lady is fighting against power, illegality and political abuse.

PM: How does the opera seria genre, which is more consistent with Baroque aesthetics, balance with Traetta's commitment to reform ideals in opera, which one might associate with the Enlightenment?

CR: Antigone is clearly reformed. In comparison with Ifigenia created in Vienna a few years earlier, Antigone is looking towards the future and announces Idomeneo for instance. It is more fluid, using more ensembles, mixing choruses with solo singing, abandoning almost completely Da Capo forms; intensifying the use of accompagnato - Antigone innovates. Written for Catherine II in St Petersburg, illustrating the 'enlightened' king, the opera is certainly a tribute to the general courant of philosophy in Europe.

PM: In M/M's film version of your opera, the title cards state that Antigone is set in a 2000 AD context of religious violence and social corruption, which might be read as a metaphor for the current political climate. Is this relevant to you?

CR: I didn't choose that vision but I quite agree. There is a strong parallel to find between Thebes of Oedipus and our sinking world.

I like discovering forgotten, sleeping beauties.

PM: Would you describe your motivations behind the way you approached Traetta's original version.

CR: I like discovering forgotten, sleeping beauties. I knew Traetta's work was very high level. Antigone is considered as his masterpiece. The subject of the libretto decided me to recreate this opera.

PM: Sophocles' original play of Antigone ends in tragedy, with the heroine choosing to die, rather than accepting the new King of Thebes' decree that the former king (her brother Polynices) may not be buried since he led an attack against Thebes. Although Traetta proposed a happy ending, where Antigone lives and marries the King's son Haemon, you chose the more tragic ending. Why?

CR: The music and the libretto remain untouched, so you could still believe in a happy ending. The 'Happy End' tradition in opera seria was getting less and less observed. Again, it was to serve the image Catherine II was trying to give of herself that this opera ends with a marriage. The turning point between tragedy and final feast is so abrupt that the stage director Éric Vigner couldn't take it as credible. Antigone has lost her two brothers, has fought with her uncle and was condemned to death in the same day. How could she possibly believe she could marry at the end of the same day?

PM: Some opera historians have suggested that the expressive heights reached in Antigone were owed in part to the availability of the contemporary soprano Caterina Gabrielli. Please describe how you went about casting this version and your reasons for this particular cast.

CR: It's true Gabrieli was a star, singing well but also being an amazing tragedian. She was a lover of Gluck and Traetta, inspiring their compositions. All the best theatres in Europe hired her, so we had to find a very strong personality to defend this role, because it's difficult to sing: Antigone is there on stage more than the half of the time. It also requires a dramatic intensity you rarely find with a 'regular' soprano! Maria Bayo had all these aspects in one, except that she was pregnant!

PM: How did your creative partnership with Éric Vigner originate?

CR: Antigone is actually our third collaboration. I met Éric in our 20s; he was still an actor and once I saw his work as director of plays I knew he would be very convincing in opera. He is very operatic now in his staging of plays and has given opera in general a new direction that probably a lot of stage directors will take in the future.

PM: What made you choose M/M (Paris) as collaborators on Antigone?

CR: M/M was Eric's choice, I didn't meet them before the scenery was built. The image was very strong and I liked it right away, although it was rather obsessive.

PM: The appearance of M/M's art direction evokes Modernist film and design: almost the antithesis of Baroque art. How do you feel about such an audacious visual statement?

CR: I would say it's not antithetical. It's strong, significant and has its Baroque aspects. Audacious, yes, like Antigone was audacious in the 18th century.

PM: A film edit of an opera is intrinsically a compromise for its conductor, it being a truncated version of their original vision. How did it feel to watch Antigone Under Hypnosis?

CR: I think it kept all the dark aspects of the drama, a hopeless world. I had the feeling of watching a movie of the thirties, which connects perfectly with St Petersburg, don't you think? It's an aesthetic gesture that had to be kept in memory and having filmed it is, I think, a good thing. It would be interesting to watch this film in ten years and see if these aesthetics really will have a future...

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