INTERVIEW: NICOLAS JOËL
By Joel Kasow
France. 21 April 2000 - Nicolas Joël not only stages
operas all over the world, he also runs the Théâtre du
Capitole in Toulouse, which this year inaugurates a new series at the
Théâtre du Chatelêt in Paris, the Festival des Régions.
Not only will M. Joël's stunning production of Gustave
Charpentier's Louise be revived, this
time with Renée Fleming
, Martine Dupuy, Marcus Haddock and Alain Vernhes, but he is
staging a new production of Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet with Natalie Dessay
and Thomas Hampson in the leading roles. Both operas
will be conducted by Joël's long-time collaborator, Michel
Plasson. We interviewed Nicolas Joël in his office at the
Capitole two years ago just prior to the premiere of his new staging
of Boris Godunov.
Photo: Charlotte Oswald
Looking back, you began your career as an
assistant to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
Nicolas Joël: I
met him through various friends when I was very young in Salzburg
where I was studying German - I was 15 at the time. I bought myself a
ticket - I don't know with what money - and saw the Barbiere di
Siviglia which was absolutely thrilling. I thought, this is what I
want to do and I was lucky enough to meet him. Three years later, when
I got my baccalauréat, which is virtually obligatory for any
French kid, I wrote to Ponnelle in Munich and immediately received an
answer inviting me to come and see him during the rehearsals for Clemenza
di Tito, which I did. Then I was hired by the Opéra du Rhin
in Strasbourg as an assistant director, and later went with Ponnelle
to San Francisco and Salzburg and at the same timed worked with
Patrice Chéreau on his Bayreuth Ring. I was a lucky
young man, 22 or 23 years old, with a permanent job in a good French
house and also helping Jean-Pierre restage for San Francisco some of
the Puccini he had produced in Strasbourg (Turandot, Tosca, Bohème).
I would spend June and July assisting Chéreau in Bayreuth, then
off to Salzburg to work on Karl Böhm's last Giovanni and
a revival of Nozze di Figaro with von Karajan, present at
rehearsals with Boulez or Böhm or Karajan. Then I started my own
career with a Ring in Strasbourg. I never understood why they
ended up giving it to me, as they must have been thinking of someone
else. All the "adult" stage directors at that time were
panic-stricken by the idea of touching the Ring. As I had
already spent three summers in Bayreuth, they realized that I knew the
work inside out. I talked to Chéreau and he said, "Of
course you can do it. You've been working on mine and now you'll work
on yours." Of course, I did it, and Rheingold was
successful enough that they let me continue. The cycle was only given
in its entirety later in Lyons, and then a few years after I staged a
new version in Wiesbaden.
Were there many similarities?
NJ: No, we really changed it. I worked with
the same designer, Pet Halmen (who now is also a director), but it was
And soon you will be doing Walküre? Will it be "traditional"?
NJ: I don't think
[and it was not -
see review and picture elsewhere in OperaNet]
think it's possible. The problem is that so much of what we see now -
such as changing the period which I have nothing against, I just want
to believe in it and 99 percent of the time I don't - is an empty
hole, generally a very traditional staging in pseudo-modern dress,
often done by people who have no métier, who are literally
incompetent at mere directing. I don't pretend to be the greatest
director in the world, but I know my trade. There is no scandal at the
opera any more, other than mediocrity which is generally what you see.
Of course, the choice of designer is important - I worked with Halmen
in my early days, then Hubert Monloup and Carlo Tommasi and Ezio
Frigerio which is one straight line. We've explored various ways. A
question that is always put to you by American opera managers if they
want to hire you, and I am very lucky and grateful because it is a
country where I do a lot, is will the production be "traditional"
or "modern" (or sometimes "conceptual"). For me
that doesn't say or mean anything.
La Forza del destino (1999)
recently have started working on the sets for your productions, such
as Il Trittico or Boris Godunov.
NJ: Yes. The Boris
is very special: it has a technical setup but otherwise uses the bare
stage. It is more a lighting design than a stage design, and I did
collaborate on the Trittico. I certainly do not consider myself a
designer, that is not my area of competence. Working with a designer
is a difficult process. You must be lucky, as I have been with the
designers I already mentioned, but you must also accept the designer's
work - which is important and enriches the end result - just as you
profit from the views of the conductor (if he has any) and some of the
singers (if they do). The Boris has an extraordinary cast of
intelligent artists. Sometimes, when I think my vision is so precise
that it doesn't need someone else's approach, I'll do it myself. It is
an additional way of expressing myself, but it is certainly not a new
direction I plan to take.
noticed that over the years we haven't always been particularly kind.
The first time I reviewed your work was a conceptual Cavalleria
and Pagliacci in Amsterdam. If you were to do those operas
today, would your approach be the same?
NJ: It was naïve.
I don't think it was wrong. It didn't say much for the piece itself or
help the piece.
often speak today of direction d'acteurs. This should of
course always be the goal, but I'm not sure that it's always possible
NJ: Things have
changed enormously and many singers have become extraordinary actors.
With some you can even work as you would with a theatrical actor. Of
course, the techniques are completely different and probably the most
important thing a theater or movie director does is work on timing,
whereas in opera the timing is already there. As Chéreau said, "A
l'opéra, le premier metteur-en-scène est le compositeur"
[At the opera, the primary director is the composer], which is
obvious, but doesn't mean that you have to put a door in a certain
place. The most important thing is the timing. What direction
d'acteurs often comes down to at the opera is a hysterical
choreography, which is apparently considered directing but often is
Operanet: And then
you have a problem when one of these productions comes to us for
revival, with far less rehearsal time available.
NJ: But then, and
this is the problem, it's the responsibility of the managers. I run an
opera company and I am faced constantly with the problem of my own
productions being revived here or those of other directors, and I try
to give the right amount of time. If I know that an artist will not
fit into the concept, I will not hire him or her.
Operanet: The setup
in Toulouse is not the same as in, say, Paris or London or New York
where there is much greater emphasis on the star system.
NJ: We do have stars
here, but they're not running the system, though we have recently seen
in New York that the stars are not running the system there and the
management is adamant in imposing its views.
worked a great deal with singers like Pavarotti and other stars who
may not be the most mobile onstage. How does this affect the way you
work on a production?
NJ: This is a
different approach. When you do a production with a star like
Pavarotti, you are - and I think it's a very interesting way of
working - in the position of a Hollywood director in the golden era
who is working for a studio and is asked to make a movie with Dietrich
or Garbo. What you must do is a Dietrich or Garbo picture, but if you
are clever and intelligent you also want to have your own personality
come through. It is an exciting game actually. The wonderful thing
about running Toulouse is that when I come back it's to a show that I
have cast. But I have immense affection for Pavarotti, a great artist.
Over the years, even with the unbelievable pressure on his shoulders,
he was always professional, within his own parameters. I've always
liked and respected him-Aida in Chicago and Vienna, Chenier
in New York, Ballo in Paris-and he's enormous fun to work
Operanet: When you
have done several productions of an opera, there seem to be certain
images that remain, like Faust where Siebel is on crutches....
NJ: : ...or the big
book for the opening scene, and above all the Mephisto being a French
devil, directly taken from Pierre Renoir's character in La Règle
du Jeu. I've done Faust here in Toulouse, in Orange, San
Francisco, even Bercy, which was lots of fun. Those things stayed, but
a lot of things changed, and I'm still not bored by what is a
di Lammermoor (October 1998)
Photo: Patrice Nin
Operanet: Do you
think that places like Orange or Bercy are beneficial to opera?
NJ: You can't compare
Bercy and Orange because they're completely different: Orange was
built by the Romans as a theater, one which certainly has its problems
but at the same time a certain grandeur. Places like Bercy, I have my
doubts, but I don't mind. I've done it once but I don't think I'd be
interesting in doing it again.
Operanet: Do you
think it's building an audience for the future, which is what people
say about the Three Tenors concerts?
NJ: No - but it
doesn't do any harm. And the Three Tenors is pure
entertainment. It's perfectly legitimate, but I don't think it's
building an audience. They don't need an excuse - they're making big
money and they're making people happy.
Operanet: Would you
say that there are certain operas that could only be done in a
realistic setting, such as Louise as you did it here? Could
you see it done in another fashion?
NJ: It's very tricky
to give a precise definition of realism at the opera, which is opera's
biggest problem. Our Louise was partly realistic, partly not.
The only important thing is that the characters come alive, are
believable, and there are many approaches. You have to like them, like
the singing, the music, but there are many different surroundings you
can think of. I am always naïvely amazed when the curtain opens -
I'm speaking about my own shows - and I get the feeling that I'm
coming as close as possible - with today's means - to what the
composer has in mind.
Operanet: At the
start of this conversation, we spoke about the Samson et Dalila
that you staged in San Francisco. You said that because the music had
such a strong element of kitsch, it had to be reflected in the
Operanet: Why then
didn't you do the same thing when you staged Thaïs?
NJ: Because I partly
based my ideas on the novel by Anatole France as well as Massenet's
music. I think that Thaïs is great drama
Operanet: But it
also has all the effects described by Massenet and his librettists,
like the vision of Alexandria.
NJ: Yes, but I think
you get closer to the character of Thaïs by not doing
that, which is my way of not being traditional. It was a very sober
done your own forms of détournement: the Cav/Pag in
Amsterdam, a 20th century Boccanegra...
NJ:: ...and now Boris.
This is my second production of the opera, but this time it is the
first version. When I did it in Wuppertal nine or ten years ago, it
was the customary mixture of all the versions, and I was not
satisfied. It was too long for one thing. While preparing for this new
production, I decided to look into the early version, which has been
done recently in Geneva and Chicago. I got a piano score and I was
thrilled. Of course the Polish Act and Kromy Forest scene are also
Mussorgsky, but the first version is what he first wrote and was
satisfied with. Everything that came afterwards was because he was
told that those scenes were needed. He did it and there's no question
that it is Mussorgsky, and some of it is splendid, but this version is
much more modern in its theatrical structure than, for instance, Wozzeck.
Wozzeck in its musical language is of the 20th century, but is
otherwise a quasi-romantic drama, but very few have come close to the
sharpness, the violence, the strength of Mussorgsky. There's no
intermission. One of the reasons I chose to take care of the scenic
aspect myself was to be able to find a way to get from one tableau to
the next extremely rapidly.
advantage to the early version is that Boris remains the focal
point, and no one else is as prominent. Dmitri only comes in twice,
and then there are Shuisky and Pimen...
NJ: ...Yes, the
confrontation between Boris and Pimen becomes more significant. It's a
different work. Michel Plasson is conducting the work for the first
time. I like to ask him to do operas he hasn't done before, like the
Hamlet that's in the works.