For the first time in its history, in the Slovak National Theatre (SNT) in Bratislava the Italian belcanto opera Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti was staged. The premiere under the baton of Marco Guidarini and the stage direction by Gilbert Blin (both SNT debutantes) took place on April 21, 2023. On this occasion, we interviewed the French stage director who told us about his career as a theatre artist and pedagogue, the historical and opera story of Maria Stuarda, and about his view on the opera theatre in general. For the readers of Opera Slovakia he also presented how he has conceived the stage direction of Maria Stuarda in Bratislava and he also revealed his upcoming plans.
Gilbert Blin, historian, director, stage and costume designer, studied the theatre history and the stage direction at the Sorbonne in Paris. In his work, he also focuses on the French opera related with the baroque theatre. He has staged in several countries around the world and he is the residential director of the Boston Early Music Festival. In 2018, he obtained his PhD. at the University of Leiden, Netherlands. In the Slovak National Theatre, Bratislava, this has been his first stage direction (source: SNT, for the entire biography see HERE…).
Mr. Blin, how did you become an opera stage director and which operas have you done before Maria Stuarda?
I started my career as a staging resident assistant at the Paris Opera. I could work on many different opera productions – Rossini, Janáček and, of course, Mozart. Shortly after I was given the opportunity to direct Werther by Massenet at the Opéra de Nancy, in the east of France. This was my first professional opera staging, I was only 29 years old. It was a great opportunity, and the production was very successful. I was invited to revive it in Paris with a fantastic cast including Alfredo Kraus as Werther. For me as a young stage director, this was a fantastic experience.
My name was first associated a lot with the French repertoire, I was asked to stage Lakmé by Delibes at the Opéra Comique in Paris and this production was, I dare to say, also very successful. It was revived in about six cities all over France. Leading soprano Natalie Dessay was absolutely wonderful. She also recorded it on CD.
Then I worked a lot with the Gluck operas because I love his music. I became an assistant for David Radok in Sweden, we staged the Iphigénie en Tauride and after that I was asked to revive this production for Stockholm. Then, again in Sweden, I staged an Italian version of the Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck. Afterwards I was also invited at the State Opera in Prague for staging the Robert le diable by Meyerbeer. Working with Czech colleagues was also a fantastic experience because this production was rather big. It was put into the regular repertoire of the State Opera and has been revived for many years. It was also the first time I worked with Josef Jelínek as a costume designer, a cooperation which I appreciated a lot.
Josef is extremely talented. He has a highly experienced eye and a good taste for the psychology in order to create costumes from a historical perspective. In the State Opera I was asked for a different type of repertoire: Orlando Furioso by Vivaldi. Since I always liked the early music and the baroque opera, at this point I decided that I want to work with this type of repertoire very seriously and regularly. Shortly after I made my debut in the United States of America, in Boston, to stage a French opera Thésée, a tragedy by Lully from the 17th century. I was offered to become a stage director in residence which means to work with the company regularly for few years. Since then, I staged many productions for the Boston Early Music Festival.
One of them I consider as especially important in my career: Almira by Händel. It is his first opera which he wrote for Hamburg when he was nineteen and it has almost never been performed. It’s a good opera and it was very successful in Boston. Afterwards I was offered the position of Opera Director for the Boston Early Music Festival. This is now, let’s say my permanent job and for this beautiful early music company I have been staging many productions of baroque opera. I staged Händel, Agostino Steffani, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Jean-Baptiste Lully, etc.
I was also working a lot on the reconstruction of costumes and in relation with that I was asked to collaborate with Lubor Cukr when he was staging a Don Giovanni in the Prague Estates Theatre. We reconstructed the original production of Don Giovanni as much as we could using very classical painted sets and 18th century costumes. We broadened our cooperation and we also staged Le nozze di Figaro for the Opéra de Nice.
That’s how I arrived in Bratislava because Lubor Cukr, then Opera Chief of the SNT, thought that my style would be great for a classical historical opera. In fact, I am also a historian and I love this science. I obtained my PhD, about historically informed staging, at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Lubor Cukr thought that for the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava it would be a great idea to have a very classical opera production. He asked how I would feel to stage Donizetti, and I said I love his operas, but I never considered to do them. Then he said that I could work with Marco Guidarini, a big expert in Italian opera. Of course, I accepted this challenge.
The very first day when I arrived here, I met all the company. Of course, it’s an honour for me to be invited in the National Opera like in Bratislava for working on a wonderful piece like Maria Stuarda with a maestro like Marco Guidarini who knows the score absolutely. Together with him we prepared details for the stage direction. So, I dare to say that this production is a new beginning for me because it’s a new step in my career. It’s my debut in Slovakia, but it is also my first Donizetti’s opera. For me it’s very exciting.
Besides being a stage director are you also doing some pedagogical work?
Oh, I have been teaching for many years. When I started with that activity, my students were older than me! I taught for many years in France, I’ve been invited in Sweden, and I also provided some master classes in the Switzerland and the Netherlands. But nowadays, after I finished my own academic research, I wanted to go back to the stage and really work with artists in the rehearsals to get the full opera feeling because you know, when you teach you can of course, do a lot with students but in my belief the opera can work only when everything needed comes together on stage. Opera is a big spectacle, demanding a lot from the singers – they are the most important – and the orchestra. I like the real stage because it provides the right proportion for everybody playing and singing there and that’s why I have to say at this moment that I prefer to focus and devote my career to create stagings.
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SND po prvýkrát uvedie Donizettiho operu Maria Stuarda
Can you tell us about your basic concept on how do you understand the Maria Stuarda as an opera?
Maria Stuarda is an historical opera because it explains the complex relationship between two real persons: Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I of England. These two Queens are known for their very complex relationship. Maria Stuarda had a very complex past, once she was a Queen of France and then a Queen of Scotland. But after some political affairs, she had to ask Elizabeth for refuge in England. At first, Elizabeth had welcomed Maria but later she realised more and more that Maria was a danger for her own power.
So, taking as much as possible from these well-known historical facts, Donizetti and his librettist decided to create an opera. But they of course developed also an additional little story because at that time the audience had a difficulty to imagine an opera without a love story.
They created an intrigue around a true person in history, the Count of Leicester. According to the opera he had a relationship first with Elizabeth and then with Maria. And that’s how the charm of the romantic opera develops. There are both political and historical aspects, as well as a big romantic affair which obviously allows wonderful duets of tenor with both leading ladies.
The idea why to stage Maria Stuarda in Bratislava was also to add it to the big opera repertoire of the Slovak National Theatre and to offer the audience an opportunity to hear a piece written in a style which has not been often presented here, being a pretty example of pre-Verdi and post-Rossini type of singing with the music from the thirties of 19th century.
Of course, we all know Lucia di Lammermoor which has been performed here, but Maria Stuarda is written extremely dense and concentrated, and it speaks about the Queen Elizabeth which was maybe the most powerful woman ruler ever – the second one was Cleopatra if we are talking about the two most powerful women in history. But during the long complex life of Elizabeth I, she elevated the United Kingdom to the high level of power.
Her appearance is a very interesting and specific phenomenon which inspired many other operas from the earlier times all the way to the 20th century. For example, the Gloriana by Britten is also about Elizabeth I, but there is another opera by Donizetti, Roberto Devereux, speaking about her and even another one, not often performed, Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth. So, her figure has been an inspiring impulse for the musical theatre forms, opera consistently. In Maria Stuarda, such impulse is manifested by the face-to-face confrontation of two Queens, which in fact never happened in history – they have never met, they only wrote each other.
There is a tragic end because Maria is strapped and sent to the death by decapitation due to the hard political reasons. Of course, it’s a strange event when the queen judges another queen and therefore it generally provides a strong base for the story. There was also the rivalry between the two religions. As a daughter of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I was Anglican. Mary Stuart was Catholic. This also hugely contributes to the rivalry between them.
So, based on the facts you have just presented in the previous dialogue, can you tell us how do you conceive the stage direction of Maria Stuarda?
This opera is based on the historical facts, and it is really trying to give the complexity of the relationship between the two queens and concerning the tragedy coming from it. Therefore, I don’t think it would support any kind of transposition or abstraction. It must stay on a historical basis because otherwise you don’t understand why the characters act just this way. This is the first point, the leading one for my team in creating a classical production which, in fact, was actually asked by the SNT and I think it was a good brief.
There have been many different styles of staging in the Slovak National Theatre so that the idea was also to offer another approach, maybe nowadays less fashionable or less expected, but the audience would see an opera staging in a style which is as close as possible to what Donizetti wanted. I always think that if the composer came to see the result of our work, he should hopefully like it, at least he should not be disturbed because he would see his own ideas about the music and the libretto on the stage.
And the second point I wished to tell the story for everybody so as they understand why it happened, what are the emotions on the stage and what they depict. During the work with the artists, we spent a lot of time by acting every single situation. I want everybody on the stage to be very involved in the understanding that the human emotions of the solo characters as well as of the artists in the chorus must be really clear for the audience. Then the spectators can feel why the music happens and why it is so full of amazing melodies. In this opera it’s like you have a new melody every two minutes. Donizetti’s imagination to create beautiful tunes, for both singers and orchestra, is truly amazing and the orchestration is also very fine.
Marco Guidarini is playing a lot with colours, he is trying to paint the music literally, not only in big strokes but also with a lot of special touch. So, the emotions are emitting from almost hysteric in the case of Elizabeth, and for Maria Stuarda they touch much more subtle expressions, especially at the end, when Maria is about to get healed with the fate. We are trying to depict a lot of different human emotions – not only the love or the hate, but I dare to say everything in between – compassion, sympathy, friendship, ambition… There are a lot of them in each character.
So, all the work I’ve been trying to do in this production is to give everybody the feeling that everything done on the stage has a reason and an effect. The reason is always based on what is in the libretto and the score, and the effect is the emotion the audience should feel being always involved in what is going on the stage, not only intellectually but also with their heart. There are not just ideas, there is also a feeling.
Please, let me give a little sub-question; effect or affect?
Both, absolutely. It’s very well said. Indeed, the affects which I constantly ask from everybody on the stage is ready to be a big part of my work. And the effect it has on the audience is also what I am working for. As a personal joke I always say, “Don’t do that for me, I don’t do that for the singers, we do it for the audience.” It’s as simple as that, but many people doing our job forget it often. I’ve seen productions where I felt absolutely not involved because even if the work was interesting, it was done for the people who were working on it. So, as an audience I felt personally excluded.
In my work as an opera stage director, my aim is to give the audience a reason why they came to see it. They came to the theatre to acquire something special they cannot experience by themselves. Obviously, the opera is the most collective art. It involves so many people. This morning we had a wonderful rehearsal and, I calculated in my head the amount of people involved. It’s huge, about 300 altogether – the singers, the orchestra, the technical staff, the costume and makeup departments, the lighting, the security etc. And the audience should feel this generosity of everybody involved in the opera house. The singer’s creation offers something for the audience and the audience treated with this type of interest should feel from the artists that they are really trying to give the spectators something unique and special.
At one of the rehearsal you mentioned that you were inspired by some period paintings and engravings…
Yes, after reading the libretto and better knowing the score I am always trying to find what was the type of visual statements the librettist and the composer had in their mind when they were treating the story, what type of paintings, engravings there were in their sources or in the document books which they could read about this type of stories. Working with the set designer Alex McCargar, the costume designer Josef Jelínek and the light designer Kelly Martin we have exchanged a lot of pictures to create a world which is of course, not a copy of these paintings, but there is an interpretation. And of course, it’s a teamwork so that it needs a certain coherence, but also a certain autonomy, and finally it has to integrate the opinions of everybody.
We decided for a set which is evocative at different places, very architectural with strong and strict lines, and for the real period costumes with the extremely complex and sophisticated fashion including many details. These were amazingly beautifully done by the workshop of the Slovak National Theatre. I have to pay homage to all people who did this amazing work, both the set with a very strong architectural rigour and the costumes with the fantasy perfect craft making them extremely beautiful. Everything has been very well done by very talented and skilled people.
I said to the people who asked me about the way of doing costumes that each one is made as a soloist costume regardless it is for the soloist or the chorus. So, this junction between the harshness of the space and the lavishness, the beauty and the luxury of the costumes create, I believe, a world that Donizetti wanted to have for Maria Stuarda. The historically clear take, but also with some strength, power, and tension.
Each scene has its own distinct character, but the scenes change rather quickly so that together they form some kind of unity. How did you achieve this?
The way we made the scenes coming together, it’s fascinating because the libretto from the thirties of 19th century is made in a rather modern way, which we would today call a model, because the scenes are divided almost like sequences in a movie. The first scene is a big one with a lot of people; it explains the power of the queen. But the party is immediately disturbed by a character who asks about Maria Stuarda. From this point the story gets quicker and quicker. And immediately after this huge scene there is another one with just two characters, very intense and small. And then there is another scene which acts in another place.
At the time of 1830s, the change of scene was done by simple changing of sets which were painted on backdrops or wings. Like in the 18th century, there were no constructed sets containing architectonic elements, everything was painted. Therefore, the change of scene could be done very fast. However, we cannot do this today for our 21st century opera audience. Well, we could, but I think, it would be a little strange… Instead of that we used the versatility and the power of the turning stage. When the space turns, it’s like to move a camera while the spectator’s eyes stand because he is comfortably seated in the audience. He can discover a new space in a very subtle way while the music doesn’t need to stop too much, and the opera can go from one scene to another without interruptions towards the curtain close at the end of the act.
This approach creates a continuity enabling to follow the story in a simple and comfortable way because the events take place in front of audience passing from one space to another with the rhythm of the music. Together with the team and maestro Guidarini we have spent a lot of time to calculate the movement of the sets with the music. The turning feels like an inevitability that something has to happen, and it is also like a clock, which rings and counts the destiny because at least most of the people, if not everybody, knows from the beginning, that Maria Stuarda will be finally executed.
There is not a real suspense in this opera. Even after the big finale at the end of the first act, a fate is already decided because we know that Maria will be condemned by the Queen so that there is no suspense, it is more like the undoubted succession of arriving to that beautiful and long scene between Maria and the chorus at the end which develops with the amazing harmonic and colourful music with many different emotions – from very spiritual and religious to the shock due to the violent life end.
This brings us to an emotional moment which has been built by Donizetti so carefully that I believe, we do justice to his score because the artists who follow it very carefully follow this succession of emotions from the fun of the first image with the no worry atmosphere on the Elizabeth’s Court to the tragedy still getting bigger and culminating the end of the opera. It’s a very beautiful piece.
You also mentioned at the rehearsal that the story is not so complicated, but the details of acting are very important in it…
You know, in the biography of an important figure, especially political one, it is really very difficult to understand what the motivation for some of her or his act was. Why did the Elizabeth condemn Maria Stuarda to be killed? We know that there was some “surface” reason because there are some letters and official documents, but there was certainly also some inner personal reason based on the fear, ambition, love, hate – human emotions. So, when we worked for this piece, I wanted to create not distant modern, but a classical production, where the acting of everybody on the stage is truly sincere and truly in touch with the simple and clear emotion.
The music obviously helps because Donizetti is a very passionate composer and he gives many colours in the writing for the voice and the orchestra which show a lot of different emotions and tunes. As I say, the melodies are so beautiful that just a simple movement at the very exact moment in the score says a lot. For example, in the remarkable scene between Talbot and Maria Stuarda at the end, the so called “confession moment” where Maria gives Talbot some elements from her past, in fact the wrong decisions, mistakes and errors. There is always a music for Talbot listening to her which shows his compassion and his care for her soul. This is extremely touching moment because it’s not conventional. It goes further.
I think, Donizetti during the time he composed Maria Stuarda went through a lot of personal tragedy and he also used his own sadness and difficulties for writing a music which is also today very touching.
There is some formal structure present in the belcanto opera. There are static parts like cantabile or cabaletta and some dynamic parts like recitatives. Is it possible to find any basic common principles how to stage this all?
I think what may have prepared me for working with belcanto repertoire like Maria Stuarda is that in the earlier repertoire, let’s call it baroque opera, the singers are the most important part, and I dare to say that this is the same for any opera from whichever period or composition. Moreover, during the early part of the 19th century, especially in Italy the singers coming from all that singing schools were taught by the teachers who were active singers in the 18th century. Therefore, there is a continuity of an opinion that the voice and the expressivity of the voice is the main vector of the emotion and the idea. The voice creates a character.
Donizetti wrote not only beautiful arias but also an ensemble, the sextet ending the Act One, before the chorus joins is a masterpiece of having different characters singing different words and different music, but at the same time creating this amazing ensemble. Of course, one may argue that there is a beautiful ensemble already in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, the finale of Act Two or the one of Act Four, but Donizetti, after Rossini himself, brings this operatic form to a certain level which is truly fascinating because during the development of the music he made possible that while each voice of each character still can be heard, at the same time they are put together and create the emotion of the collective tension as a dramatic event on the stage.
That’s what I love. For me this is a new experience because in the baroque operas I have staged before there are obviously no such ensembles. There are a lot of arias, some duets, maximum trio. When I had the pleasure to work on Gluck and Mozart, already in their operas there are such type of attempts. Of course, Mozart is the category No. 1, but other composers trying to create this were not always completely successful. Therefore, it had to wait until the 19th century for the beginning of belcanto – Rossini was the first, but Donizetti with him created this amazing complex architecture where you can hear each character separately, but there is also a feeling of energy coming from a group of people singing together.
How did you consult your aims with the conductor?
This also depends on the person you are collaborating with. When I was asked to work with Marco Guidarini, it gave me a great confidence for the project because I have heard him conducting on many occasions, but this is my first collaboration together with him. He has also seen some of my stage directions so that he was interested in the work with me. But my security came from the fact that he is very experienced expert in this type of repertoire. When we work together, my feeling is that I can explain what I feel about the text or the music in a very spontaneous way. And Marco is also very good listener, but I want him to feel that he has always the last word.
Because he is conducting the performance and he knows every note of the score. I maybe know every word of the libretto, but he knows much more than me and because this opera is sung in his Italian language, he is also very comfortable with the text.
There was sometimes a real soul when I got a feeling that I have someone next to me who is explaining to the singers the same as I meant, but in the different way so that we agreed almost on everything. We didn’t have any moment when I said “No, I really don’t like that” or “I don’t understand that”, and the same follows for him.
There was one question which we finally solved happily, in fact an interesting action in the first scene of Maria when her aria is interrupted by the chorus of hunters. It is written as an off-stage chorus. Due to the various technical reasons linked to the building of the acoustics – for instance the stage in Bratislava is certainly bigger compared to the one in Naples or Milano in 1830s and the building is made from the different materials – we needed to find a good place for this off-stage chorus. Marco suggested the singers should be more towards the audience. We tried it and from his point of view it sounded well so that I was rather fine to go with that.
But when we did it next time, I again spoke with him and after all I told him “You know, this is a problem because when the chorus starts to sing, the audience turns their heads.” – towards the singers, of course. This means that the audience lose the view on Maria in the crucial moment because the intention of Donizetti was to see the effect of the chorus on her face and what she sings immediately after. The view of spectators should stay on the protagonist like a camera and see the effect of the male chorus speaking about the hunt which was at that time a specific male activity. The chorus music is of totally different nature than the music just heard in the Maria’s aria.
So, this is a shock, a collision of two universes. Therefore, I said nobody should move his head at all and both sounds should come from the similar direction. We solved that very easily because Marco said, “Yes you’re right, now I understand because in the pit I received the music as a whole”. But from the audience this is a very different experience. So, the hunting chorus is definitely dentro la scena, behind the stage.
You said that when conceiving your staging you are always thinking about the intentions of the composers and the librettists about how their opera should seem on the stage and that you prefer the classical approach. The question is how do you mean this should contribute to the contemporary trends in the theatre stage direction?
I think, before creating new ideas it’s needed to know the ideas already there. You cannot create a new art form if you don’t know what has been done before. That’s my point of view. It’s a classical concept, I know, but before becoming a new master with the new ideas you have to study the old masters. I think, in the culture and the art, especially in such big and beautiful institution like the Slovak National Theatre is, it’s important to hear as many voices as possible to enable as many ways as possible how to create an art and let the audience to prefer one or another.
It cannot be done everything only in one style because it is like to play the music of only one composer. Even if you would say, “Well we do only Mozart all the time because his music is famous” it’s not right because the audience deserves to listen also to other composers. I think the same follows for the staging style. I’ve seen wonderful productions here in totally different styles of that I am working on. I was very happy to see such variety offered by this opera house and with all humility I hope that this production of Maria Stuarda will add another style, another colour to this beautiful table of offering for the audience.
I always like to say let the audience decide because we are working for them – they may like something very modern or something very classic, eventually very distant and little crazy – or they may also like something which they could understand without having a pain. I don’t think the staging is only intellectual. There is also sensibility, sensitivity so that you can relate to something without making rational or intellectual effort. In the belcanto the first is a feeling and then an idea.
What are you planning after Maria Stuarda?
The next stage direction I’m going to do is Circé by Henry Desmarest for Boston in America. It’s an opera of the late 17th century in the Lully style, but the specific is that the libretto has been written by a woman poet Louise-Geneviève Gillot de Saintonge. It was the first libretto written by a woman performed at the Paris Opera. And for the character of Circé it is wonderful to see how the women of that period thought about her.
And for the summer, I’m going back to Stockholm, where I will stage Dardanus by Jean-Philippe Rameau, a French opera from 1744 for a magnificent, beautiful little theatre which dates exactly from the period of Rameau. So, perfect setting to do a baroque opera because it’s small theatre with the period painted sets and a small orchestra. That’s my two next projects for early and late summer.
Interviewer: Ľudovít Vongrej
In collaboration with: Ján Marták
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