Elena Barbalich in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

As part of the 2014-2015 Opera Season, Elena Barbalich was appointed by the artistic director Fortunato Ortombina to direct Vivaldi’s oratorio Judith Triumphans. This is her debut at La Fenice, and the outcome is totally absorbing and professionally outstanding.  Rivka Jacobson met her at the Opera House.

We sat in one of the theatre’s auditorium boxes of this Rococco style Opera House, discussing the challenges she faced when undertaking to direct a work that does not naturally lend itself to a staged theatrical production and turn it into a powerful drama in which costume and scenery seamlessly fuse and enhance this excellent version of Vivaldi’s oratorio.

RJ: Judith Triumphans was first published in 1716. In recent times it was staged in Venice, Vivaldi’s birthplace, only once before. Why do you think this is?

EB: This is the first time it has been performed in Venice with a stage, set, and costumes.

Elena reflects for a moments and then adds: Vivaldi is quite misunderstood. He’s a composer who is not so loved in Venice, I don’t know why. It’s strange. He was re-discovered not so very long ago, in the twentieth century, in the twenties and in Venice.

As if Vivaldi was a personal friend, Elena recalls with a tinge of pain that at the end of his life Vivaldi was not loved as he had been at the beginning of his career and that he had to leave Venice and died as a pauper in Vienna.

Now Vivaldi in Venice is considered more of a composer for tourists, an entertainer, but not a profound composer, and it’s a pity because Vivaldi is a very very big composer. With the publication of ‘L’estro armonico’ in Amsterdam he influenced Bach – and not only Bach and Handel but the music of northern Europe was influenced by him. But in Venice and generally in Italy he’s not so beloved by the musical establishment. Now I hope that things will change.

RJ: For those who don’t know the difference between oratorio and opera can you briefly state the difference?

EB: Yes. Oratorio comes from laude sacra. It is a religious work. It is a musical composition based on a religious theme. The soloists, chorus and orchestra perform a chorale. The narrative is more abstract and the structure is very different from that of an opera. An opera has a very strong story to keep the audience’s attention. In an oratorio the structure is not important, it does not depend upon the story’s holding the attention of the audience.

RJ: It’s the music that matters.

EB: Yes, and it’s abstract. So it’s very very difficult to stage and therefore I have written a new story, because the narrative is strange. There is not the logical sequence of time and space.

RJ: Your dissertation is on the production of Verdi’s Aida at La Scala. Would it be correct to assume you are keen on Late Romantic opera?

EB: Oh, I very much like Late Romantic opera, it was a part of my instruction in music, and I love Verdi, I think he was a genius of theatre – not just of music but of theatre. So for me he was a sort of a maestro of theatre… and I studied Verdi’s repertoire in depth.  I like Puccini too because Puccini transformed the writing of opera and was very attentive to the cinema and the changing culture of his age. So I like very much this repertoire but it’s difficult as a director because there are restrictions – they are geniuses of theatre so it’s very hard to find a novel way to tell this story, as provided by the libretto, because it’s written in a quite restrictive way. But I love this repertoire very much – baroque music, I think, leaves the director free to invent, to create, so for me it was wonderful.

RJ: So in this Baroque oratorio you are given total freedom.

EB: Yes, total freedom. More than with an opera, absolutely.

RJ: Do you like jazz ?

EB: Yes, of course.

RJ: So would the public here, in Venice, like Gershwin?

EB: Yes.

RJ: Was there ever a production of Porgy and Bess, here at La Fenice?

EB: Yes, Porgy and Bess was produced for the first time in Europe here, in La Fenice.

RJ: Oh wow.

EB: Yes, and in the last 50 years I think. La Fenice is very important in the history of the theatre because here was performed for the first time a very important opera ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’, there was Rossini‘s ‘Semiramide’, Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ and ‘Rigoletto’, and then more contemporary opera by Bruno Maderna, ‘Luigi Nono’, and Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’. So I think the public here, in Venice, where there is La Biennale Musica, is experienced in approaching very different kinds of music. It’s a very intellectual and open-minded public.

RJ: Is this your debut at La Fenice?

EB: Yes, in this theatre. I’ve already worked for La Fenice in 2001; I’ve performed a contemporary anthology of music in Malibran theatre, a theatre that La Fenice uses for other performances. And then I staged Per Voce Preparata, which was a sort of anthology of contemporary music. But it’s the first time in this theatre especially, in La Fenice, and it’s very emotional for me.

RJ: Well, it was a great success! The night we were here, it was absolutely packed. How long did it take you, from concept to realisation, to produce this masterpiece?

EB: It took a year and a half, but not full-time. I stopped sometimes because I had other work, but I studied a lot for this work and I went through three or four versions of the mise-en-scène and at the end I chose this form. But it was difficult – it took a long time.

RJ: What are the determining factors for deciding or choosing the mise-en-scène?

EB: In the beginning, I hear the music; I have read a lot of books – on the music, on the composer, on the opera. I’ve read books on Greek tragedy, like ‘Le Baccanti’, one of the first plays that was performed, and the history of the young girl musicians at La Pietá… I’ve read a lot about Vivaldi, about La Pietà. I try to see, to read more and more and more. And then I finally have an idea – a strong one, I think. And then I speak with my collaborators and then we choose the best way to do it. And I write a sort of drama, and I give them this to read, and try to find the best form to do it. I generally write an introduction and then what happens scene by scene, and I try to do a sort of a drama and then I give it to the ensemble – choreographer, set designer, lighting engineer, costume designer and so on.   

RJ: An outstanding ensemble

EB: Yes, this case in particular was the first time I worked with Massimo Checchetto, the set designer, and the lighting designer Fabio Barettin, who work in La Fenice. By contrast, I have worked for a long time with the others who are two regular collaborators of mine, Danilo Rubeca, the choreographer, and Tommaso Lagattolla, the costume designer.

RJ: What were the main challenges for you as a director? When you’ve got a piece that is not written as a libretto, and you have to create the drama – what was the most difficult part in this opera to create? It is, after all, nearly three hours long.

EB: The first part is difficult because it’s not logical, the sequence of the arias is not coherent, it’s strange because Holofernes appears on scene from the beginning, then Juditha arrives, but they don’t see each other, it’s illogical. So for this reason I made Holofernes go off-scene and I had to create sort of a clue to his character– he’s very worried because he understands – when he sees Juditha, who is completely veiled – he understands that he is probably doing something wrong, he’s killing a lot of people, he’s destroying towns and countries. So he goes away to look for his sword. Juditha is on the scene but it seems that nobody can appreciate her beauty before the choir sings “Quam vaga”. And that’s strange – so I thought she probably has to have a veil to cover her, and finally she lifts it and everyone can see her.

There is another moment when Juditha sings ‘Agitata Infido Flatu’ and she thinks she is alone at this moment – but at the same time she is with Holofernes, and he remains there after the aria – so for this moment I thought, I’ll leave Holofernes completely static like a statue, and she can go away thinking she is alone.  This supplies a logical link, especially in the first part – because in the second part the story comes in more – but in the first part the story comes to the fore, and it’s very complicated and difficult.

RJ: How does it feel to work with an all-female cast?

EB: Ah, that is interesting, because there is a particular energy. I think it was very emotional for all of us to work, in this case, in an all-female situation, because originally this opera was performed by women. So it’s a historical situation that is to be repeated. This was very interesting and emotional because those original girls were very unlucky: they lived inside this hospice and they were completely hidden by a sort of screen, a cage, so they were slaves of the music in a very particular situation. It was an emotion to remember these girls, the originals for whom the oratorio was originally written. And there was very good rapport, we understood each other deeply. It was very emotional to do the [rehearsals]. We cried a lot doing this opera, reliving Vivaldi. There was a very, very strong emotion.

RJ: The costumes were particularly phenomenal – is it something that you contributed to or did the costume designer immediately understand what you wanted?

EB: No, no, in this case we collaborated a lot on the costumes, but I prefer simple costumes. Not for Juditha, she is baroque, but I prefer low profile – like nightdresses, a little bit, but with colour… because the girls of Pietà, the first interpreters, wore red dresses, so this was very important, and black too. Red and black were the colours of La Pietà as well as white. But at the same time, I wanted yellow because it is the colour of all the Judiths of Artemisia Gentileschi and Caravaggio, and it is a colour we can often find in the paintings. And it’s the chemical colour of lead – and the black too, and the white too, and red, are all chemical colours that you can find in paintings… But together we thought we should have two colours of costume, generally black and red and white and black. Because it’s a black history.

RJ: The lighting was quite extraordinary – the columns, the backdrop – is this again part of the same process as the costumes?

EB: Yes, it was an idea of Massimo Checchetto. I showed him the contemporary art of Terrell (James Terrell), a wonderful visual artist who uses a lot of light and colour. And Checchetto, looking at Terrell, said we could use these beams that are generally used in rock concerts, and it was wonderful.

RJ: Do you think women have to face greater obstacles to succeed on the international stage?

EB: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely, yes. I’m not happy to say it, but it’s a real situation. In Italy, women are not so… helped. So it’s difficult.

RJ: So you have had to struggle to get the position?

EB: Yes, absolutely.

RJ:  Most directors in Italy are men?

EB: Yes, yes.

RJ: What work would you love to direct? You, personally, what work – is there one, or many?

EB: A lot. A lot. I like very much ‘Madame Butterfly’, but I like Handel – very different things. Also, I would like to direct ‘The Magic Flute’.

RJ: Do you think The Magic Flute is the ultimate challenge for a director?

EB: Yes, absolutely.

RJ: And why is that?

EB: Because it’s mysterious, it’s difficult to understand the meaning of this opera that has a lot of meanings and different levels to it – so it’s a challenge, but it’s wonderful, a masterpiece, an absolute masterpiece.

RJ: What are your plans for the future?

EB: I don’t know: I hope this opera can influence people to give me work, because at the present I have no project, because it is very difficult moment in our country – but now I hope that this opera will bring me other work and other possibilities to express myself.

RJ: What other opera houses would you like to work in?

EB: You know, I have no desire for any particular house – I would like just to go to an opera house where I can do my work in a professional way – this theatre is very wonderful, everyone is very professional, so it was a pleasure to work here. I don’t have a preference – I like small theatres and big theatres – but for me it’s most important to have a staff that understands that love of work, and who want to do it in a professional way. And here I found a perfect situation.

RJ: And as a woman and as an academic, you wrote two librettos – would you like to see yourself combining an active role as director with academic work?

Yes, absolutely. It’s very important to have contact with young people and transfer the passion to them –passion for music, passion for theatre. And they bring a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm. So this contact is very important for me, not to just undertake theatrical work but to study and teach a lot, it’s a very important dimension for me.

RJ: So do you think to be a great director you should have some profound academic knowledge of the work you direct? Do you think that academic background contributes to a good production of the work?

EB: Yes, absolutely. Because studying inspires a lot of ideas, a lot of possibilities to be creative. But it’s important to have an approach including passion – an approach not excessively intellectual. You have to do a lot of study before, but when you try to create you shouldn’t be too intellectual. When you have very good preparation and then when you study all things fall into place and that’s, for me, the best situation.

Thank you, Elena. It was a great pleasure talking to you.