Saturday 9 January 2016

Bacchantes, witches and sirens - an encounter with Elena Barbalich

Vivialdi's Juditha Triumphans at Teatro-La-Fenice, directed by Elena Barbalich, photo Michele Crosera.jpg
Vivialdi's Juditha Triumphans at Teatro La Fenice,
directed by Elena Barbalich, photo Michele Crosera
Italian director Elena Barbalich directed Vivaldi's oratorio Juditha Triumphans at Teatro La Fenice this summer, in a production conducted by Alessandro De Marchi, designed by Massimo Checchetto and featuring an all female cast with Manuela Custer, Paola Gardina, Teresa Iervolino, Giulia Semenzato and Francesca Ascioti. Elena Barbalich may be a name unfamiliar to many readers of this blog, as she has worked mainly in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Recent productions have included Verdi's Macbeth at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos in Lisbon, and Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Teatro Regio di Torino.Whilst I was in Venice recently I met up with Elena to talk about her recent production of Juditha Triumphans and directing in general.

Elena Barbalich at La Fenice
Elena Barbalich
Juditha Triumphans was not only the first time Elena had directed a baroque opera, but it was in the main theatre in her native town (Elena was born and brought up in Venice). She admits that when asked to do the production she was a little nervous, not just because of the challenge but there was also the issue that Juditha Triumphans wasn't an opera at all. Vivaldi wrote the piece as an oratorio for performance by the girls of the Pieta where he taught.

Reading the libretto, Elena found that there was little logical consequence in it and that she had to re-build the story in a logical way. She points out that the whole piece has only one piece of action in it, when Judith cuts of Holofernes' head. Add to this the fact that the style of the work involves long arias (with just one singer and no action on stage) and not a lot for the choir to do, and all in Latin. And whereas some modern productions use counter-tenors to play the male roles, at La Fenice the artistic director Fortunato Ortombina had decided to reflect the work's original origins and use an all female cast.

Vivialdi's Juditha Triumphans at Teatro-La-Fenice, directed by Elena Barbalich, photo Michele Crosera
Vivialdi's Juditha Triumphans at Teatro La Fenice,
directed by Elena Barbalich, photo Michele Crosera
Elena feels that the public today in Italy is not used to following this kind of repertory, and that with the use of iPads and social media attention spans are short and not as deep as in the past. But she found the work contained some wonderful music, all of which was new to her as she, like most people, knew little of Vivaldi beyond I quattro stagioni. This was music which was important, sophisticated and influential, and Elena's first task was to study Vivaldi.

In all of her stagings she strives to be logical, she has to find a reason to stage the work. Whilst studying Juditha Triumphans she discovered that the story comes from the Book of Judith which is in the Christian Bible but not in the canonical Hebrew scriptures. It was written in the 1st Century BC when Israel had been invaded by the Seleucids and had Greek culture imposed on them. Reading the Book of Judith, Elena found a number of elements of Greek tragedy.

Judith's cutting off Holofernes' head evoked the Bacchantes cutting off Orfeo's head, and when the Bacchantes danced they used the thyrsus to bang the ground (a thyrsus is a wand of giant fennel, and at this point in our conversation Elena has recourse to her phone to translate the Italian). In the Book of Judith, when Judith returns to Betulia with the decapitated head, the women dance and bang thyrsus on the ground.

Incorporating these references to Greek tragedy seemed the right way to represent the work. But as the performance was going to be all female, referencing the original performance at the Pieta when the girls would have been hidden behind a screen, Elena decided to create a melange referencing both worlds of women, the girls of La Pieta who were musicians and prisoners, and the wider mythology of women as bacchantes, witches and sirens.

"James Turrel - space that sees" by Xsteadfastx - Own work Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons -
James Turrell - space that sees - Israel Museum
picture credit Xsteadfastx
With Juditha Triumphans having little explicit action, Elena decided to set it in a world of women, out of the world of men and of politics and in another feminine dimension. She made Judith part of the world of bacchantes, sirens, saints, mystics and witches; to a certain extent an irrational world. And rather than narrative history, she found Vivaldi's music evoked a sophisticated world of feeling, what she calls the colours of the soul. And this was represented in the colours used in the production.

An influence here was James Turrell and his skyspaces, using spaces of colour as well as beams of light spots (more commonly used in rock concerts) to create screens evoking that of La Pieta. She and designer Massimo Checchetto created interior spaces but these were not real spaces, reflecting that what Elena sees as the music's creation of a history of feelings not actions. For the singers she worked on the expressions of the faces, relating to the music and the emotions being expressed.

Some moments explicitly referenced the different mythologies, with Judith flying like a witch and of course the women dancing like Bacchantes. The choir, also all women, functioned like a Greek chorus but also hinted at the girls and women in La Pieta, with the colour red (the colour of the dresses of the girls in La Pieta) being a point of reference.

Vivialdi's Juditha Triumphans at Teatro-La-Fenice, directed by Elena Barbalich, photo Michele Crosera
Vivialdi's Juditha Triumphans at Teatro La Fenice,
directed by Elena Barbalich, photo Michele Crosera
The result was a production where the costumes and scene were modern and abstract, with the emotions coming from the singers and the music. Here Elena felt that the performers understood her intentions well. The work was warmly received by the public, which was a real surprise given that the work has difficult (in the sense of complex and unfamiliar) music and no real story. And as she is Venetian, it meant a lot to her having a success at La Fenice.

Elena too felt that it was one of the occasions when she was really satisfied with the whole production. She comments that directing an opera is such a complex art, involving a large number of people and lots of ingredients to that it is difficult to have completely the result that you want.

Directing operas by Mozart and Verdi, Elena is usually working in her native language whereas Judith Triumphans is in Latin. She found the libretto beautiful and that it was interesting to work in Latin, the language acting like another filter between the music and the audience.  She confesses to finding operatic Italian too rhetorical and difficult, with too much of a sense of an earlier society. As the Latin used was a dead language it does not give a taste of another society and for once people cannot judge and are detached from the language. And she felt that it was good for the public and rather than being something ancient, came across as fresh.

Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at Teatro Regio Torino directed by Elena Barbalich, photo Ramella&Giannese (c)Teatro Regio Torino
Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at Teatro Regio Torino
directed by Elena Barbalich, photo Ramella&Giannese (c)Teatro Regio Torino
It was Elena's first experience of directing baroque opera, previously she has directed both contemporary pieces and the standard operatic canon.  She enjoyed the experience and would like to do more. She found that baroque opera has far more space for the director, whereas Mozart, Verdi and Puccini are all written in such a way as it make it difficult for a director to invent more. At the beginning she found to difficult, especially with an oratorio like Juditha Triumphans but came to appreciate the freedom.

She is pleased that there are plans for the production to come back, hopefully in Venice and in Naples. And she also has a number of contemporary pieces in the pipeline as well as teaching in Venice at the Accademia di belle Arti.

Her route to directing was tortuous. As a child she was exposed to a lot of music and enjoyed it, but her mother did not feel it was necessary to do more and neither Elena nor her brother were taught a musical instrument. But at 14 she was listening to the quartets of Schubert, spent four years as a dancer and painted. Yet she regretted not learning a musical instrument and only took up singing when adult. At university she studied history of art and literature, and she came to appreciate opera with its synthesis of all her various talents. She wrote a thesis on the productions of opera at La Scala from the first one to the Luca Ronconi production. Leaving university she wanted to express herself working in opera, but did not know how. Instead she became a journalist but attended rehearsals at La Fenice, though she knew nothing and was following from the outside..

By co-incidence a friend who had his own dance company was attending rehearsals because his dancers were taking part in the production (La Traviata) and he asked her why she was there. When she explained he invited her to join a new opera company he was founding. There she did everything, painting scenery, doing make-up and lots besides, and found it enjoyable working in the company and going on tour to the USA and to Mexico. She began to understand how the opera theatre world worked, and meeting director Giorgio Marini (who wrote the libretto to Salvatore Sciarrino's opera Aspern) she became his assistant for four years before branching out on her own.

Samantha Korbey (Chereubino) - Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at Teatro Regio Torino directed by Elena Barbalich, photo Ramella&Giannese (c)Teatro Regio Torino
Samantha Korbey (Chereubino) - Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at Teatro Regio Torino
directed by Elena Barbalich, photo Ramella&Giannese (c)Teatro Regio Torino

As a woman working in opera in Italy, I was curious as to her view of how women are treated in the business. She admits that directing is a difficult business and that there are not so many women directors but does not feel that women are treated differently in opera. But in the wider Italian society it is harder and being a woman in Italy is not easy. She does not find equality in having quotas for women in Parliament. She worries about young women making political careers for themselves seemingly based mainly on their looks, this again is not equality. So whilst in her profession, women and men are treated as equals, in Italian society women are not at the same level as men.

We met at a lovely hotel overlooking the Grand Canal, and as well are leaving we touch on the differences between the old and new theatre at La Fenice, and she regrets that the rebuilding though accurate was short of funds so that she does not feel the decoration is of the quality of the old building, and of course you cannot reproduce the wonderful patina of the old theatre. As we cross the Campo San Stefano, which is dotted with tourists, she comments that in her youth it would be full of children with the mothers sitting gossiping outside the cafe, and football taking place between the two Renaissance doorways in the forecourt of the Palazzo Pisani (now the Conservatoire). But that the population of Venice has declined so much that such things are confined to memory.

Elena Barbalich in conversation with Rivka Jacobson on
Elena Barbalich on her production of Judith Triumphans on

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