Éric Vigner: Antigone is a distinctive work; it was written and composed for Catherine the Second of Russia, the great patron of art and artists. At the time it was intended to be a contemporary work. This Antigone is remarkable because it ends with the marriage of Hémon and Antigone following the pardon given by Créon to his son, who had wanted to join Antigone in her cave and die with her. For Antigone this pardon is not acceptable because it goes against her own plan which is to put an end to the incest and join her two brothers in death. This is what Traetta's music makes you experience. Antigone here is a woman, a sister who takes the law into her own hands to achieve her secret and personal project to finish with the world so that something elsewhere can be reborn differently.
We're in the universe of the cosmos and metaphysics. The visual universe which we have constructed is a universe of cold ashes, the dust of stars, a black hole where one knows only too well whether it's the beginning or the end of the light.
What would remain if the world ended up dissolving in space and if, in another time, one rediscovered these fragments of the same signs scattered everywhere? What meaning would those logos have, that we see everywhere on sports clothes, the brands of the big global, industrial and commercial enterprises, the logos of Nike or Nestlé?
The black and white colour scheme imposed itself straight away as well as a form of abstraction in the sense where you can no longer tell what the images or fragments of signs might originally have represented. The only wavering and persistant colour had to be that of the skin of the singers and actors, as if drained of blood. In our interpretation the Antigone project was a terrorist project; secretly and with an extreme elegance, she was silently going to put an end the world. The violent reaction of some of the audience to the design derived from this initial concept. It could no longer recognise itself in these signs that were put forward and attempted to find a known system of reference. However the work was open in the sense that it resonates or creates an echo for individual interpretation. A talented and respected journalist wrote that there was nothing to see and tried in vain to attach to this work a number of references which we hadn't inscribed in the initial concept. Our work was to bring the music to the fore.
How did your relationship with the conductor Christophe Rousset begin?
Christophe Rousset saw my theatre work and liked it. For a long time I resisted the offers to do opera and then finally in 2000 we did Didone by Cavalli at the Lausanne Opera and l'Empio Punito at the Bach festival in Leipzig.
What made you select the art directors M/M (Paris) to work with you on the set and costume design?
I've been directing a theatre since 1996 and we've worked together since the beginning. They create all the visual material, posters, fliers etc. We know eacho ther and we appreciate each other. Most often I design the theatre and opera spaces myself but I told Mathias and Michael about my plans for Antigone and they immediately came up with a design that corresponded with what I was looking for. I thought it was also interesting to introduce the work of contemporary artists into the field of opera.
How did you initiate your ideas for the production?
The overall plan came about after reading the libretto and listening to the music. Christophe Rousset had already recorded the music which allowed for greater precision in terms of the direction. It was necessary to speak of the world today at the beginning of the twenty first century and to get beyond the story of a young girl who wants to bury her brother.
Can you describe the working dynamic between director, conductor and set designers. Who does what?
It was Christophe Rousset's suggestion to do Antigone. In opera, the director is also the artistic director in everything that concerns the dramatic art, the aesthetics and the theatre direction of the singers, which he does in agreement with the conductor. He's an author of sorts as well as the coordinator of other contributors. It's the director that chooses the set designer, the wardrobe master, the lighting engineer. The conductor is responsible for the music; he directs the orchestra and chooses the singers.
Did you encounter any resistance to such a stark approach to the art direction of what was originally a highly ornate production by today's standards?
We encountered lots of resistance and the concept was not always understood by the audience or certain actors. The perception was often divided in terms of the beautiful or the ugly with a particular attention given to the costumes, which were generally described as very ugly. Paradoxically however references were made to the big French fashion designers like Courrèges - no doubt because of the black and white - and Chanel. The costumes were created by Paul Quenson who I've worked with for the last four years and who began as a fashion designer. He also works for Hermès and Prada. What wasn't understood is that the aesthetic was only referring to itself and that the opera took place in the universe of M/M. That is to say in their work applied to this Antigone. We're very far from the standard norms of the arts.
What is it like to see a condensed version of your total work in the film?
This film is in total agreement with the initial project; it explains, it tells the story and it shows the atmosphere perhaps more even more precisely than what we tried to achieve with the production itself. I would say even that it's an extension of this work and is a part of its success. It's another way of prolonging this artistic adventure. In our work with M/M the process is as interesting as the final object itself and our collaboration on this project is a moment in the history of our work since 1996.
Was the experience of Antigona a good one for you: would you undertake another opera?
It was an enriching experience and it's a basis from which one can work. I would like to continue to work with opera.
Translation: Isabel Best