OPERA NEWS - The Fourteenth Annual OPERA NEWS Awards: Laurent Pelly
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The Fourteenth Annual OPERA NEWS Awards: Laurent Pelly

By Eloise Giegerich 

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© Serge Picard/Agence VU/Redux Pictures
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Natalie Dessay and Alessandro Corbelli in Pelly’s staging of La Fille du Régiment, 2008
© Beatriz Schiller
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© Carole Parodi

FEW CONTEMPORARY theater directors have as singular and sharp a vision as Laurent Pelly. From his searing Lucia di Lammermoor, which had its premiere at Opera Philadelphia last fall, to his magical Fille du Régiment, which returned to the Met this season, eleven years after its triumphant New York premiere, this French artist delights in playing with the stage, not merely reimagining the space but richly transforming it.

Growing up in the suburbs of Paris, Pelly found a passion for the arts at a strikingly young age. When he was sixteen, he staged his first play; in 1980, at eighteen, he founded his own theater company, Théâtre du Pélican, which he codirected with longtime collaborator Agathe Mélinand. But the advent of the young director onto France’s theater scene was only a preface to his ascent in the opera world. Throughout two ten-year stints as director of Cargo/Centre Dramatique National des Alpes (1997–2007) and of Théâtre National de Toulouse Mid-Pyrénées, alongside Mélinand (2008-–18), Pelly has lent his keen eye to more than thirty opera productions—many, fittingly, in the French repertoire—in some of the world’s biggest houses, earning enthusiastic accolades from critics both at home and abroad. 

His work with Offenbach is especially lauded; in 2000, after the debut of his Belle Hélène staging at Théâtre du Châtelet, starring Felicity Lott, Opera magazine celebrated the evening as “very good indeed … cheeky, with a strain of almost Goon-like anarchy.” Three years later, when the production made its U.S. debut in Santa Fe—this time with Susan Graham—Pelly’s pitch-perfect treatment of the operetta once more received vociferous support: “La Belle Hélène was not merely a smash hit but a mega-hit,” reported OPERA NEWS. “Laurent Pelly’s production teems with life. References to three thousand years of history are thrown together in a cheerful amalgam. At times … absurdity touches the realms of sublimity.” 

A Pelly production is extraordinarily smart, stylish and witty. There is no gossamer artifice; each detail is precise, each onstage action meaningful. Take his shimmering Cendrillon, which made its debut in 2006 at Santa Fe (before moving to Brussels, London, Barcelona and Lille), and which I had the pleasure of attending last season, in its Met premiere. From the shunted-aside Pandolfe, comically dwarfed by the literal storybook of a set, to the brilliant costumes (designed by Pelly himself, as is the case with all his productions), which hugged Madame de la Haltière and her scheming daughters in just the right—or wrong—places, the stage sparkled. Each gesture of the twinkling La Fée felt fantastic, as if Pelly himself were blessing the stage with a little bit of magic.

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Maya Lahyani, Stephanie Blythe and Ying Fang in the Pelly production of Cendrillon, 2018
© Johan Elbers

But it’s not merely his inexhaustible creative energy that makes Pelly a great director. His egoless, collaborative spirit—the passion with which he engages his singers, especially—is equally commendable. Indeed, it is the marriage of his genuine enthusiasm for his work (and for the people he works with) and his acute vision that has produced such meteoric success. There is no self-aggrandizement, but rather a genuflection to music itself. As explained by the director in a 2013 interview, “I always consider myself a craftsman who is a servant of the piece. The piece is not my servant. This is very important.” —Eloise Giegerich 

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