Q & A: Director Vincent Huguet on the Mozart-Da Ponte Trilogy & Directing ‘Rigoletto’

By Mauricio Villa

Vincent Huguet is one of the most promising directors of today’s operatic world. Since his debut with “Lakme” at the Montpellier Opera in 2012, he has staged the “Mozart Da Ponte Trilogy” at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin—conducted by Daniel Barenboim and with the three shows performed over four days during the Berlin Festtage, Massenet’s “Manon” for Paris Opera, and “Les contes d’hofmann” in Bordeaux with revivals in ABAO Bilbao and Palma de Mallorca. Vincent spoke with OperaWire two hours before the premiere of his new production of “Rigoletto” in Basel on the 21st of January, 2023.

OperaWire: You first studied arts to become a teacher, I believe?

Vincent Huguet: Yeah! In fact, I studied literature and history first and then I specialized in arts. At the beginning of my career, I was teaching History of Arts at university. That was my job for five or six years.

OW: How does a History of Arts teacher end up in the opera world?

VH: I think I might be one of the last of that generation whom you got a lot of about 50 years ago; the generation whose parents believed you had to have the same settled job your entire life. When I was about 20 years old, the economic crisis hit the world and things started to change. This was long before the pandemic. It is very common now that one might have many different jobs or live many different lives. It was more unusual then. But it became very clear to me that I was in love with the arts, history, and literature. I couldn’t see myself teaching at university my whole life, and at the time, there was no school for ‘stage directing’ in France. All the French stage directors came from different backgrounds and training. They were all expected to reach the same opportunity in their own ways. Most of them had to begin as ‘director’s assistants,’ that was the only way in. That happened to me.

I met an assistant who had worked with Patrice Chéreau: a famous French opera and theatre director, filmmaker, actor, and producer. He was a legend in France, maybe even worldwide. It was the end of his career, and he didn’t know he was dying at the time. He was invited to an event at Le Louvre Museum. He asked me to assist him with the exhibition and with some shows which he had to do at the Louvre. And then suddenly Patrice Chéreau became my life: I was spending all my days in rehearsals—remember, I came from a university background, so this was new to me—first in theatre and later in opera productions. For me, strangely, it seemed logical and easy. I think this was because of my academic background. There are specific techniques and knowledge that you have to learn in theatre. But having studied literature and history, I realized it was the same analysis you have to do when you have to examine a text, even when it is a theatre piece or an opera libretto. For example, to prepare for “Rigoletto” here in Basel, I read Victor Hugo’s ‘Le roi s’amuse’ which is the source of “Rigoletto.” I wanted to study the background: the original conception of the drama and the characters. And your job as a director is to see, to read, underneath and in-between, and to think about what you can do with this material today.

When I  did my first assistant job for a play and I had to do an analysis of the text, I realized it was very close to what I had been doing all my life. The only difference was that now you actually had to ‘do’ something with the material, and someone might come up to you and say, ‘Ahhh! You did something with Victor Hugo that has never been done before!’ My job became more practical. I had to find the keys to give to the actor or the singer so that they could feel or perform something different. For me, it was natural to switch from one field to another. I had done many things before: I had been a teacher and an editor. I have written some books, put on some exhibitions, and done some radio. For me, it is always the same challenge: it is my job to transmit clearly to an audience whom I don’t know—depending on the country and on the kind of work I’m doing—the ‘theme’ of the piece. The theme can be very unique, often based on a very specific piece of cultural heritage. It is up to me to choose the light, the colors, and the framing that best gets this theme across clearly. Whatever I do, be it a book, an exhibition, an opera, or a theatre play, the challenge always is this: what can I do, being who I am, to present this to an audience today?

OW: How did you feel when you moved from assisting to directing? Your first opera production was “Lakme” in 2012 at the Opéra national de Montpellier.

VH: As an assistant director for Patrice Chéreau, I had done theatre before, but I had never done any opera before “Lakme.” It was by chance that I met the new Montpellier Opera intendant; I was born in Montpellier. He wanted to invite new directors to give new perspectives on opera. They didn’t have a big budget, so it was convenient for him to hire me for a new opera production. But even after my first opera, I continued to assist big opera directors like Peter Sellars and Luc Bondy. It was very good for me. Just because you have directed your first opera doesn’t mean that you know everything. As for the switch from assisting to directing… I currently have a young German assistant from the house engaged in “Rigoletto” here in Basel. He has already directed operetta when he was studying in Berlin. I can feel that he’s not really an assistant but a director. It’s cool to have another director in the room as well, especially when there are two different generations put together. For the first time, I feel kind of old because I am twice his age! And Sellars usually comes to see my productions. What I am saying is that there is this intergenerational community. All the assistants are directors, and every director can still learn from assisting. There is never really a switch. You are always learning more from your friends and colleagues, and they are always there for you. The directors I used to work for are still my friends, and they always help me when I need them.

OW: Now that you have mentioned the “Da Ponte trilogy,” what was it like, getting to direct the three operas as a cycle? Some directors have directed the three operas, “Cosi fan tutte,” “Le nozze di Figaro,” and “Don Giovanni.” But it is very rare to stage them as a cycle, one after the other.

VH: The director of the Berlin Staatsoper knew he was getting older and wanted to do a new production of the tetralogy “Der ring des Nibelungen,” and Mozart’s “Da Ponte trilogy.” He was looking for directors and he proposed the Mozart operas to me. It was a great chance. For me, what would have been ideal would have been to stage them as a festival and perform them consecutively. But for artistic reasons, we had to do one opera per season, with a gap caused by Covid in the middle. After that, we did two cycles of the three operas together.

OW: Did you find any connection between the three operas? The stories and characters are completely different.

VH: No, for me, the characters are somehow the same. When Mozart and Da Ponte were creating these operas, they didn’t know they would become a trilogy. Mozart died after they had made three together, and Da Ponte left for New York. If Mozart hadn’t died, I am sure they would have done five, six, or even seven more operas together. Then it would have been impossible to think of them as a trilogy and stage them consecutively. But with only three operas, a narrative jumped out at me: it was somehow very obvious. It was very clear from the beginning that “Cosi fan tutte,” which was chronologically the last of the three operas Mozart composed, should be performed first. “Così” talks about what love is, what one’s first love feels like, and how it is the first time you have sex… It’s like a teenager’s opera. It was logical that this opera takes place when all the characters are young and enjoy sunbathing naked on the beach—in my production—and has this kind of ‘hippie’ atmosphere. At the end of the opera, they all marry. Then we meet them again ten years later in “Le nozze di Figaro.” Guglielmo becomes the Count, Fiordiligli becomes the Countess, and you can see in this opera that the conjugal situation is not ideal at the end of the opera; the Count is humiliated and is going to leave the house. Then we find him again, a little bit older now, as Don Giovanni. He has taken Figaro with him, who has become Leporello. The Countess becomes Elvira. They’re not together anymore, but she would still love him and help him, despite everything, to the bitter end. In the end, Don Giovanni dies. I cannot imagine the operas in any other order, for the finale of “Don Giovanni” is so spectacular and dramatic. It is the perfect finale for the cycle, so from there, I had the whole story laid out.

OW: On the subject of the “Don Giovanni” finale: there are two different versions that Mozart wrote. Which one do you prefer?

VH: The long one with the final ensemble. It’s true that in the beginning, this piece horrified me, and I wondered: Why did Mozart do that? It’s like when you stage “Turandot:” should we stop the opera at the point when Puccini died? But it became the logical ending. All the characters spend the whole opera chasing Don Giovanni, but when he dies, they’re left there empty, sitting on the stage totally desperate—in my production—and somehow they even miss him! In the end, I have come to love this finale.

OW:  You have done Mozart. You’re also a French opera specialist, considering you have done “Lakme,” “La vie Parisienne,” “Les contes d’hoffmann,” “Manon Lescaut,” “Werther,” and “Roméo et Juliet.” You did “Don Carlos” here in Basel last year and you’re presenting “Rigoletto” today. What draws you to Verdi?

VH: Verdi is not so far from France. I started with the French version of “Don Carlos,” which was composed with Paris in mind. But I think that all opera lovers, like me, relate to Verdi. Maybe because his operas are among the first we see or listen to. We always experience “La Traviata” early in our journey with opera. I remember that for me, it was “Il trovatore.” I had a Callas recording when I was a teenager and I listened to it so much. The music of Verdi sounds very familiar to me; it sounds like home, even if I’m not Italian. I think it is in our genes. I have heard some directors say Verdi is very difficult to stage, but if I am being honest, everything is difficult to stage. The wonderful music aside, what makes Verdi so interesting dramatically, like Mozart or Wagner, is that he has great librettos.

OW: Do you think that “Il Trovatore” has a good libretto?

VH: Ha, ha, ha! No, exactement! There are a couple of other examples, like “La Forza del Destino,” which are also bad, but truly, the libretto of “Il Trovatore” is terrible. Yet the librettos for “Don Carlos” and “Rigoletto,” which are the two Verdi operas I have done, are amazing. Two literary geniuses, Friedrich Schiller and Victor Hugo penned their original source materials. Do you know what amazed me most of all concerning “Rigoletto?” When it premiered in 1831 as a theatre play written by Hugo, it was a complete disaster. It only had one performance. The public and the press hated it, and the next day it was forbidden by the censors. And then, 20 years later, Verdi—or his librettist— took this play and created an opera.

Verdi was not only a composer but a great humanist and philosopher. He was so bright and courageous. The story of “Rigoletto” is about who is an angel and who is a monster; and if you are a monster, is it because society makes you so? Because if you’re an angel, you have made yourself an angel. It’s very interesting the way Verdi looks at Rigoletto himself, this terrible, dark figure. Does he behave like a monster because of the way he has been treated because of his deformity? And what about the contrast with the character of Gilda, whom we could consider an angel? Rigoletto is always angry, locked into an endless vendetta. Meanwhile, Gilda says, ‘We can stop this. We can fix this.’ She changes things by sacrificing herself. When people say to me that Gilda is naïve or stupid, I answer, ‘Not at all! She is the wisest of them all!’ When she finally understands the Duke’s behavior, she ends it and brings about a change.

OW: Do you believe that by sacrificing herself, Gilda ends the Duke’s womanizing and promiscuous behavior?

VH: Yes, exactly! It’s like how the deaths of Romeo and Juliet give a chance for the two warring families to achieve forgiveness by facing the consequences of their actions. This happens in “Rigoletto.” He kills his own child, and I think this is one of the worst things that could happen in life. Parents would do anything to protect their children.

OW: What is your perspective on “Rigoletto?” What is the audience going to see?

VH: My perspective begins at the meeting point between Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Verdi and lies in the moral. I think it’s all about morals. What can Rigoletto do? Who is more monstrous: Rigoletto or the Cortigiani? And then we have the theme of la maledizione—’ the curse’—throughout the opera. What is a curse? What would be a curse today? Does the ‘maledizione’ comes from oneself, or is it given to you by someone else, somehow? I think that the greatest curse for Rigoletto is his inability to listen to what the people say to him. There are three duets between Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda in the opera, and they are all structured the same way. There is a moment when it seems like they are really together and that Rigoletto is finally going to listen to what his daughter is trying to say, but then he breaks it somehow. What I wanted to do was to show a clear narration. I have, for example, almost no props, taking away all the non-essential things in the story. I wanted a very minimalistic—yet symbolic—scenography, so you can really get into the fatality and tragedy of the drama.

The other day, after the general rehearsal, a woman came up to me and said, ‘I had never understood the story of “Rigoletto” so clearly.’ I was so proud. I wanted to isolate the essence of the opera. Like a father and a daughter talking in a car, there’s nothing else to do but focus on their conversation. The libretto of “Rigoletto” is so clear that you don’t need to do lots of things. Our lives depend on our father’s upbringing and relationships: that’s how our behavior and personality are formed. Nobody can escape the past. Gilda dies, haunted by the fact that she knows so little about her mother. She is obsessed with her lineage, and that’s why her aria ‘caro nome’ is all about a single name: Gualtier Malde. Gilda finds in that some justification and information to explain her loneliness. She finally has ‘a name.’ I think this is the only aria in the opera world which is about a name. In that name, she can find a new identity and the chance to form a new family, a new lineage, a new generation, where all the people can have names.

In the scene featuring Gilda in the first act, the only piece of scenery we have is a bed. I wanted there to be nothing else. This is just a story of the relationship between a father and his daughter. I think Verdi was very good at writing about familial relationships. When I did “Don Carlos,” it was all about the relationship between father and son, and then look at “Luisa Miller” and “Simon Boccanegra.” I think the idea of ‘family’ fascinated Verdi. He always tries to look at it in a positive way, in a way that the characters try not to hurt each other. I think “Rigoletto” is a very overwhelming story. Maybe this fascination with familial relationships came about because Verdi lost his wife and daughters very early. He is idealizing those relationships, trying to imagine how they could have been.

OW: Is there an opera you haven’t worked on that you would really like to stage?

VH: There are two operas that I dream of doing, that I promised Lorenzo Viotti we would do together; “Pelleas and Melisande,” and “Les dialogues des Carmélites.” All French repertoire, of course, but I love these two operas. I obviously want to do “La Traviata,” but if I can, I would do it much later in my career. This opera impresses me a lot. “Carmen” too, though I would prefer to do this opera in 10 years’ time

OW: Is there an opera that you really wouldn’t want to do?

VH: Yeah! “Faust,” for sure.

OW: Why? It is one of the most iconic operas in the French repertoire.

VH: I would never do it. I saw it recently in Paris and became totally convinced that it is not a good opera. There are musical moments that are brilliant and certainly form a part of the heritage of the operatic French repertoire, but the libretto is really scheiße: it is so bad. The beginning of the opera is very interesting, but then it doesn’t develop dramatically. I think the characters are plain and uninteresting, and I hate its libretto. I can’t bear this sort of ‘martyrdom’ of Marguerite as a poor, naïve girl. It is horrible. I can find no way to save this character. In “Rigoletto,” for example, I have tried to portray a strong, beautiful Gilda. But I just can’t see what I would do with Marguerite. But if I had to do an opera that I really don’t like, I would follow the advice Peter Sellars once told me about “Il trovatore:” ‘Don’t stage the libretto, stage the music.’

OW: Is there a future project which you would like to talk about?

VH: Yes, though I can’t say too much. There’s a project in Villa Noailles ( in Hyères, south of France) that I’m very excited about.It is a commission from Jean-Pierre Blanc, head of the Villa Noailles, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the creation by Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles of a modernist Villa which became a landmark in the history of art  We’re creating a new opera that will be staged outdoors, outside the village. The libretto is written by Simon Johannin, and the music composed by Raphaël Lucas. I’m directing the production in the Villa itself, on the terrace, in the swimming pool, in the garden, on the roof, with a cast gathering lyric young singers, including Jeanne Gérard and singers more coming from the pop gender like Camelia Jordana, acrobats coming from Marseille…It is very exciting to bring the Opera out of the house as soon as it is possible. It’s coming from one of the big operatic institutions and is being staged in a place that has never done opera before. I can’t say anything else, I am afraid, only that I am really looking forward to it, and I hope the audience loves it too.


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