Podalydès et caetera…
Denis Podalydès, actor, director, and author, fully embodies the Comédie-Française’s motto: “Be together and be oneself.”
You’re acting in Les Damnés and directing Les Fourberies de Scapin. Is this a natural transition?
I have always been both an actor and director. My brother Bruno and I wrote plays that we put on at home. At school, I liked to dissect and analyze literary texts. And quite naturally, I felt the urge to tell others what needed to be highlighted.
When Éric Ruf asked you to direct Scapin, were you excited to be tackling this incredible masterpiece?Actually, I hesitated. I thought of all the great seminal productions, and I was afraid they would inhibit me. So I read and reread Molière. Things clicked when Benjamin Lavernhe was offered the leading role. Also, with the classics you find a huge capacity for life and something very modern lying dormant between the lines. But I never worry about updating the work. I don’t try to make things accessible, to replace one word with another to make things clearer. I count on the audience’s ability to identify with the play, to appreciate its universality and discover unsuspected connections. The production should never explain a work, but rather reveal a play’s potential.
In 2009, Jérôme Deschamps, then director of the Opéra-Comique, asked you to direct André Messager’s Fortunio. How did you approach this first experience with opera?
I accepted without having a clue as to where I was going. I was not a connoisseur. I discovered opera as a child, when my grandmother gave me a boxed set of Don Giovanni, then took me to see The Magic Flute at the movie theater. Later, I listened to Baroque operas, and works by Wagner, the overtures to Lohengrin and Parsifal, but in a rather haphazard way. When I first heard Fortunio, I fell in love with it. I was familiar with the subject of the libretto, which was adapted from de Musset’s Le Chandelier, but not with the composer. So I mostly focused on the music, by developing a rapport with the conductor, Louis Langrée, who will also conduct Le Comte Ory. He was extremely generous: I went to his home several times, he talked me through the score and I took notes. Fortunately, for this first experience, I was tackling a little-known opera. I also worked with Éric Ruf, who was in charge of stage design, as he is for Le Comte Ory. I trust him, he keeps me on track and watches over me, making sure I don’t make any mistakes. I really need this, as it helps me deal with my doubts.
The story of Count Ory, a seducer disguised as a priest to try and win the heart of a lonely widow, the Countess Adèle, whose brother is away on a crusade, is also a tale of deception, isn’t it?
Yes, the last thing I wanted was for it to become a salacious Second Empire opéra bouffe, with a sort of small-time, provincial Don Juan making eyes at a frustrated, dim-witted countess. With the performers’ blessing, I chose to get as close as possible to Stendhal, who was himself fascinated by Rossini. I was seeking a romanticism that wasn’t sentimental but energetic, crazy, naïve. I was struck by a detail: when Le Comte Ory premiered in 1828, he was not allowed to be a priest due to censorship. So I’ve made the count a real priest and the countess an unhappy, puritanical woman, and set it during the first conquest of Algeria in 1830. The transposition is quite clear. I wanted the story to take place in a church and then in a crypt, with candles and crucifixes, and that it should smell of the sacristy. Above all, I wanted the countess to be in love with the count, without being able to admit it to herself, and that he, too, should be madly in love with her. Rossini’s music therefore celebrates the characters’ subconscious, how they are trapped in their straitjacked existence, struggling against their desires.
We are a bit less familiar with this aspect of your personality, but you have also written several books, including a novel, Fuir Pénélope. How does writing enrich your work?
As a child, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I have kept loads of notebooks that I never reread, but which bear witness to this passion. I find odd moments when I write, during a film shoot or while traveling. Currently, I’m working on a book that will likely be called Instants disparus. I wrote about things that are missinga sense, an object, a face. Plus, as an actor, I’m very preoccupied by memory and the lack of it. Unlike pure novelists, I don’t know how to draw on my imagination. I can only work from autobiographical material.
So you’re a man of several lives?
Let’s just say that I’m involved in all of the “departments” of an actor’s life. An actor can perform in plays, make movies, direct, read texts in public, record them, write them and put on operas. In this way, I feel like I’m meeting all the demands of the profession, even though I’ve been trying to slow down a little since I’ve had kids and a family.
Les Damnés Jusqu’au 10 décembre. Comédie-Française.
Jusqu’au 10 décembre. Comédie-Française.
LES FOURBERIES DE SCAPIN
Jusqu’au 11 février. Comédie-Française.
LE COMTE ORY
Du 19 au 31 décembre. Opéra-Comique. www.opera-comique.com Les 12 et 14 janvier. Opéra royal du château de Versailles.
LES 7 BOULES DE CRISTAL
Les 25, 26, 27 et 28 décembre à 20h30 sur France Culture. Denis Podalydès interprète le professeur Tournesol dans cette fiction – coproduction France Culture/Moulinsart/Comédie-Française.