Filidei: WP of L’Inondation – Interview with the Composer

Filidei: WP of L’Inondation – Interview with the Composer

L’Inondation (The Flood), Francesco Filidei’s new opera in two acts, with book by Jöel Pommerat, makes its world premiere on September 27 at the Théâtre National de l'Opéra Comique in Paris, featuring the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Emilio Pomarico. Repeat performances through October 3. 

The plot is based on a short story by the Soviet dissident Yevgeny Zamyatin, entitled L'Inondation. Pommerat puts the spotlight on the characters – a woman and her unsuccessful attempts to save her marriage, her husband, an orphan child adopted by the couple, and their neighbors. The role of the narrator brings to mind the use of the chorus in ancient Greek tragedies.    

Watch the announcement video here:

In the run-up to the premiere of L’Inondation, we had a chance to talk with Francesco Filidei about this project, as well as his take on opera today.

Pommerat’s book is based on a short story by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which was first published in 1929. Were you already familiar with this story? As a composer, what were your first impressions?   
No, I didn’t know about L'Inondation, although I had read We by Zamyatin. Pommerat and I discussed various subjects at great length. L'Inondation was one of several proposals from Russian literature that Jöel brought up. In general, as far as operas go, musical institutions tend to favor topics that are directly connected to current events. Personally, I find it more interesting to begin with stories and ideas from the past, and use them to get a clearer view of the direction we ourselves are moving in today.  
Zamyatin was a naval engineer and a writer. His mother was a pianist, and there’s something musical in all his writing. When you read L'Inondation, you realize how he “orchestrates” the environment in which the characters live. They rarely speak, while atmospheric phenomena are everywhere. They can be external, like wind and water, but they also involve interiors, like the buzzing of a fly or the ticking of a clock. This creates a world around the characters’ stream of consciousness, and it invades their inner lives. Such an atmosphere is made possible through Zamyatin’s orchestration. In the opera, it’s the orchestration that gives depth and meaning to words, thoughts, fate.  

You wrote this opera, your second after Giordano Bruno (2015), with librettist and director Joël Pommerat. Did working with him influence your own approach to writing? Can you give us some insight there? What were the crucial steps when it came to working together and making certain choices?   
Once we’d decided on the subject, Joël proposed a synopsis. After that, we met one week a month for seminars with the singers. This allowed us to work on a first draft for each scene. 
The dialogues would be read over once or twice. Séverine Ballon accompanied the readings on the cello, following my directions. In the afternoon, I would quickly write out the melodies on the piano. The next day we’d go over the scene again, making the necessary adjustments. Joël would give us the exact timing for the movements and the action on stage. Then we would record. After that, I put everything on the computer and created a model. This initial phase of composition, scene by scene, went fairly quickly. Then we recorded a demo that was pretty much complete, so that Joël could work out the staging.  
Once this was done, I began with the orchestration, which for me was by far the longest and most difficult part of the job. Definitely the biggest challenge involved.
I learned a lot by going back and reworking the material with a writer-director. Prior to this experience, I had managed the structuring of my compositions on my own. But here I had to adapt to the things Joël proposed. I wasn’t focused on the musical forms, but on the dramatic development. Sometimes it was rough going, and I had to be a kind of sculptor, and sculpt the material we were working with. I understood that there were certain situations that didn’t call for music if you wanted to the story to progress, where action was involved. This meant we needed dialogue and not only music. So, in the end, I really got a grip on how arias and recitatives complement one another, and how important that is. 

Why do you think it’s still important to write operas today?  
That’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to. As a composer, it’s definitely relevant in terms of references to forms from the past, which are so numerous. I’m interested in reworking structures from the past, making the necessary adjustments, because they allow you to inject a semblance of life into things considered long dead. Opera is a “dead” form, which reached its height in Europe ages ago. I’m working on opera’s dead body, trying to bring it back to life. I’ve used the same approach in other works and genres, like in Notturno (1992), Danza macabra (1996), Ricercare (2006) and Concertino d'Autunno (2007).
Immersing myself in the passing of time helps me to better understand who I am as a composer. What do I get out of an approach like that? Well, for me, a piece of music is like a “miniature” of life. Just like human life, a piece is born, lives and dies over time. But a trace remains: the score. A piece of music is relatively short compared to our own lives. Through its closed form, we can try to better understand who we are and where we’re going. At any rate, we do seem to be going somewhere… maybe.   

L'Inondation was commissioned by Opéra Comique.

L’Inondation (2018)
Opera in two acts. Libretto by Joël Pommerat
After L’inondation by Yevgeny Zamyatin
3 S, C, CT, T, Bar, B, 2 children voices
2.2.2 bcl.2. / / perc (=5) piano cel harp fsm / strings
Duration 130’

Image: @ Matthieu Fappani / Inconito for Opéra Comique