About this Recording
2.220001 - PETITGIRARD, L.: Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man
English  French  German 

Laurent Petitgirard (b. 1950)
Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man

I have always wanted to write an opera with a dual personality at its centre. Eric Nonn suggested the story of the Elephant Man to me. This deals not only with the duality between Merrick’s inner self and his physical appearance, but also with a theme new to opera as far as I know, and extremely relevant today, that of exclusion. This man was misunderstood, humiliated and used by others. Indeed, being displayed naked without his consent in front of dozens of doctors and a photographer at the London Hospital may have been worse than being one of Tom Norman’s sideshow freaks, when he was at least fully aware of what he was doing.

In planning this opera, I knew I had to choose a subject that could touch any one of us, and not fall into the trap of setting a libretto of obscure meaning. I was also obsessed by the idea of intelligibility. Eric Nonn understood this and his libretto is full of lyricism as well as rhythm. The relationship between words and music was therefore my prime concern and while the opera is scored for substantial forces, the orchestra never prevents the voices from shining through. I planned right from the start to write the rôle for a woman, because I particularly like the tonal quality of the contralto voice, and because I wanted to create a sense of strange otherness.

Eric Nonn and I based our work on the genuine life story of Joseph Merrick, which is quite different from that portrayed in David Lynch’s film, based on the memoirs of Dr Treves, who had a propensity for portraying himself in a good light. At first a “freak” whom we discover through voyeurism, more or less, Joseph Merrick becomes a mirror in which we perceive our own fear of that which is different, and then a man with whom we can all identify as he wonders about God’s mercy.

We began work on the opera in May 1995 and finished it in December 1998. It was recorded in Monte Carlo in May–June 1999 with Nathalie Stutzmann in the title rôle.

The opera had its first staging in Prague in February 2002, and the production transferred to Nice the following November. Director Daniel Mesguich’s incredible staging developed even further the theme of duality on which the work is based. Jana Sykorova met the vocal and acting challenges of such an ambiguous rôle quite superbly.

Laurent Petitgirard
Translated by Susannah Howe


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