Librettist L.S. Hilton’s Love Hurts, an Opera with Music by Nicola Moro, Receives U.S. Premiere at New York’s Symphony Space on October 28
“The Enlightenment had a dark side.” – L.S. Hilton
After its world premiere last June at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro Studio Melato, the Center for Contemporary Opera presents the U.S. premiere of Love Hurts, by librettist L.S. Hilton – author of the best-selling novel Maestra – and composer Nicola Moro, at Symphony Space in New York City on October 28. The one-hour opera centers on the notorious pedophile and child-murderer Gilles de Rais, Maréchal of France and the real-life model for the fairy tale Bluebeard. Rather than being told directly, his story is channeled through the character of the Marquis de Sade. Hilton’s text is grounded in allusions to Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade; both stories are set in the asylum of Charenton, where the Marquis was incarcerated from 1803 until his death in 1814. De Sade wrote numerous plays in the asylum, and as a form of occupational therapy he was allowed to have his works performed by the inmates. In Love Hurts the story of de Rais unfolds through such a performance, as the story of the radical French politician Jean-Paul Marat does in Weiss’s play. The stage director for Love Hurts is Federica Santambrogio, and the production will be led by British conductor James Ross.
Moro had long been interested in the story of Gilles de Rais, but his early sketches for an opera on the subject did not bear fruit until Hilton hit upon the idea of using the Marquis de Sade’s fascination with the murderer as a framing device. As Moro comments, “Before writing even a single note, I always ask myself why a character might be singing, not what or how”; the play within a play format solved those “why” questions at a stroke. He continues: “Love Hurts will make you forget all you know about Bluebeard and de Sade.”
The two protagonists are a study in contrasts. De Rais fought alongside Joan of Arc in the Royal Army of Charles VII, and was present with her when the Siege of Orleáns ended. He depleted his extensive fortune by writing and staging an enormous theatrical spectacle based on that siege, involving 140 speaking parts and 500 extras. He was in his mid-20s when he began the activities for which he was finally executed by hanging at the age of 35; the total number of his child victims is unknown, but estimates range from 80 to 200. Yet the monument that his daughter had built on the site of his execution developed a reputation as a holy altar under the protection of Saint Anne, where generations of women would go to pray for an abundance of breast milk.
De Sade, on the other hand, wrote extensively about crime without ever having committed one. Though remembered as a pornographer, he had little interest in writing erotica; as Hilton puts it, he “saw his sexual material as part of a subversive philosophical project.” He spent 32 of his 74 years behind bars for blasphemy and “libertine dementia.” Though de Sade wrote some 20 plays during a brief period of freedom in the 1790s, only one was produced and it was not a success. Thus the bulk of his dramatic work took place among the Charenton inmates, itself an interesting parallel to the intemperate spectacle that brought de Rais to financial ruin well before his murders came to light.
A well-known historian in England and the author of five historical biographies, Hilton also wrote the best-selling erotic thriller Maestra, which has been optioned by Columbia Pictures and is the first volume of a projected trilogy. As the Washington Post declared of the novel:
“The good news is that the British, Oxford-educated author not only writes well about sex, she writes well about everything. You could cut the sex scenes and ‘Maestra’ would still be a fascinating novel about a young woman on the make. It just wouldn’t be as much fun.”
While using Marat/Sade as a structural model for her retelling of the story of Gilles de Rais, Hilton also drew on the relationship between Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 Threepenny Opera and John Gay’s 1728 Beggar’s Opera as “dramatic ancestry” for the parallels between Love Hurts and Weiss’s play. The filter of de Sade provides a sort of Brechtian narrative distance from the unpalatable history being enacted in the opera, but both Gay and Brecht were also interested in exposing the underlying hypocrisy of their respective cultures. As Hilton points out, though de Rais’s acts were well beyond indefensible, they were carried out in the context of a culture in which “a desperate peasant woman would sell her child for a loaf of bread in order to stave off starvation for the rest of the family.” De Sade, for his part, can be seen as a serious counter-cultural thinker whose imprisonment was an act of political expediency by a tyrannical state. The interweaving of these threads, added to the setting of the asylum and the changing “definitions” of insanity through different ages and cultures, provided Hilton with her thematic materials.
Lisa Hilton, librettist, is a British historian, novelist, journalist and broadcaster. Her historical books include Athénais: The Real Queen of France (2002); Mistress Peachum’s Pleasure (2006); Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens (2009); The Horror of Love (2011); and Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince (2014). As a novelist, Hilton has written The House with Blue Shutters (2010), set in southern France in World War Two and the present; Wolves in Winter (2012), set in 15th-century Italy where the central character, Mura, is sold as a slave at age five, and finds herself at the Florentine court; and as L.S. Hilton, Maestra, a psychological thriller published in 2016 in 42 countries worldwide.
Nicola Moro, composer, studied composition at New York University and at King’s College London supported by the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation and Radcliffe Trust, successfully completing a PhD in composition under George Benjamin and Silvina Milstein. His research is focused on 20th century Italian composers, in particular the music of Luciano Berio and Luigi Dallapiccola. He wrote WAR, for two voices and ensemble, with Harold Pinter in 2007, and his chamber opera Love Hurts premiered in Milan at the Piccolo Teatro in 2016. His works have been performed by the Britten Sinfonia, the Ensemble Lontano, the Ligeti String Quartet, the Fidelio Trio, and by soloists Mary Dullea, Andrew Sparling and Rob Keeley in London, Prague, Berlin, Milan, New York, Paris and Boston. Moro now lives in London and currently teaches at Cambridge University.
James Ross, music director and conductor, has performed more than 1,000 works in 16 countries throughout Europe, North America and Asia, including in London’s Royal Festival Hall, and several times at Westminster Abbey for Queen Elizabeth II. Training first as a violinist, he studied at Harrow School in London and Christ Church, Oxford, receiving a music doctorate on French opera, politics and the press, awarded the Donald Tovey Prize. A BBC Conducting Competition finalist, he has conducted most of the symphonic and choral repertoire, as well as operas by Bizet, Britten, Janáček, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. He has worked with some of the world’s greatest singers, including Sir Thomas Allen, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Olga Borodina and Danielle de Niese, and has led numerous first performances of contemporary music.
CCO Presents Love Hurts at Symphony Space
October 28, 2016, 7:30pm
Symphony Space, New York City (Thalia Theater)
Love Hurts (U.S. premiere)
Composer: Nicola Moro
Librettist: L.S. Hilton
Stage Director: Federica Santambrogio
Producer: Center for Contemporary Opera (Jim Schaeffer, General Director) in partnership with Associazione SoloCanto, Milan
Costume Design: Micaela Sollecito
Production Manager: Kasey Burgess
Marquis de Sade: David Kravitz
Constance: Rebecca Nathanson
Lunatic one: David Gordon
Lunatic two: David Neal
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© 21C Media Group, September 2016