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Opera composer keen to explore Adele Hugo’s spiral into insanity

An Amsterdam-based composer is seeking Adele Hugo's Halifax writings for a multi-media opera installation.
Cinzia Nistico Crop
Amsterdam-based Cinzia Nistico is searching for is searching for Adele Hugo’s missing Halifax writings to help her in the creation of a multimedia mini-opera. (ANDREA MARGELLIA)


Adele Hugo’s unfortunate life in Halifax could soon be the subject of a multimedia mini-opera.

Amsterdam-based composer and multimedia artist Cinzia Nistico is searching for Adele Hugo’s missing Halifax writings to help round out a dramatic account of her tragic slide into madness and “disintegration as a person.”

The daughter of famous French novelist Victor Hugo followed her lover, Albert Andrew Pinson, to Halifax when his regiment was transferred in 1863. His rejection of her seemed to propitiate a steep mental decline. She spent the next three years writing reams of notes, diaries, stories and letters. 

The missing papers could form a key element of what Nistico describes as "a small-scale opera installation of about 20 to 25 minutes for one singer, with electronics and video, in which the inner world of Adele Hugo emerges in contrast with the outside reality.”

“For my project, I need to write a text which is supposed to come out of Adele’s mind," she says in an email interview.

"The text doesn’t have to be linear, but it’s always intimidating to put words in the mouth of a character who really existed; for this reason, I was hoping to find her diaries around the time she left for (and spent in) Halifax, so that I could quote directly from her pages. Also, it would be interesting to see if and how her way of writing changed along with the development of her mental state."

The multi-media opera installation "is conceived as a one act/one piece of music and can be performed live or broadcast as video. Because nothing of what happened in the mind of Adele Hugo happened the same in reality, it’s a tale of her mind, which wrapped in on itself in a descending spiral,” she explains.

The piece will initially be performed in Amsterdam, but, the cutting-edge composer says, “the idea is to have it touring around as much as possible. This is why I thought I would also make a version which is available only on video, so it is easier to have it spread around.”

Nistico studied music in Amsterdam, London and Milan and her works have been performed in Europe, China, Russia and even Uzbekistan. She collaborated with choreographer Laurent Cavanna, from Rambert Company in London and composed the soundtrack of Luminoid — shown at the Brooklyn Film Festival — for film director Alan Denman.

“I’m working really at giving a sense of disintegration of the person by way of using the voice both live and in the electronics,” she says. “I’m working with Anat Spiegel at creating a music excerpt, but it will take some time before it’s ready because we only started experimenting.”  

Nistico guiding a live performanceCinzia Nistico improvises with live electronics at the Amsterdam jazz club Bimhuis, as part of a music/dance improv series called Monday Match. (CO BOERSE) 

Versatile vocalist Spiegel will perform the lead role.

The multi-talented Israeli-Dutch performer and composer specializes in “cross-platform performance” and focuses on “the endless expressions of the human voice.” She premiered her first opera, Medulla, based on Bjork’s album of the same name, in 2015.

Italian-born Nistico says she is personally fascinated by those characters who seem to misunderstand their reality.

"In Adele’s instance, her trust in the love of Lieutenant Pinson, based on their previous affair, brought her in a descending journey (into madness). I think that she bet it all on her (eventual marriage) with Pinson and because of this, she put herself in a win-or-die situation. My interest is in the description of her progressive detachment from reality.”

Despite his repeated rejection, Adele continued to pursue Pinson, even when the regiment was again transferred — this time to Barbados. There, she took to wandering the streets in tattered clothes and was eventually returned to her father by Celine Baa, a Bajan woman. Adele spent the rest of her life in a private mental asylum just outside Paris.

Born in Paris in 1830, Adele Hugo was always in the shadow of her famous father and brothers. Despite social constraints and her father’s prohibition against her having a career, she considered herself a writer, pianist and composer.

The family counted Paganini, Berlioz, Liszt and many other musicians, composers, writers and artists among their friends and regular visitors. During the family’s years of self-imposed exile in the Channel Islands, Adele was isolated from society, which may have contributed to her later mental breakdown.

So far, Nistico’s search hasn’t turned up any of the Halifax documents, though she has contacted the Pierpont-Morgan Library in New York City, which originally purchased some of Adele Hugo's writings that had been found shoved in the back of a bureau.

Unfortunately, the library’s records do not indicate that these are the long-lost documents written in Halifax, but seem to date from the time she was writing her Diary of Exile, started when the family moved from Paris to the Channel Islands in the 1850s. 

Several volumes of Adele’s diaries, which she wrote in a code of her own devising, were deciphered by French editor Frances Vernor Guille and published over several decades from 1968 to 1984. These formed the basis for legendary French film director Francois Truffaut’s fanciful 1975 movie, The Story of Adele H, largely set in Halifax and starring Isabelle Adjani, who was nominated for a best actress Oscar.

Adele Hugo’s story has also been told as an operatic musical, The Passion of Adele Hugo, performed by Eastern Front Theatre.

“I think that to access those documents could help (Anat and I) to better understand and describe the mind process of Adele Hugo and bring her humanity into the character I'm trying to describe. It's the goal of the project to describe the inner journey of Adele Hugo to disintegration." 

Nistico quotes the psychologist James Hillman: "When the inside and the outside mix together, life is reduced to a symbolism and its reality gets distorted" and concludes, "I would be very interested in getting to know this distorted reality of Adele Hugo.” 

An updated version of Leslie Smith’s 1993 biography, Adele Hugo: La Miserable has recently been re-released by Goose Lane Editions as an e-book.


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