DP's blog: Directing Pygmalion

Posted on Tue, 2013-01-29 10:46 by David Pountney

At a moment when the British cultural press seemed rather over-preoccupied with the stale question of whether Calixto Beito is shocking or not, I took a look around the post Beito generation of directors, and found immense reservoirs of skill and imagination, all working to reflect on an opera in an interesting, stimulating and responsible way, and all with exemplary stage-craft.  In fact, the only person I have come across whose interpretive arrogance went a long way towards trashing the work under scrutiny was a conductor: Nicholaus Harnoncourt and the Magic Flute in Salzburg!

First up was Herheim, whose Lulu in Oslo and Dresden was the first to use the Kloke version which WNO will use next February. Here he was tackling another of these errant females which opera finds such a permanent source of fascination, Manon Lescaut. Herheim is essentially a naturalist who seems to like to challenge his technical skill as a director by erecting ever more complex interpretive structures. Manon in Graz was a prime example: concentrate – you will be tested later!

We start in the studio of Frédéric-Auguste Bertholdi, the sculptor who created the Statue of Liberty, so we are in Paris c. 1886. Bertholdi, alias Des Grieux (in the original a theology student) is in love with his statue, so there is a whole “Pygmalion” theme going. Through the gauze we discover Puccini (yes, it is he) madly leafing through a book which we assume to be Abbé Prévost’s novel from which the Manon story derives, obviously in the throes of discovering the inspiration for his first great success. The curtain rises onto the bustling opening scene – a typical virtuoso genre scene of different social groups busily interacting – original model Gounod’s Faust, frequently copied – e.g. Queen of Spades.  Instead of students and passers-by at the coaching in on the road to Paris however, we have Bertholdi’s foundry workers and groups of wealthy visitors and sponsors visiting the studio. Giant portions of the famous statue are there, Bertholdi/Des Grieux lighting the “torch of inspiration” i.e. love. The whole scene revolves bringing forward the book which Madame Liberty holds on which, you may recall, is inscribed the date July 4, 1776, the date of the declaration of Independence by those upstart Americans. This neatly takes us back 100 years as a flap on the face of the book opens and we see the be-wigged powdered 18th century characters stepping out of the “stage coach” – Manon, her brother, Geronte etc. The foundry workers are now an audience at an 18th century play, into which Bertholdi/Des Grieux is increasingly drawn, identifying Manon as a muse in his life akin to or interchangeable with Madame Liberty. Statue/live girl mixed up together says “Pygmalion” to all you classics buffers.

This is therefore a concept in which one of the main characters, Bertholdi/Des Grieux has to exist in two time zones at once, and all the characters have to grapple with two, or rather three sources for their actions and behaviour. They all from time to time rifle in the book from Prévost to find out what is about to happen to them, or what they might have forgotten to do, - source 1. Some of them, mainly Manon, also interact with Puccini who is a constant presence, singing along, getting involved, agonising along with the characters. Virtually the whole last scene of Manon dying in the American desert is played out between Manon and Puccini, as though the latter could have changed his mind and let her live! So Puccini is source 2. Finally they all do have occasionally to deal with the music and the text as they actually are – source 3.

The only reason all this is not totally absurd and really irritating is that it is very well directed indeed, with meticulous attention to detail by a natural theatrical showman. (He would probably hate to know I had said that about him!) Previous generations of “concept” directors have tended to be either allergic to or incapable of directing the chorus, herding them into little playpens at the side of the stage or onto convenient podiums and hoping they will melt into the background. Herheim illustrates his concept with vivid physical direction of the chorus, extras, everyone he can lay his hands on in fact, and does so with singular bravura. But the complexity does triumph over any possibility of actually feeling anything for these characters, now removed threefold from whatever tenuous reality they might have had. Perhaps for most of the audience that might have been quite a big minus.

In Brussels I encountered one of the best known of yet another new generation of Polish directors, Kzystof Warlikowski, who was doing Lulu. I would not normally go and see something I am about to direct myself, but curiosity got the better of me. Warlikowski is above all a stylist, and you will not see a more chic production in a long while. He plays Lulu in a bang up-to-date contemporary setting, which he illustrates with lavish and continual use of video on the one hand, and a Perspex box in which various sub-textual actions are carried out, so here too there are 3 layers of narrative, though they are all more abstract than Herheim’s. The video in effect stands in for the portrait of Lulu, in itself a device which once again evokes Pygmalion. Warlikowski makes a great use of dance, and of the image of dancers , which obviously has a specific relevance to Lulu, not least in his haunting deployment of the ballet-school éléves, who introduce a disquieting but appropriate hint of the “grooming” of young girls for sexual exploitation.  This is brilliantly reinforced by the fact that Barbara Hannigan gives an extraordinary physical performance which includes being on point for considerable stretches, and plays most of the opera in her skimpy underwear.

This all functions on a very high level – no question – but I would offer two observations – not really criticisms. Of the three layers, the most conventionally directed is the front line actions of the singers. In particular, the men are rather pale and anonymous, and Warlikowski himself seems more interested in what he can achieve around or outside the actual story. There is a marvellous instance at the end of Act 1 when a lone, mysteriously etiolated dancer carries on after the music has stopped with a long, very long strip-tease on point. It is a very curious, beautiful and atmospheric piece of performance art all on its own. It is perhaps just a shame that he didn’t find anything so interesting as that to do with his principal characters.

In particular, though Hannigan’s virtuosity and brilliance are beyond question, I do wonder whether there isn’t a more profound way of dealing with sexuality on stage than underwear and extravagantly flagrant balletic movement. I suppose that is a challenge I am setting for myself!

The third Pygmalion opera in this sequence is George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin” – and so perfect is it and its production by Katie Mitchell that there is rather little left to say about it. Rush to see it at Covent Garden in a short while. The plot is simple and the outcome inevitable:  a wealthy and intelligent Medieval landowner asks a “boy” to celebrate his achievements in an exquisitely illuminated book. The boy succeeds, through his pictures, in revealing his wife to herself, and they have an affair. The landowner, discovering this, murders the boy and feeds his heart to his wife. But his wife has been irreversibly liberated by this process, and chooses to kill herself.

Once again, there are different levels to this narrative. There is a narrative distancing device whereby each character puts himself in brackets so to speak by saying: “And the boy said….”, “And the wife said…”. Then there is a structural and dramatic distancing in which a “chorus” of three angels directs and determines the story. The inevitability of the story is thus twice over re-enforced, but this in no way reduces the suspense with which we watch the unfolding of what we know will happen. This is truly intelligent dramatic narration. And it is conveyed through music of such precision, such emotional acuteness and such dramatic conviction, not to mention exquisite colour and melodic richness. And – oh heaven and glory be – every word is crystal clear and audible!

The skill of Benjamin’s work is almost pitiless in the way in which it shows up the shoddy workmanship of most of his contemporaries who often seem to believe that being loud, dense and over complex is the only way to be “modern”. They might well reply that Benjamin’s work is NOT modern, and they would be right! This is one of the most fascinating aspects of this work: it actually renders the concept of “modern” – over which so much blood and ink has been spilt – irrelevant, redundant. The story-line of “Written on Skin” with its creepy combination of Medieval brutality and erotic perversion, could easily have been the subject of an opera from the 1920s/30s, and indeed several come to mind – Zemlinsky’s “Florentine Tragedy” has a very similar constellation, as do “Die Tote Stadt”, “L’Amore di Tre Re”, and Benjamin’s colouristic score could have developed from Schreker, except that Benjamin has far more discretion and taste and never wallows in his own bath! It reaffirms the starting point of all operatic endeavour in the most emphatic way: musical and dramatic story telling is all that is required.

Given the three levels of narrative device in the work itself, it would be almost inevitable that Herheim would have over complicated the result, and the Warlikovsky would have smothered it in contemporary chic. Katie Mitchell nails it exactly. She gives the Angels a contemporary, bureaucratic milieu, like figures out of Julietta’s “Bureau of Dreams”, but handles this entirely appropriate anachronism with such delicacy and discretion that we are only inspired, never distracted. The result is a crystal clear narrative, compelling in every detail.

Asked to comment on the Verdi/Wagner centenary by Ivan Hewitt, I wrote:

Verdi composed the drama of melody, melodrama, contrast. Wagner, that of ideas and transformation. Both were giants. Who else can join their club? Handel, Mozart, and Janacek.

Strauss and Puccini never transcended their supreme level of competence, both leaving the genre where they found it and sinking into decline.  Verdi and Wagner each spent a lifetime pushing the boundaries of the form and their role within it, and were still re-defining themselves till the very end.

Who may join them in the 21st century? George Benjamin has the talent, the taste and the skill. But as with Bizet, Berg, Debussy and Shostakovitch, one masterpiece is not enough to join this exclusive club. He has another 5 operas to write….

Hurry up, George!