"Phenomenon?" The operatic productions of directors Mariusz Trelinski and Krzysztof Warlikowski.
Scene from Madame Butterfly, dir. Mariusz Treliński, photo: Krzysztof Bieliński / Grand Theatre - Polish National Opera
What is opera: strictly music, strictly theatre? Grand and empty spectacles or beautiful, dramatic, and engaging stories about human beings - their inner life, minds, struggles with destiny, themselves, the world... "Opera is a wonderful misunderstanding, one that has been passed on from century to century, that has in truth produced masterpieces to accompany us in our lives, but that in spite of all this remains burdened by certain primal sins," noted director Giorgio Strehler several decades ago. And further: "In me, a theatre director, opera has always generated a special feeling of 'insatiability,' has proven impossible to resolve in its entirety, in music and spectacle, in music and theatre." On one hand, opera includes the abstraction of music, which possess no specific and concrete purpose; on the other, it contains the concreteness and dramatic objective of its narrative. How does one reconcile this? "In opera, I begin with the music, trying to find the starting point that prompted the composer to write a given work," Constantine Stanislavsky analyzed. Therefore, it seems that in opera the most important thing is the combination of music, phrasing, libretto, rhythm, movement, lighting, and scenery; in this vast entirety, Stanislavsky obviously placed music and singing above all else ("music is the dramatic content of opera").
But the substance of opera seems to remain an inaccessible bastion, an oasis that customarily breeds dried or dead trees and fruit. More than a dozen years ago, Peter Brook was forced to shut himself up in his Parisian theatre, the Bouffes du Nord, to produce a brilliant and intimate staging of Bizet's Carmen; for Ingmar Bergman, the operatic stage and its space were not enough: he had to pick up a camera in order to create his wonderful version of Mozart's The Magic Flute - a work shaped according to his own imagination. Various are the paths to opera; its capacity and shared spaces with dramatic theatre and film (operatic works have been filmed by the likes of Herzog, Marthaler, Szabo, Strehler, Visconti, and Zefirelli) continue to open up great possibilities for development, doing so precisely through dialogue between various aesthetics and forms, through mutual permeation and supplementation.
Krzysztof Warlikowski came to opera from theatre. He graduated with a degree in directing from the Theatre Academy in Krakow (having previously studied history, philosophy, and Romance languages and literatures). A student of Krystian Lupa, Giorgio Strehler, and Peter Brook, he began his adventure with opera at the latter's side, acting as Brook's assistant on a production of Debussy's Impréssions de Pelleas. In theatre, Warlikowski has shown no interest in simple situations, clear and legible emotions, and facile schemes. He takes the text (be it a Classical drama, Shakespeare play, or works by contemporary authors like Bernhard-Marie Koltès or Sarah Kane) and places it within a highly personal theatrical context. This context often consists of a singular space, emotions and tensions pulled taught, and a counterpoint of states and transformations. Warlikowski's characters are sexually ambiguous; his productions exhibit incredible sensitivity and sensuality (of hearing, touch, gaze), and sometimes manifest the director's fascination for ugliness and cruelty. Ultimately, they are precise games of reflection in which characters explore each other. Warlikowski strives purposely to reveal the seams of theatre and dismantle representational conventions and forms.
Mariusz Treliński came to opera from film (feature film, advertising, music videos) as well as from theatre. A graduate of the Łódź Film School, he debuted in 1988 with Pożegnanie jesieni / A Farewell to Autumn, a film based on a novel of the same title by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. After a break of several years, he made Łagodna / A Docile Creature (inspired by a Fyodor Dostoyevsky short story). Beautiful and impressionistic, the latter film recounts the story of the tragic meeting and love of two people: a delicate, fragile young woman (the "docile creature" of the title), and a cold, cruel older man. The film is a flashback; the past comes to life and fulfills itself over the woman's dead body. The story is told through a series of large, symbolic blocks of ice, thick and stifling air, and several highly saturated moods and hues. Finally, in 2001, Treliński made Egoiści / The Egotists, a film in which he offered audiences a look at their contemporaries and the way they manage in a vast metropolis. At least in spirit, the film's structure was based on the Wagnerian technique of leitmotifs. The director's films are aesthetically sophisticated without a doubt and clearly manifest Treliński's sensitivity for beautiful imagery. It should be added that Treliński has also been active in theatre, mounting a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth and directing several plays for Polish Television Theatre. He has also made music videos and directed television commercials (which he continues to do to this day).
Mariusz Treliński's approach to operatic works is best explained through his own words: "Always, in working on my productions, I feel that I have two responsibilities - one relative to the operatic work itself and the other relative to the times in which I am staging it. My productions are always a derivative of these two poles." Treliński debuted on the operatic stage with a contemporary chamber opera titled Wyrywacz serc / The Usurper of Hearts by Elżbieta Sikora, based on the prose of Boris Vian (September 1995). He went on to direct Puccini's Madame Butterfly (June 1999), Karol Szymanowski's Król Roger / King Roger (March 2000, for which he received the K. Szymanowski Prize for his innovative vision in staging the opera), Verdi's Othello (June 2001), and finally Tchaikovsky's Oniegin / Onegin (April 2002). His staging of Madame Butterfly was noticed by Placido Domingo, who then went on to commission a restaging of the production in the autumn of 2001 at the Washington Opera, of which Domingo is artistic director. This was followed by other offers: Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades at Berlin's Staatsoper, which featured Domingo and was conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and Mozart's Don Giovanni in Los Angeles, conducted by Kenta Nagano.
Mariusz Treliński's operatic theatre is characterized by stage pictures, light, color, as well as symbolism, and finally by the referencing of mythical structures and archetypal stories. These traits derive from both the music and his directorial imagination. King Roger as staged by him became a story of transgression and penetration of the mystery that is oneself, a magical narration about the meeting of a man and the androgynous, dual-gendered God-Dionysus. It described the myth of the duality of human imagination and the effort to resolve its two contradictory aspects. His Othello was a story of the eternal (lost?...) struggle with Evil, embodied in the figure of Iago. In Onegin Treliński discovered the myth about the loss of innocence and the banishment from paradise: Onegin is imprisoned in a past where he suffered defeat, a past which he must incessantly ponder and which he cannot escape. Myth (as archetypal story) thus becomes a bridge that simultaneously links opera to and extracts it from historical convention; it expands opera, grants it a depth, intensifies the events portrayed, and constitutes a background that renders a staging universal.
In Treliński's productions, myth emerges from stage pictures, events on stage, specific arrays of human figures, space, the color of backgrounds. In Othello the struggle of good against evil transpired where the colors black and white met; in King Roger events seemed inflamed by the colors violet, blue, and white. In Treliński's production of Onegin, on the other hand, light and dark alternately ruled the stage along with intensive hues of bright pink, red, purple, violet, green, yellow, and ultimately white. Colors seem to illustrate situations, add atmosphere, represent the inner moods of characters, sometimes working in counterpoint to events; they are saturated, unusually sharp, almost absolute. "I think that before a composer writes a work, he or she sees images from which the future shape of a composition emerges - independent of whether this is the white of Desdemona, or the seductive red of Carmen. In directing an opera, I search within the music to discover an inner rhythm of images that come together to form the story," says Treliński. Lighting is very important, for example, non-realistic structures of light and shadow reminiscent of Baroque painting. The stage is often enveloped in darkness from which characters come forth and into which they recede (it is often difficult to see their faces). The light rarely brings out details, constituting a subtle glow instead.
Finally, stage pictures are also important: they are very beautiful and captivating in their energy and intensity, dazzling in their arrangement, structure, and possibilities. Pictures focus our attention and enthrall us through their power, the impression they make. The last act of King Roger as staged by Treliński includes the following scene: the Shepherd hovers above, looking down from a vast height, his arms outstretched; somewhat lower down Roxanne can be seen dressed in a light-colored robe; Roger kneels on the white ground; the bi-gendered god above all and the human deity below. The fourth act of Othello plays out in the intimate space of a bed chamber: Othello strangles Desdemona, who lies in her cold bed (catafalque...) dressed in a light-colored robe that renders her innocent, while large drops of paint (blood...) fall upon a vast wall of white canvas, spreading quickly and ultimately covering the wall. The spectacular Polonaise in the last act of Onegin plays out as an equally spectacular and decadent fashion show that seems straight out of Fellini; this shocking stage picture is filled in its entirety by intense red light that cuts through the space and emanates from the checkerboard floor. At times, however, we are left with the strange impression that Treliński chooses to close structures, subjects, problems, and characters within contrived and stylized structures created for their own sake, focused on their own beauty and the concept they embody.
Krzysztof Warlikowski's theatre is clearly born from the spirit of the music: "In some sense, the music is most important; I need it to extract the meaning of the drama. It suggests how certain scenes should play out; perhaps without the music I would not understand opera to the degree I do. I think that every stage of interpretation opens up a different musical world." The music in his productions is performed "live," that is, on stage by instrumentalists who are on stage (i.e. "visible"); we also find in them aria structures and musical interludes that seem to come directly from opera. For his initial theatrical productions, Warlikowski enlisted exceptional jazz trumpeter and composer Tomasz Stańko to write the music; since 1994, the director has been collaborating with one of Poland's most talented young composers, Paweł Mykietyn. On the operatic stage, Warlikowski has thus far directed productions of Verdi's Don Carlos (October 2000) and three world premieres: Roxanna Panufnik's The Music Programme (April 2000), Paweł Mykietyn's Ignorant i Szaleniec / The Ignoramus and the Madman (May 2001), and Dutch composer Martijn Padding's Tattooed Tongues (Ziemia Ulro I / The Land of Ulro I) in September of 2001.
In Warlikowski's operatic theatre, the most important component is the event - specific situation - in which we find the protagonists embroiled. Thus, the most important shifts occur in the acting, the portrayal of characters, the structures of situations. In The Music Programme seemingly two-dimensional characters acquire human shape on stage thanks to decisive and strong characterizations and a differentiation of characters that is deeper than in the libretto. In Don Carlos Warlikowski abandoned "grand" scenery (which not even Zefirelli dared to do in his 1992 staging of the same opera at Milan's La Scala, recorded and published by EMI Classics), leaving the stage practically an empty space. Setting events in this universal space stripped of historical substance allowed the director to highlight the complexity of the situation and the power of the emotions and feelings released. An empty space, a glass floor, orange walls covered in scaffolding, television sets (one of them positioned downstage center, its back to the audience), an orchestra hidden behind transparent foil - this is the opening scene and starting point for Warlikowski's staging of Padding's opera Tattooed Tongues. Additionally, somewhere on the right side of the stage, a black easy chair occupied by Friso Haverkamp, the author of the opera's libretto. Dressed in a black fur, he sleeps and dreams the dream he has conceived.
Warlikowski fills his operatic world with his own theatrical signs and focuses primarily on the theatricality of the operatic form. In The Music Programme he seated the audience on stage (also bringing the musicians and conductor into the action, making them participate in the events on stage). A repeating element are the televisions positioned along the side of the stage and behind the audience, and in which the singers monitor the movements of the conductor's baton. Warlikowski is not afraid to show the seams of theatre, to reveal the moments that bring and join it all together. The director's operatic language also includes video projections that supplement and reinforce the human emotions he extracts, at other times constituting an unusually strong counterpoint. In his staging of Don Carlos, a meeting of two lovers during the first act is accompanied by images of fireworks that remain visible to the end of the scene. In the third act, a conversation between Carlos and the Princess of Ebola is accompanied by images of a madly rushing waterfall, which is then transformed into fire through a change in lighting from bright lights to orange. Finally, Warlikowski enhances the beautiful and complex scene between Philip and the Great Inquisitor with an image of "Christ Crucified." Simultaneously, everything seems to flow from the music almost naturally, because the director's actions and ideas, his dismantling of conventions or concepts of space, evolve from the music.
It is an original vision of musical theatre/opera that confronts us in Pawel Mykietyn's Ignorant i Szaleniec / The Ignoramus and the Madman. The basis for the libretto, which Warlikowski himself wrote, was a play of the same title by Thomas Bernhard. Composed of two parts, rather intimate, concentrated and split between the categories of comedy and tragedy, it tells the story of an opera diva who performs the part of the Queen of the Night on all the world's greatest opera stages. Warlikowski's production is impressive for the unusual harmony of all elements, including the music, lyrics, stage space, and subject, for the almost organic unity and intersection of these elements. For The Ignoramus... is a full-fledged example of "writing on the stage and for the stage." Its score is a vast open space of music that is woven into a space of drama and theatre which issues forth from Bernhard's text but arises in theatre, for theatre and through theatre. The opera was written for specific performers, co-created by specific artists.
The first part of the opera is set in a dressing room: we have the Father (a blind alcoholic) and the Doctor (an ardent admirer) awaiting the arrival of a female singer, passing the time on detailed discussions of autopsy methods. The overture can be heard through the dressing room speaker when the Queen of the Night finally arrives, dons her overly tight costume, and rushes out of the room and onto the stage to perform her first aria, "O zittre nicht mein lieber Sohn." The second part of the opera plays out in a tavern called "Pod Trzema Huzarami" / "The Three Hussars." The autopsy lecture continues and combines with comments on the production we just saw that are made by members of the public ("...no imagination, simply paralyzing stupidity"), the conductor ("...unacceptable"), critics ("the audacity of those who write about something they do not know how to write about and therefore cannot possibly understand..."). Finally, the Queen of the Night, ever more impatient and bored with her life as a '"coloratura machine," breaks off all contacts and contracts. In the end the story finds no resolution; we are left unsure about whether the Queen has died of exhaustion or merely wants to devote herself to saving her deteriorating Father.
It is important to note that the action of the first part takes place in a theatrical space, in which we see several narrow rows of seating, the entirety of theatrical machinery revealed (ropes, lights, closed circuit television system), a thirteen piece orchestra hidden in a corner. It is equally important to note that Mozartian elements extracted from the Bernhard text shape the music that audiences hear and the theatre they see. The musical score thus includes a quotation that is literal but processed so as to be a barely recognizable scrap of melody (played from a tape or by the orchestra, sung); it also includes a postmodernist collision with the musical language of Mykietyn. These musical quotations are reinforced by bits of Mozartian staging: Wojciech Michniewski conducts the overture from a television placed on a wardrobe; through a sheet of plastic foil we see a satirical version of the struggle between Tamino and the snake; finally, the Queen of the Night physically enters the space where The Magic Flute is staged. These Mozartian elements impede nothing; to the contrary, they allow the shaping of two levels and worlds at once. Quotations generally provide unusually rich possibilities for forming the events that occur, setting them in counterpoint to each other, and shaping musical expression.
The musical phrasing, however, is the result of a choice made earlier. The role of the Queen of the Night (Olga Pasiecznik in a genius performance) is, of course, a very high part with much ornate figuration for a coloratura soprano. That of the Doctor, the diva's adorer and a true admirer of her talent and voice, is written for a countertenor (performed by the fantastic Jonathan Peter Kenny). When these two voices combine, the result is a beautifully harmonious differentiation. The Father is a deep and dark baritone. The Conductor, "played" by conductor Wojciech Michniewski, is the one to utter the Bernhardian phrases of the text that are such a bitter diagnosis ("culture is a heap of manure upon which various theatrical and musical gestures prove successful"; "if we add up the idiocy that dominates this art form with the simplicity of viewers, it will be our lot to go mad, and we are too intelligent not to notice that"). Finally, the role of Mrs. Vargo, the dressing room attendant, is a spoken one for the most part, though sections of it are sung. However, these are not in bel canto but in a quasi-satire of singing, a stylized hoarseness, seemingly off-key or imperfect in terms of intonation (this role is played by actress Stanisława Celińska, who frequently features in Warlikowski's projects in the dramatic theatre).
In any case, Mykietyn's category of operatic melodiousness has little to do with the bel canto hierarchy of intervals, lying closer as it were to the natural melodies of speech, to melodic recitation, and finally to straight recitation, as a result of which his Ignoramus and Madman approaches the idiom of Mozart's singspiel (which occurs, for example, in The Magic Flute), that is, sections of text that are spoken. Ultimately, it is speech (highly natural speech) - speech closer to that encountered in dramatic theatre, though it has also existed since long in opera - which is the most significant means of expression. This is speech that flows freely into song, and song that freely transforms into speech.
Of course, in some sense this manner of shaping and thinking about opera (Treliński's visual and filmic approach and Warlikowski's theatrical and event-based) is nothing new; both directors seem to build on the achievements of their predecessors or masters (whether theatrical, film, or operatic - like Fellini, Brook, or Robert Wilson). They also contribute to the discussions that are undertaken from time to time on what the nature of contemporary theatre and opera should be.
A journalist for the Polish periodical "Ruch Muzyczny" ("Music Movement") summarized the December session and workshops of the Musical Theatre Committee of the International Theatre Institute in the following manner: "Artists venture out of great buildings and operatic institutions, pursue their concepts in the halls of abandoned factories, dockside warehouses, galleries, modern art museums, even in supermarkets... On the other hand, many experimental theatre and music projects arise on the 'off' or secondary stages of operatic institutions as these in turn look to alternative explorations for opportunities to renew their aesthetic. In London, alongside the English National Opera, there is something called the Studio, which acts as a laboratory of new opera and is a place where composers and librettists can find singers, conductors, and promoters for their work. At times, a workshop production proves successful and its composer is commissioned to create a work for the official stage... New operas are usually ill-suited to traditional, 19th century buildings, even more so because new opera demands not only a different organization of space, but also new technologies in stage devices and machinery, not to mention new vocal techniques from singers. It uses wireless microphones and amplifiers, mixing the classical means of operatic singing with pop, jazz and cabaret... The first Internet-based opera is in the process of being created, and we are no longer surprised by things like rock operas, dance operas, and video operas. Canadian Victor Pilon creates virtual operas using a special studio, while New York recently witnessed the appearance of a comic book opera based on the drawings of a known caricaturist. Opera is slowly losing meaning as a world dominated by singing. New forms of this art are coming to be dominated by speech, phonetics are beginning to supplant semantics, and words broken up into syllables, vowels, and consonants only count as an enrichment of and a variation on the sonic maps of spectacles."
However, it is unlikely that this broad a spectrum of operatic and theatrical ventures will become possible in Poland very soon. This is not only because there is a chronic lack of money and (appropriate) financial support for projects in the cultural realm, but also because those endeavors of both described directors that fit within the "normal" frame of their activities encounter a wall in Poland - a wall that if not of indifference is surely constituted of lack of acceptance. Treliński has won a bit of peace; after all, he has achieved vast international success (the American press uses words like "genius" or "revelation" in writing about his Washington, D.C., production of Madame Butterfly, while the reviewer for the "Washington Post" provided the following analysis: "Treliński's production is a signal that stagings of operatic works will now place greater emphasis on theatrical and visual effects, responding to the sensibilities of contemporary audiences that have been raised on moving images"). Warlikowski, however, continues to be perceived as an intruder who has no idea about what should be done and what can be achieved in opera. This might perhaps be because those who write about opera in Poland are not theatre critics (or critics sensitive to theatre), but music critics, and perhaps because these same music critics seem never to go to the theatre or to the cinema. Finally, this may be because traditionalism and conventionality are easier, for they do not force audiences to make the effort that consists of thinking: museums are, after all, more comfortable places, not least because the objects they contain can never touch visitors physically, just as visitors cannot touch them. The situation is therefore both safe and comfortable. The situation is dead.
In the motto to his drama Ignorant i Szaleniec / The Ignoramus and the Madman, Bernhard, quoting from Novalis, wrote, "Das Märchen ist ganz musikalisch." In strong, clear voices and almost in unison, Krzysztof Warlikowski and Mariusz Treliński seem to say, "Opera is (can be) entirely theatrical and filmic."
Author: Tomasz Cyz. Text previously published in "Ade Teatro" monthly, September 2002