How does one at the same time become a victim and a bully in matters of love? What are the games men and women play to defy the fear of infidelity? What existential urge fuels the need for seduction? Michael Haneke, one of the most remarkable film-makers of our time - whose latest film ‘Amour’ won the Palme d’or at the Cannes Festival - is about to direct the fruit of the last collaborative work between Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. His version of the ‘school of lovers’ promises some bitter lessons… This Così fan tutte is THE event being staged this spring at La Monnaie…
What is it you find in opera that you don’t get out of films?
The music… Its richness of expression goes beyond words. That’s what is so fabulous at the opera and differentiates it from cinema and the theatre…
Is your love for Mozart a newly-found one?
No, but in my youth I was more fascinated by Beethoven.
Would you have liked to become a musician?
Yes. Up yonder… had I been able to choose my talents I’d have opted for music. But I’m not complaining it didn’t work out that way. Orchestra conductors, for example, have a wonderful life. At 90, they can go on conducting. Not so for us directors… At least not without the constitution of a Manoel de Oliveira!
Six years ago, you staged Don Giovanni in Paris. Why another Mozart?
Mozart’s music soothes the heart… da Ponte’s three operas are realistic and so more suited to my style of directing. I couldn’t do a stage production of Aida. With a realist approach, it wouldn’t make any sense at all.
But where is the realism in Così fan tutte… especially if you compare it to Don Giovanni?
You’re right. Don Giovanni is a real thriller. It starts off with sex and crime and carries on in the same way until the spectacular confrontation at the end. Così fan tutte is very different. It’s about two couples, or rather three, who are bored…
… and the wager on the fact that the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella are not at all faithfully devoted to their betrothed…
Ah, the challenge first and foremost is to make it believable. That’s not easy as the story is so far-fetched. It takes a lot of imagination to make it convincing for the audience. As regards the text, Così fan tutte is perhaps the ‘weakest’ of da Ponte’s operas with these ladies and gents sometimes uttering not much of interest. But from a musical viewpoint it’s probably Mozart’s finest opera.
Did you have in mind a staging concept that nobody has tried before?
I don’t feel in any way compelled to come up with something that hasn’t been done on stage before, but of course you always try to do it your own way.
So, for this production, what you do have in store?
I’m not telling you that now. Be patient.
Can you at least say how you prepared yourself for this opera?
Bit by bit, starting with the piano score. I also looked at all of the existing video recordings. And there are lots and lots of them! That helped me to see where things can go wrong. After that I knew what mistakes to avoid… Probably to make other ones!
Do you have any (role) models?
I like how Peter Sellars staged Mozart. The way he manages to make good actors out of the singers is admirable. I too try to bring out the actor hidden within each singer. Just think for a minute what is required of singers. They have to be musically talented, have a sensational voice, a great stage presence and, on top of it all, be good actors. That’s a lot to ask for don’t you think?
So what were your criteria for choosing the singers?
They’re simply young people… singers I didn’t know, except for William Shimell who’ll be playing Don Alfonso and is in my film ‘Amour’. I chose them for their acting abilities.
I was wondering what aspects of Così fan tutte resonated in Haneke’s universe? Is it the cold detachment of Don Alfonso and Despina? The power of seduction?
I believe that succumbing to seduction can happen to us all. It’s always easy to say “I’d never do that. I’d never be unfaithful”. The aim of a stage production is to be convincing and have the audience believe that they’d behave just like the characters were they in the same situation, that they too could be seduced. Da Ponte’s demonstration is very linear. I try to find ways that aren’t altogether linear and make the intrigue more plausible for the audience.
What is it you find particularly interesting here? Is it the tension between faithfulness and desire?
Depends what you mean by tension. After all, these words are only conventions of language! One consists in saying that fidelity is the only real proof of love. Then there’s the convention of ‘being madly in love’ that extols the helpless victim of Cupid’s arrows. We go along with one or other of these according to circumstances… hence the conflicts that arise. Così shows that the characters’ needs are ‘out of sync’. Just as in real life. Otherwise, how uncomplicated our love lives would be!
So love is a decision then?
Love is a decision every time. When you’re young, though, it’s terrifying! We’re constantly making decisions, but they’re never forever… There’s always better to be found.
Are you trying to prove there is no such thing as absolute love?
I’m absolutely not trying to prove anything.
Is Don Alfonso for you an embodiment of Mephisto? The wager is meant to confirm a vision of the world and that Don Alfonso just wants to be proved right?
A Mephisto? Not really. What interests me about Alfonso is why he behaves as he does. He’s not only master of the game and the one pulling the strings… So what it is that drives him? It’s those innermost motivations I want to discover. As human beings we all have our own reasons. So has Don Alfonso.
Don Alfonso steps in and ‘sorts everything out’. Do you want to show the audience that love is the last natural phenomenon in a ‘regulated’ world?
Not only love. We have no mastery over sickness and death either, nor over anything to do with our own body. We just want it all to ‘work properly’. That’s not how life goes though…
Mozart’s characters appear to be somewhat overwhelmed by the ‘natural phenomenon’ of their desire.
Yes, they are overwhelmed as well as overwhelming and set challenges for one another. They go astray and end up not knowing which way to turn. They want to ‘save face’ and, to do so, lose track more and more of who they really are. It’s a lot to do with self-assertion and fear.
Some say that in Così fan tutte an echo of the French Revolution can already be heard.
It’s possible. I don’t hear it.
For a long time Così fan tutte depicted the morally scandalous…
Ah, but that hasn’t been the case for a long time. If one considers the silly little game as it is in the text then, yes, a feeling of indignation is one reaction. But as soon as one tries to bring it to life, there’s no sense at all in taking any moral stance. The game very quickly takes on an existential dimension: it’s still about ascertaining how and why one is indebted to someone. At a certain point, the characters are all carried away in the turmoil and become both the tormented and the tormentors. Of course Mozart is never moralizing. It’s true, though, that fidelity is a recurrent theme with him. His music transcends the issue of morality and raises it to another level altogether. The game does get serious and the relatively dull text is lifted thanks to the music into another dimension… bestowed with a frightening authenticity and gravity. I suppose one can say that Così fan tutte is an opera full of bitterness.
At the opera, you’re not master of the music…
But I am master of how the content is interpreted. Even if I have no influence over the musical expression, the staging can respond to the music.
The music always takes ‘precedence’ so to speak. That must be a novel experience for a director.
I don’t imagine that my directing will ‘measure up’ to the music. Up against Mozart’s music… it goes almost without saying that one is doomed to failure.
In opera, unlike cinema, there is no post-production. Nothing can be further improved… A premiere remains a premiere. Would you say this makes the performance more ‘absolute’?
Very much so! In movies, you control everything. If something’s just not right, you can always get rid of it during editing. In a play, you can take scenes out. In opera, there’s very little you can cut. When a director gets a scene wrong everybody picks up on it. That’s why there are so few successful productions!
Are you planning to stage da Ponte’s three operas? Le Nozze di Figaro is the only one you haven’t done yet.
The libretto of Le Nozze di Figaro, unlike that of Così fan tutte, is so perfect it leaves a director almost no leeway. I can’t go ‘meddling’ with it. All I can do is ‘enact’, one by one, its social implications of another era… and I’m not madly keen on that. It’s very different with Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. These operas give me scope with the interpretation to develop my own ideas. What is more, Le Nozze di Figaro is my favourite opera. It inspires far too much respect in me; that’s paralyzing for the imagination.
Mozart rouses your enthusiasm, but so too does Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. This work is much like a Michael Haneke film, especially the ending.
The modernity of Poppea is breathtaking. In this opera, evil conquers all triumphantly! It’s unique in the history of dramatic art. But it’s extremely complex to put on stage and has scenes calling for a caustic sense of humour. Not my forte and, alas, I’m not inspired enough. But then one can never say never now can one?
Interview by Thomas Assheuer
For Die Zeit
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