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From Moscow to Paris, Madrid to Amsterdam, and Aix-en-Provence to Berlin and Munich, the young Russian stage director has continued to surprise audiences in recent years with his passionate, stimulating and unexpected interpretations of the repertoire. Thanks to his immense talent, Dmitri Tcherniakov is able to convince even the most reticent audiences that opera is a contemporary art. He has waited a long time for this chance to stage Il Trovatore. On stage at La Monnaie, he will finally bring to life this story of tragic love, jealousy and vengeance. It is impossible to escape one’s memories or nightmares.
Belgian audiences do not know you yet. Can you tell us about your approach? What inspires you?
If I knew what my source of inspiration was, I would probably be free of all of these painful complications related to my work and I would be totally happy and serene. I would know where to look for definite answers. But this source of inspiration does not exist. Or, in other words, I can never predict what will have an influence on me and when it will happen. But I indeed have my own method for establishing a relationship with the work I am staging. I always have to learn everything about the work, read about it and research it, including aspects which appear to be completely unrelated and unimportant. It is a sort of ritual sacrifice. In a certain way, I have my own personal technique which I have used for many years in staging a performance. But in fact, it guarantees nothing at all. Each performance is special and is based on completely different things. And I do not know ahead of time where to go to find inspiration. Generally speaking, this is always very difficult for me – it is a type of very hard labour, like hammering stakes into the ground.
In addition to staging the production, you are also responsible for the scenery. Do you always work this way?
It has become a sort of habit and I have done it for quite some time now. I had never planned to be a scenographer and it has never been my trade. I studied to become a stage director, but for years I have also designed scenery. It started by coincidence, when I was staging one of my first works in the mid 1990s in a Russian theatre. I had to stage a performance with an experienced scenographer, but we were not at all on the same wavelength. For him, this production was not important and he did not even consider travelling within the city we were working in. This situation was so unbearable that I convinced the director to entrust me with the scenery, while leaving him with the credit, his salary and formal participation. It was of course an unprecedented adventure and a risk, but as he did not come to see the performance, he never found out that I had done the scenery. That was how it all began, but I do not consider myself to be a scenographer. The scenery is only part of my work as a stage director.
You have already staged other operas by Verdi. What prompted you to stage Il Trovatore?
I have already staged Macbeth, Aida and Simon Boccanegra. Il Trovatore will be my fourth Verdi, but it is probably the project which I have wanted to stage most of all. I had always wanted to stage this music, which surprised many of my colleagues. It is not a very popular work among stage directors. But I have known this music since my childhood, and listened to it all the time on old records. It is the first opera by Verdi I knew.
You have the reputation of having a new interpretation of the works you stage. The story of Il Trovatore is quite complex. How do you plan to present it?
The performance I will stage at La Monnaie will be very intimate. It will be a ‘chamber performance’ – not at all how one would imagine a production of Il Trovatore. It will definitely not be a Trovatore presented in the throaty and loud tones so typical of opera. The audience will be very close to the characters – the main characters. They will be able to see them and discover their lives in the slightest detail and in an unexpected way.
What do you feel are the main themes of this opera?
I think that the main themes of this opera are the past, time and memory. How can we see clearly? How can we understand it all? How can we make all of the inaccessible and disparate events in life converge in the same direction? And where is the key to the riddle of all of life’s misadventures?
Vocally, the main roles of this work are especially difficult and technical. How do you work with the singers?
I try to get closer to them and to eliminate distances. I am not always able to do this because for some of them this is not at all natural. But it is important to me to encourage the singers to be daring and intrepid and even to be show-offs. I also try to rouse their curiosity and to get them interested in everything, without limiting themselves to technique, so that everything we do together is in keeping with everyone’s personal experience. I try to ensure that all of this remains personal, without becoming theatrical. And it is also important that they put a lot into the work.
You stage operas regularly in Russia and in particular for the Bolshoi, as well as in many European theatres. Audiences are probably very different, as are their expectations. Does the place where you create a work influence your artistic approach?
I imagine a performance based on my own intuition and I do not try to imagine the reactions of the average audience member with respect to a certain collective image. It is absolutely essential for me to satisfy myself. But it is very difficult. I cannot even say that there is a performance I have staged which I love fully and unconditionally. This has never been the case. I can only recall a few rare moments of happiness and satisfaction regarding such and such a scene, or instants which suddenly – one day – unfold as though they had not been imagined by me and rehearsed cold-bloodedly, but instead as though they existed on their own, naturally, independent of anyone’s will. I do not know why it happens suddenly, but it is during these moments that I am sure that I have done the right thing.
What made you want to work for La Monnaie?
It is a very beautiful theatre and very nice people work here. It is not fair to say it, but it is true that everything seems incredibly nice here! It does not happen to me every day. And to me this is very important because I am going to spend a moment of my life in this theatre. I feel that it is essential to spend it with people I like.
Interview by Marie Goffette
with a simultaneous interpretation from Russian into French by Macha Zonina