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A good thirty years ago Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann directed a now legendary production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), an opera till then overshadowed by Mozart’s other great masterpieces, and in so doing they not only set the tone for Gerard Mortier’s Brussels Mozart cycle but also showed that the opera really does deserve a place in the star-spangled sky of the opera repertoire. La Monnaie is now preparing a new production of this opera seria. A conversation with Ivo van Hove who, after Idomeneo, is directing his second Mozart opera for La Monnaie.
Staging a new Clemenza is no mean feat after Karl-Ernst’s and Ursel Herrmann’s memorable production, which was premièred in 1982…
The truth is that their production meant a great deal to me, because it immediately opened my eyes to the world of opera and enthused me. Until then I had regarded opera as no more than a musical happening with a usually kitsch staging. But their La Clemenza di Tito was an opera production which really appealed to me: for the first time I saw how a dramatic composition could develop on stage, I saw a production which went further and deeper than simply recounting a story. This approach was innovative in opera at the time, but I was familiar with it from the Schaubühne in Berlin which even in the 1970s championed this approach under director Peter Stein. (In fact we can now say that the Schaubühne aesthetics made their entry into opera with this production.) That said, the production is now more than thirty years old. I don’t want to suggest that ours will ever be such a reference point, but I do think that the time has come for a new reading. I am not setting out to try and compete with the last. Comparisons are pointless, in my view. What matters is that I can present my interpretation. So I was delighted when Peter de Caluwe asked me to direct this production.
Several years ago you staged a new production of Idomeneo, now you are directing La Clemenza di Tito… Do you have a soft spot for Mozart’s opera seria?
As a theatre-maker I feel a great affinity with his opera seria. With the accompanied recitative dialogue scenes – more spoken than sung – , which alternate with totally sung arias, Mozart’s opera seria is closer to spoken theatre. With La Clemenza di Tito this is even more the case than with Idomeneo. It also presents a challenge, particularly as regards the arias, because they are built up according to a strict da capo structure with repetitions. That was of course also the case in Idomeneo and I was not happy about it at all. But from the first rehearsals I realized you can give substance to those repetitions in very many ways without violating the dramaturgy. Idomeneo is a more difficult story to tell, whereas La Clemenza di Tito has a clearer story line but then it is stricter in form.
Some directors, like Patrice Chéreau, are not keen on the da capo aria and tend towards the through-composed works – so not Mozart, but Wagner or Janáček. How do you feel about that?
Janáček’s and Wagner’s world is of course very different from Mozart’s. Whereas Wagner and Janáček drive the story forward, Mozart allows the characters to reflect much more… about themselves, about what they’ve done, about what they are going to do. It’s different, but no less interesting for all that! At any rate, I’m not tired of it and I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into Mozart again!
Until recently Mozart’s last opera was regarded as an immature work. Do you share that view?
Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann showed that La Clemenza di Tito is unquestionably a fully-fledged opera and thanks to their production the opera was included in the repertoire again. I have always looked upon this work as a Racinean drama. Racine usually drew his themes from private problems which evolve into real social problems, and vice versa. In La Clemenza di Tito a private conflict about loyalty and disloyalty develops and seemingly unreciprocated love takes the form of an attack on the Capitol – the power centre of Rome – and on the emperor. This makes La Clemenza di Tito a very topical work: more than ever we see the extent to which individual relationships can influence world events and vice versa. And then there is a third – juridical – aspect of the opera: everything leads up to a sort of court hearing which tries to present a new solution to these problems – even bringing to mind the last part of the Oresteia. In La Clemenza di Tito Titus overturns the old political culture: he breaks with the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” principle and looks for a human solution. A personal conflict is given a political dimension and thus leads to a juridical conflict about the discrepancy between law and justice. That is also a recurrent theme in my theatre work, which just goes to show how relevant this opera is to society today!
Mozart gave some of his characters (in particular Vitellia, Tito and Sesto) more depth than others (Annio, Servilia and Publio). Does this make your job more difficult or does it give you more freedom?
I tend to pay great attention to those minor, supposedly less important characters. Take for example Publio: as the representative of the old political culture he has a very important role in this play. Once Tito has been crowned emperor, in a wonderful scene Publio shows him a list of people who have to be eliminated because they could pose a threat to the new regime. Titus refuses because he doesn’t want to condemn anyone who has not yet done anything wrong. In a sense Publio represents the old CIA politics. He makes the assumption that his is the only way to guarantee the rule of law and to an extent he is proved right when things go wrong in the empire. Servilia also has a very important role because she has the courage to refuse the emperor when he asks her to marry him and pleads to be allowed to marry the man she loves, thereby bringing about a turning point in the opera. This is the moment when Tito realizes he must start to think about politics in a different way. You’ll only find minor or insignificant roles in the theatre if there are bad authors or bad composers at work. And that is certainly not the case here! In La Clemenza di Tito those supporting roles are actually very well-rounded!
The events of this opera take place in 79 AD, but are still relevant today… Where do you set this drama in time and space?
For me opera is only interesting if you can make it topical… I want to show things that are recognizable to a contemporary audience and not just present lovely music or beautiful images! We have given La Clemenza di Tito a contemporary staging, but we haven’t set it at a specific time historically. We chose a unified set that can be transformed to represent, for example, a private space as well as the political space of the palace and also serve as a court of law. It is a sort of glass house in which private problems are never purely private, partly because the outside world is looking on, but also because every deed, every act has consequences in that outside world.
You like using video in your productions. Will you be doing that here too?
Yes, but not so much to transform the space as to observe the characters from close to. They are constantly filmed and their words, deeds and crimes are observed live almost as if they were laboratory animals. These shots can even be rewound to confront people with their deeds and their weaknesses. Tal Yarden and I have had a lot of experience with live video over the years, but never have we applied it as systematically and as extensively as here. It’s as if we’re looking at human relationships and behaviour through microscopes …
Recorded by Reinder Pols