Starting February 19th, the National Romanian Opera will present a new opera: Falstaff by Giusepe Verdi. The production is directed by one of the most important opera directors in the world, Graham Vick. I had the pleasure to meet him and to discuss about this new production, but also about opera direction in general. The result was a very relaxed conversation, with lots of cultural references, going very often outside the framework of an interview focused on an opera premiere. I herebelow transcribe this dialogue and I repeat Graham Vick’s invitation to come and see the new Falstaff at the ONB.
About Opera: So, what’s Falstaff?
Graham Vick: (laughs) Oooohhh, a strange hybrid, of a robust English social comedy. Popular, broad farce. A great Italian XIXth century genius pushing himself stylistically to write through composed opera whilst choosing a subject because he had the ability to laugh at himself. And the unbelievably anal Arrigo Boito’s libretto, which is a combination of genius and narcissism. Which makes it a very tough not to crack. Shall I go on? Is this interesting?
About Opera: It is. A lot.
Graham Vick: So, obviously the figure of Boito is of the genius librettist, one of the greatest ever, who got Verdi back on the horse and to write these pieces – all of which is true. A brilliant, brilliant man. But of course polymath too clever, that’s why he never settled. That’s why his operas… I love Mefistofele, I think it’s the most beautiful, wonderful piece, and again it’s ridiculously ambitious and that’s the version that we know. Not the part that was destroyed after the world premiere and all the music that we never will know, so obviously it was a much more ambitious piece then. Working on any piece, you’ll find that Boito is obsessed with the latest lighting techniques, he’s trying to write technology into his libretti. He’s describing the wigs, exactly what colour the wigs are, which side the wigs are parted on, obsessive details, really a compulsive man, clearly. And in the libretto he is dazzling unbelievably clever word play that for an English ear is closest to an American composer writing musicals, that’s Steve Sondheim, It’s exactly what Boito does to my mind. The libretto is full of internal rhymes, dazzling constructions of verse, rhythms, and meters, use of language. It’s a piece of music in itself. Fenton and Nanetta have love scenes where the battle of the sexes is played out in a battle for verse, via finishing each other’s rhymes, topping each other’s rhymes with the sophistication of medieval monks or something. It’s that clever. Of course, some of that cleverness is showing off. Some of it is quite hard to generate drama.
About Opera: But it’s a comedy? Or not?
Graham Vick: Well, It’s not a comedy. It’s not a literary poem. Because at the same time there is this extraordinary language play going on. The comedy is in the tradition of Boccaccio, of Chaucer, in England, The Canterbury Tales, Carmina Burana, of a whole world of broad commonly of cuckolded husbands, of fat people, of people sticking their bare ass out of the windows and farting. You know, the lovers stuck naked in the wardrobe, Benny Hill…
About Opera: (laughs) Yes.
Graham Vick: You know? That’s the stories rooted there. So you got this broad comedy of adultery, not adultery, every possible joke the women use about Falstaff, about size, “immenso Falstaff”, “cannone”…. Every joke about how big Falstaff is in the book, which all of course are about the size, they are all sex jokes. Full of them. So many… One of the interesting things on Boito is the difference between this and the Otello libretto, where he cleaned all the sex out of Otello in a rather destructive way. He demolished the character of Desdemona completely from the Shakespeare’s play, where she is a rather interesting figure. In Shakespeare she is a very interesting figure, and in the opera she is very two dimensional.
About Opera: I read Shakespeare’s Othello, in a translation in Romanian, not in original, it was quite difficult to read it in the original English
Graham Vick: Of course it is difficult. In Shakespeare the gossips of Venice all talk about Desdemona’s predilection for the black man and for his large penis basically. There’s a whole… that aspect of her own attraction and sexuality and the part of their relationship which is sexual is removed completely from the opera, where she is an angel, where she is a saint.
About Opera: That’s right.
Graham Vick: She is completely cleaned out. And this is underlined. I mean, the problem with the opera is that Jago is the Devil and Desdemona is an angel and Otello is Jesus Christ or something, torn apart. It’s a gross simplification of the story. I love Otello, of course.
About Opera: But the complexion of the music…
Graham Vick: The music is fabulous. But even the music doesn’t rescue Desdemona.
About Opera: Yes, it doesn’t.
Graham Vick: The first act is wonderful, but in the last act you lose sympathy. It seems far too long and that over extended “Willow Song” to give her a big scene that is disproportionately too long and it doesn’t go anywhere emotionally.
About Opera: Yes… That was supposed to be the next question. About the differences between Boito’s libretto and Shakespeare’s play. Because of Verdi’s music, I was judging that Boito’s libretto is a step forward.
Graham Vick: Whereas to come to Falstaff. And there is much more. You can’t choose Falstaff without having sex in mind. But I think it was Verdi wanting it. That’s the point in doing Falstaff. It’s not just a fat man, but a fat man still in the game. Fat man still on the horse, but “Và vecchio John” is “Và vecchio Giuseppe”. Not just in the sack, but „I can write music, I know what life is, I am still here. I am still in the game”.
About Opera: When I am thinking of Falstaff, as a Romanian, I cannot picture anything else but a former goalkeeper of the national football team, Rică Răducanu, this is his name. That guy is now quite old, over 70 years old, and he’s fat and he’s full of jokes and his history of love conquests is quite long and he’s quite a character. And I can imagine him watching a video with his old football matches, his former glory, the Saint Crispin’s day of his football career and trying to get involved with some ladies from his neighbourhood, Giulești.
Graham Vick: And telling them what he used to do, about his great days of football, showing them the championship cups, and then really, really, really …..
About Opera: Playing the videotapes of his matches
Graham Vick: (laughs) That’s it, there he is!… Wow, “Quand’ero paggio“…
About Opera: (laughs) He was in the late sixties, early seventies quite a character, very popular in Romania.
Graham Vick: One of the fundamental things about the piece is the change, that “L’uomo nonsi corregge”. And the point is that the old Verdi knew by then, he was old enough to know that nothing changes. And that Falstaff is the same at the end as he is at the beginning. He learns nothing. That’s the point, of course. He laughs, it happens, but then it’s “thank you very much”, even for a second. You sense that he’ll just go through it all again. The last thing he says is “Oh, I will never do this again”, because obviously the next act will be in another town, he will move on from Windsor to somewhere else. And he will be doing all the same things. You know?
About Opera: (laughs) Exactly. That was the thing. You’re British, you’re a theatre director, opera director, so that goes logical with Shakespeare tradition of the British theatre. Now, combining this with Verdi, who is Italian, and with Boito’s libretto, which does not take just one of Shakespeare’s plays…
Graham Vick: He mostly does. It really is the Merry Wives of Windsor, just with a couple of bits, the main thing is the monologue in the first scene, “L’onore”…. But fundamentally it takes the Merry Wives of Windsor.
About Opera: So, the result of this history, Shakespeare, Arrigo Boito and Verdi, and the director, how much has to do with the original Shakespeare, or is this something different?
Graham Vick: No, of course it has a lot to do with the original Shakespeare, and I am trying to make sure the spirit of the original Shakespeare is vibrantly alive in the middle of the show. The challenge of the piece is to crack through its brilliance. Its kind of perfection forms a sort of glass case around it.
About Opera: With a music which is quite not so easy to follow.
Graham Vick: The music is incredibly easy to follow if you follow every word. It’s really like Monteverdi. That’s how, in a way, it is composed, that’s what fascinating about it. Ideally we would be doing it in Romanian.
About Opera: (laughs) That’s great! Because one of my obsessions is localisation, if an opera show with a modern directing, I am trying to avoid the Regietheater term…
Graham Vick: Yeah, you are quite right. Just a director who does what I do.
About Opera: If such an opera can be localised somehow, not necessarily by language, as we used to do in the sixties and the seventies in Romania, including the nineties…
Graham Vick: But you have exported theatre from here for decades throughout Europe. A great tradition, from Ciulei and Serban and Purcarete, and all of these people have been through Europe at festivals. The first time I saw Ciulei I was seventeen. I saw one of his plays, Leonce and Lena, in Edinburgh. You have that tradition everywhere.
About Opera: And also recently, the Opera from Iasi is reviving some of Andrei Serban’s productions from the Opera Bastille. They did Lucia di Lammermoor. The famous Lucia!
Graham Vick: Ah! I remember that Lucia!
About Opera: But I am thinking about this localisation of an opera with something of a Romanian context.
Graham Vick: The production that I am doing here is obviously meant for here. It isn’t how I would direct it if I was doing it in London, clearly not.
About Opera: As you already did, you did it in London, in 1999.
Graham Vick: Yes, as I already did it. Yes, but this is completely different from that one. There is always a very different thing, yes. Obviously all of the things mentioned have a different resonance. And here you need to create some of the resonance. And it’s quite liberating also, obviously, it’s quite freeing.
About Opera: Quite what?
Graham Vick: It’s quite freeing. Well, you know Peter Brook, the director, he famously said that he preferred directing Shakespeare in French translation. Because it freed you from the sheer mythological fame and familiarity of the material. The “To be or not to be”, the minute you say it, in fact the words you say, no matter what anybody says, they are all elsewhere.
About Opera: There is a DVD with the Don Giovanni of Peter Brook.
Graham Vick: There is, but he’s not a good opera director, he never was.
About Opera: He did with three sticks everything…
Graham Vick: That’s what he does, he’s brilliant… But what people know less about Peter Brook – when he was 21 he did Boris Godunov, at Covent Garden, designed but Salvador Dali. Huge exotic production.
About Opera: It was a fiasco.
Graham Vick: Well… But they asked him back! But he didn’t go. It was part fiasco, half triumph, as those things often are. But he also did Eugene Onegin at the Met, after that. And a couple of other things before he turned his back from that world and went to Paris. But the thing about the translation… It’s very, very good to do this piece in Italian with non-Italians.
About Opera: I think you are the first one who says this.
Graham Vick: Because it’s very hard to make it live and to make the Italian work really well. But because of that, there are none of the automatic responses to language in a material that you get from Italian culture. Which has as part of its very nature a shortcut improvisatory nature, which is why ultimately you get the best of Barbiere di Siviglia from a brilliant cast thrown together in rehearsals for a couple of days on their own, without a director. Six weeks with an American cast and me won’t produce anything like this. It’s in the nature of the material. I’ve never done the piece exactly for that reason. Because it doesn’t need me, it needs that. That’s a very profound thing in the Italian culture, but in a piece like this stops its going beyond a certain point. So, for an Englishman it’s possible to see Ford as a comic and a serious character. For an Italian it’s only possible to see him as a faker of fun.
About Opera: And for a Romanian?
Graham Vick: And for a Romanian, we’ll find that when we go to the opera, no?
About Opera: (laughs.) Yes!
Graham Vick: But at least certainly the man I am working with is marvellous – Cătălin (the baritone Cătălin Țoropoc, my note), who is playing the role, is a terrific actor, he’s very, very interesting, moving between comedy and serious drama.
About Opera: I like him very much.
Graham Vick: And he’s a very talented man. And that’s what the piece needs to live, because the minute you think you know it, there’s no experience in this piece.
About Opera: As for the generation of singers, I think none of them sang Falstaff, as far as I know…
Graham Vick: So, it’s fresh, it has a freshness of immediacy and spontaneity, incredible hard work, because it’s a very, very detailed piece. But the more you work at it, the better I do and the more it looks like I’ve done nothing at all. A very good sign I think in a piece – that the more, the closer you get to its essence, the more, the easier everything appears in delivery. And so hours and days and weeks of examination, of a structure, of the text, of meaning, of how to deliver it, of the musical text, by the time you put it together it just sounds like Verdi improvising on the piano. It’s how it should go, it’s natural. But the construction is extraordinary, but the aim is at its ease. It’s in the art of transition, and ease of delivery in which Boito’s brilliance appears playful and spontaneous. That’s the job, the big challenge of the director, along with, you see… I haven’t come here to do a big show, showing off, it would be pointless. I’ve come here to have an interesting experience with a group of performers. To bring my kind of approach, and work to a new theatre, a new audience, this is interesting for me.
About Opera: What is your kind of approach?
Graham Vick: (mumbling, the question being too cliché) What is my own kind of approach? Classical?
About Opera: (laughs) I’m asking because people here don’t know you. You’re for the first time in Romania.
Graham Vick: (mumbling again, to this new cliché) It is my first time in Romania… (he continues normally) My own approach is simply for an immediate, open, spontaneous dialogue between the stage and the audience. An audience that pays attention, that recognises itself on the stage and recognises itself in the great works as opposed to recognising the great works. That’s the dichotomy … that’s the challenge of opera. It’s that these familiar works are only familiar on the outside. And that the joy and the fascination is all within them. Everybody who created these pieces and everyone of us who recreates them each time and gives them new life is giving birth to something. An opera on the page isn’t an opera. It’s only an opera when it’s performed. Therefore, there is no perfect version because even if one was to do what one person thought was a perfect version, for the other 1800 people in the audience it would be a non-perfect version. Because everybody has a different experience of what they see, depending on what they had for lunch, whether they’re constipated, whether they’re waiting for medical results, these are all things that completely affect the way you receive a work of art. Your age, your life experience, Falstaff at 61 is a different opera to 16 years ago.
About Opera: Yes…
Graham Vick: (laughs) Of course it is. I would know. I am not directing it like a 40 years old, I’m directing it like a 61years old. (he rubs his belly)
About Opera: (laughs and rubs his belly, too) You’re a little bit identifying yourself with the big man…
Graham Vick: There you go… And that’s the joy of it. Of course it is! The pleasure of living a life is nothing as ever completely familiar because nothing stays the same. So, when you return to these pieces, these great works, the mistake is to think of it as of a safe haven in a changing world, the place you can go back to your old familiar Traviata because at least there you see in a warm space people like you watching something you know. Catastrophe! Dreadful idea! Waste of an evening, waste of public subsidy, waste of the tax payers money. Instead of which it’s a chance to examine yourself, see how you’ve changed, how the world has changed and to understand essential truths which are always alive in creative artists.
About Opera: Well, Traviata is supposed to make people feel guilty about her, the public, the audience.
Graham Vick: Not only, I think. And again, that’s a change.
About Opera: But the people don’t feel guilty. I would put Violetta Valéry to sing her arias in the public, not on the stage.
Graham Vick: Well, it’s a curious thing. Everybody feels far too much sympathy for her and far too little responsibility for themselves. That is very clear. Absolutely right. But the nature of the piece is much easier in a way to do that, because it’s about prostitution. Because the discussion of women and the empowerment of prostitution and association and marriage and finance is very open within society. And we still, it’s nonsense to say we don’t have demimondes, because we have women who marry for money perfectly openly, we have rich men with trophy wives, who are perfectly, obviously on the arm of a rich man with dyed hair, and they have very, very high heels and long hair. The association is perfectly clear. Nothing changes ever. The one thing that never existed and never will is eternal romantic love. Just in Isolda’s myth. Everything else is culture. And that’s at the heart of Traviata. It’s almost like a social contract or not. I think. And that’s a very big, tough thing. And people take difficult choices.
About Opera: Well, in Falstaff…
Graham Vick: In Falstaff… Women power, of course, is a fascinating thing. The women win every time around and this is how women mercilessly exploit men’s weakness in order to prosper and triumph and live comfortable lives and get their own way. So, it’s the opposite of Traviata you might say, actually, because here there are women who use their sexuality and man’s inability when his penis is full of blood and there is not enough to feed his brain, as we say in England, there is only enough either for that or for that. And that’s the story of this piece. And they’re mercilessly exploited and Alicia passes it onto her daughter. She teaches the next generation how to manipulate the men and that’s how it works. Mrs Ford is the one who rules everything including… and she uses her husband’s jealousy against him. Clever, multitasking, sophisticated, beware of the women… none of the men come out well.
About Opera: Although that turns into a comedy, because nobody takes it personally and nobody dies. As Traviata does.
Graham Vick: There are two sopranos and neither of them dies.
About Opera: But not the men, either…
Graham Vick: Nobody dies. Interestingly, of course, the last act, because nobody dies, they really struggled with it. And if you read the letters, Verdi was never happy with the third act. They struggled to find the right structure and how to finish, so up to the end of the second act he was really happy with and sometimes he thought the opera should end there. And the last act – how to resolve the comedy and give it a good ending – is a bit challenge for the director. That’s the hardest thing.
About Opera: So, you try to satisfy Verdi in this?
Graham Vick: I feel I have an enormous responsibility to the people who created the pieces that I direct. That’s why I do it because I love the pieces, because I want to do what I feel, what I see in it. So, that’s why I am trying to help, to do my best to make it function. I suppose that’s right. And that is one of the things – with experience you get more aware and skilful of where you can basically… where to back off, where to push forward, where or what there is a need just enough to let it speak, where you need to put more support, where you need more links between the great moment, you can help with a bit of directing, you can sure up the structure, the architecture, if you have a sense of the architecture, you can help. It’s a fantastic piece to rehearse, joyous, because it’s so interesting, and funny and clever. And at the moment we are just at the crucial and very difficult bit of trying to relax the very complicated material so it doesn’t appear so brilliant while still getting it exactly right. (laughs) Because it requires a fantastic discipline to let go and hold tight at the same time. It’s a very sophisticated level of performing, that’s why I’m enjoying this wonderful cast, I am having a very good time.
About Opera: In your concept of Falstaff here, in Bucharest, are you using any shift in time, in space?
Graham Vick: It’s modern. I mean for Shakespeare is a contemporary comedy. I didn’t really see any point in coming here and doing a piece about the XVIth century England. It seems a bit too remote and too picturesque. And add that to the Italian language and Verdi’s immaculate score and we would just be at a rather cool event, so I’ve tried to make it a little bit more surprising and contemporary not in the sense of aggression, but Shakespeare’s time was when the middle class was invented in England, so part of the piece is a comedy about a new middle classes, aspiring for money, cash, spending, beautiful new items, but at the same time wanting to spend some of their money on buying class. So, you know, it’s like shopping in Harrod’s. You know?
About Opera: (laughs) Yeah, probably, I’ve never shopped at Harrod’s.
Graham Vick: It’s like buying a Burberry raincoat or certain things. Italian style, all powerful successful Italian men shop in Milan and they all wear English classic clothes, they wear tweed jacket, brand new shoes, the most expensive gentlemen’s clothes in Milan.
About Opera: (laughs) Good to know! Thanks for the tips!
Graham Vick: That’s class. Buying old money. The idea of old money rather the vulgarity of new money.
About Opera: And that’s a very contemporary subject in Romania, because after a lot of communism and equality among everybody, there were people who had more money, but how much could they have during the communism? And now, some people emerged…
Graham Vick: As you develop here, some people make a lot of money…
About Opera: And they try to buy something they don’t have.
Graham Vick: I walked to a restaurant the other day from where I am staying. And on my way I passed a Ferrari casually parked between two cars, in a small street, as if it was your wife’s car. And it was a fantastic red Ferrari. Some of that I am indeed satirising, because I have understood it. And I hope to have a resonance here, and then, there are some other familiar stuff, for everybody. Human beings are human beings. Sex is sex. Gluttony is gluttony. Food is food. Excess is excess. These are things that travel well, I think.
About Opera: How about directing a drama, an opera drama, a tragedy with a communist background. Like Fidelio in a jail, a communist jail, a gulag.
Graham Vick: You mean putting one in. Because you can do these various socialist pieces, which are already communist. You mean setting, choosing, doing it? It’s fine, but communism, as I saw in America, is so last century.
About Opera: (laughs) Yeah, for people who never lived it…
Graham Vick: I mean it’s very alive for me as concept. I’ve been directing in Russia since 1990. When it was still communist. And I watched it moved away from and back towards the totalitarian stage. So, I’ve viewed, of course, quite a lot of these things. Fidelio is not a piece about prisons. It’s a much misunderstood opera, I think. It’s a story about personal heroism, love, not “I am Charlie”, basically. I think there is a soft and comfortable and easy way to look at it. It’s not about how cruel we are, as men. It’s the spirit of independence, freedom. We don’t need to tell stories to show that there are prison camps. What we need to do is to tell stories to inspire people to behave. We have a world of too much information, art is not to give information. The extraordinary thing about Fidelio is Mrs Florestan, a woman who would otherwise have only been her husband’s wife. Because of her commitment to him and her desire to find him she finds herself transformed into a jailor boy, she finds herself seducing a girl, deceiving everyone around and up to the point where she is about to murder someone to save her husband, an ordinary woman. That’s the real drama Fidelio. Her husband, a man of conscience, is buried under the ground for two years, where no one hears his voice and in the darkness. Which of them is the hero? Which of them would you be? Do you want to be the man of conscience buried who nobody hears, or the unwilling activist? That tension between those two figures is the real greatness of Fidelio. That’s why it starts as small and joking. That’s why the little boy and that’ s why Leonore isn’t a role for dramatic soprano. This opera has been much misunderstood. Since the era of Wagner the tendency is to cast Leonore as a heroic figure, but vocally it is much better cast as a heavy weight Fiordiligi, as a Mozart singer, with flexibility and beauty in the sound. And this is how in the beginning you have a boy, not a man, and all of Rocco’s jokes about the delicate hands of the little boy… And Marzelline falls in love with the sensitive pale faced girly boy. For that reason, not because she’s already Jaquino, the jailor. She has a gay friend. It’s in the middle of the horrible life of the prison that you find sensitivity. That moral debate is much more interesting than the generalised “show your chains” and the big chorus at the end saying “we’re all brothers”. This is a terrible shortcut. Beethoven is a much greater composer and Fidelio was performed at the Wiener Staatsoper to celebrate Hitler’s Anschluss, when he joined Austria. And the night the Allies liberated Vienna, the Opera celebrated with a performance of Fidelio. So that is the highjacking of a work of art, because human freedom we can’t discuss because that’s what I just described, but you can discuss the moral debates, because the debate is alive, the debate speaks differently to whoever sees it and whoever… Fidelio is my favourite opera. Fidelio and Cosi fan tutte. You hit on one of my favourite things. Everyone has a different experience of Fidelio. I saw a dreadful production recently, by a director, I won’t say his name, but he clearly just thought it is a very bad opera and needed help.
About Opera: It’s not a bad opera, it’s a genius.
Graham Vick: It’s a great work of art, that’s what it is. It may be a problematically constructed opera if you think that an opera should be like this, but it’s a towering work of genius, so it doesn’t really care whether you like it or not.
About Opera: As long as it makes you cry…
Graham Vick: So, in Fidelio, it’s the debate, the moral engagement, the moment by moment thing of the experience, not watching a monument. So, you should want to have a new and different experience every time you go to the opera. It should be your desire, I think.
About Opera: I remember talking to an architect, Vlad Mitric-Ciupe who wrote a history of architects in Romania politically imprisoned. He described an episode where an architect was imprisoned at the Danube-Black Sea Channel, in the early fifties and the full stalinism in Romania. And there was a labour camp, of political inmates put there to dig the channel. And they also had architects, engineers, constructors, because everything was done with the prisoners and there was the wife of an architect who tried to get herself hired on the civilian side of the camp in order to be as close as she could to her husband. And she made it. She succeeded and got hired in there. She wasn’t Fidelio, because she wasn’t using the travesty, but the story was the same. And finally it was discovered that her husband was imprisoned there and she was fired and sent home. She wasn’t arrested.
Graham Vick: But that’s what Fidelio is about…. And if you follow it through on that scale, the emotional experience you have is much bigger than if you go into it thinking it’s a statement about human freedom, about nurturing the flame of hope, about how to keep it alive. About how easily it is to nearly extinguish, about how it is our responsibility to keep it alive. Of course the world is threatening it all the time.
About Opera: It’s the same way as in Orwell’s 1984, it’s a book about Winston, about his humanity, not necessarily about Big Brother.
Graham Vick: That’s the role of the art, it’s to keep the flame alive, not to kill it.
About Opera: And the Cosi fan tutte? Since you mentioned it…(laughs).
Graham Vick: It’s the greatest opera ever written.
About Opera: The greatest?
Graham Vick: It just contains everything, I think. And the perfection of the score. It’s a whole life of experience, in 24 hours, it’s growing from youth to maturity and understudy basically the essential challenge of being a human being. It’s set out innocent, they discover within themselves a potential, this great force that comes out in all of them, of passion, love, whatever you want to call it, and out comes this great force of potential of being a human being. Anything is possible. I feel fabulous because I’m in love. God, I feel fabulous because you love me. It’s all great, it’s fantastic and then as everything goes on I realise that this power I have gives me the power to destroy you. And it gives you the power… what I feel for you gives you the power to destroy me. And suddenly this fabulous thing called “the human life” is this enormous thing to try and manage how to balance my responsibility to myself and my interaction with the world which is what being a human being is about. And that’s what Cosi fan tutte is about for me. And it’s funny… I find it profoundly moving every time I hear it.
About Opera: Yeah, it is, it truly is.
Graham Vick: Mozart is my God. (laughs)
About Opera: And after Mozart, comes?
Graham Vick: Oh, God, Mozart is the absolute one! Of course there is Beethoven, Monteverdi, I’m completely obsessed with him. Wagner I love and hate, there is always a duality in Wagner, I can never do only one. I love Puccini. Janacek is fantastic. And Alban Berg. I don’t like Richard Strauss. I don’t much like XIXth century French repertoire. I’m not very keen on Gounod, Saint Saens or Massenet, though I love Werther. And I love the contemporary work. I love the new music. I am an addict of Stockhausen.
About Opera: Enescu?
Graham Vick: Enescu, I’ve done, I’ve done Oedipe. I did Oedipe in Italy, in Cagliari, with Stefan Ignat, who’s singing Falstaff. I got them to do it. I chose to do it there. They said I could chose an opera in Cagliari and I said I come if I can do it. That’s fabulous, of course it is.
About Opera: It’s not full of tunes… (laughs)
Graham Vick: No it doesn’t, but it’s a very, very powerful opera. It’s got enough tunes.
About Opera: How was the Sphinx scene? That was the key…
Graham Vick: It was a fantastic scene!
About Opera: For instance, there was a very controversial, and probably the only real modern production here, at the National Opera, in the ‘90s, with Andrei Serban, who set up all things as a sort of a history of the Romanian people. And he was portraying the Sphinx as Stalin.
Graham Vick: Stalin?
About Opera: Yes, and there was an iron curtain which was coming down between the acts and the illness that hits Theba in the third act was the miners who came in Bucharest in 1990 to beat the students because they didn’t want the communists who raised to power. And that was Serban’s connection between the reality and the Oedipe.
Graham Vick: It’s quite hard to match Stalin with the music of the Sphinx, in my head. It’s a little bit intellectual without quite fitting.
About Opera: Yes, I mean, I find the Sphinx as being somehow sexy.
Graham Vick: It is sexual…
About Opera: When it’s “Je t’attendais…”
Graham Vick: That’s right, I have the Sphinx rape Oedipe.
About Opera: Well, I guess they raped each other.
Graham Vick: Well, it’s a busy night…. and the poor man, he got his mother still with him…
About Opera: So, how did you do it in Cagliari, the Sphinx?
Graham Vick: It was a woman and she sexually crawled over and seduced Oedipe. And then abandoned him.
About Opera: It is a difficult opera. And, I don’t know…
Graham Vick: Act three is extraordinary. The music of the transfiguration is astonishingly beautiful. But act three is the really powerful drama. It’s amazing the way that works. It’s of its time the most you can see. Act three is the heart of the drama.
About Opera: There was some anticipation that it would be staged at the Covent Garden in the near future, 2016, I think.
Graham Vick: I’ll tell you why it hasn’t been. It would be better to be translated into English. This would work very well in English.
About Opera: Yeah, it is sung in Romanian most of the time.
Graham Vick: But it’s a good text and it’s well set. So, you would hear it. And especially in the last act you need the text, to know who he is, where he is. But all of the chorus stuff in act three is words, it’s much more words than sound. I mean the words sound matters more than the music sound. So that’s always the trigger, because it’s the tricky things. I found myself doing it with Falstaff. The first time I did Falstaff was in English. And it works very, very well. I speak Italian, it’s fantastic, and the sound is so specific and extraordinary beautiful and that’s what it is. But it’s a shame not to know what it means. I still go to see Cosi fan tutte. And I prefer to go seeing these in English. I still have a more profound experience with the piece in my own language.
About Opera: But now we are singing comme è scritto.
Graham Vick: That’s right.
About Opera: It’s hard to do this, in English, to bring back in English Mozart…
Graham Vick: It’s great, it’s very good in English.
About Opera: Yes, from a drama point of view. From a director point of view…
Graham Vick: (whispers) It’s not for nothing that Mozart continuously wanted to write in German. His priority was clear, he wanted to write in the language of his audience. I don’t think he would object to the translating of this Italian operas into the language of his audience. I think he would approve.
About Opera: I’m pretty sure that….
Graham Vick: Verdi translated himself in French. He wrote Don Carlo in French, translating it into Italian, bad Italian, preferring bad Italian, but Italian, in Italy than good French.
About Opera: Vespri Sicilani also.
Graham Vick: Verdi took a choice… It’s the language of the audience. They want to be understood, these guys. They communicate us, they’re not precious.
About Opera: No, they are not precious.
Graham Vick: It’s always the widows, the wives who put them the barriers…
About Opera: The wives?
Graham Vick: That happens to me a lot. I’ve done with many widows. And it’s much harder. Because they become the guardians of the life. I think that each composer did want to be understood.
About Opera: If Lorenzo da Ponte, who was that kind of man that he was, if he was supposed to live in these days, wow, with the freedom of expression and with the kind of guy that Mozart was, if they were living today, to compose Don Giovanni, or Cosi fan tutte, I mean… That would be something probably outrageous to the opera public.
Graham Vick: About Don Giovanni there is no point in performing it in Italian unless it’s to Italians. Because all the dialogues between Leporello and Don Giovanni are not even a bad content, they’re only about the play of language. So, you’re missing completely if you just read the translation, because that’s not what they are. Those scenes are .. some kind of contest between two people.
About Opera: So, that debate about let’s do an opera production as we’ve seen in the museum of Salzburg Festival or, I don’t know, or old Glyndebourne’s from the 1920s? It’s a nonsense.
Graham Vick: It is a nonsense. They don’t really mean the original, they mean something old fashioned. And if you really want to do an authentic XVIIIth century performance, then you need an XVIIIth century audience. Because you’re coming with completely wrong information to the show. So, if you want an XVIIIth century, then please go and shit in the road. And have lice in your head. And bring perfume because you stink. And so does everybody around you. And then you maybe understand what these pieces are. But if you’re here and sit in your completely modern world and say this is what it is supposed to be, then it is meaningless. It’s just shit.
About Opera: And if the composers themselves lived today and saw modern productions, while being a little bit accustomed to our way of life, they would probably enjoy it.
Graham Vick: I mean… They are all looking forward all the time. Puccini is choosing Belasco because he is a modernist, because he is composing music for new lighting effects. Looking at the new technology, the last piece I did was Luciano Berio, and it began by saying I want technology to do this effect among, you must do this technology. And he was obsessed with this. They want to be now, the composers, they wouldn’t want to come back and discover they were then… They want to still be now.
About Opera: Yes, that’s clear.
Graham Vick: I should now go, I’m afraid.
About Opera: Thank you very, very much.
Graham Vick: Is that enough? I jollied very much.
About Opera: Yes.
Graham Vick: If you want to ask me anything else. I sense unfinished business.
About Opera: (laughs) As a matter of fact, it is. But I have to confess that I am intimidated by your article in Opera Magazine. It was a conversation between you and the director Sam Brown, about the modern directing. Cause I just read that material and I said WOW. What should I ask? I cannot ask anything… There is something in this article.
Graham Vick: Then ask, ask, ask.
About Opera: When you say about modern productions that occurred in England, when the Labour party emerged. And you were saying there about some theatres and the rest of Europe where they are financed by the state, not by private persons who want to see what they like. And that the price of those theatres are as high as no more than 40 euros. At some point I wanted to translate that article and put it on my blog, because it is educational for people in Romania, who are still aiming at watching every day Zeffirelli-like productions, but in a theatre which is financed only by the state, there is probably no private contribution to it, and the prices are as low as no more than 20 euros.
Graham Vick: That’s why that’s so… And you have very gifted, very good performers, it’s in the blood of your country, the theatre. That’s the natural resource and that should be the start.
About Opera: But I cannot explain myself why this preference for classical productions.
Graham Vick: It’s not classical, it’s like Russians’ nostalgia for the Tzars. It’s a glamour and a bygone…. it’s a horrible nostalgia for something. That’s what this is. It’s a sickness. That’s what I think.
About Opera: So, what is to be done?
Graham Vick: Because the world is not like that. You don’t need to come and see it. And it’s pointless, and you won’t come and have an experience born out of the world that we live in now. It would be offensive for me to walk through this city and come in here and watch a Zeffirelli scale production of an opera. I would feel uncomfortable. Cause I would think there are other things that money should be spent for.
About Opera: For the sake of aesthetics.
Graham Vick: Not just aesthetics, it’s quantity, it’s a false grandeur.
About Opera: Yes, it is, but do you think this preference of the public is somehow as a trauma?
Graham Vick: The public is terribly mistaken. Don’t give them the power of calling them the public. You know? There are a lot of people out there, get them through the doors, change the public. Do the work you believe in, do the work that you care about, speak about the issues. People will receive it. People are able… they are not stupid. Things happen. They don’t like it, they resent. But people only know what they know. The job of art is not to tell people what they know.
About Opera: And in opera, this is…
Graham Vick: The public subsidy isn’t to reinforce prejudice. You don’t need to spend a penny to do that, people do that on their own. A terrible waste of public money. It’s to challenge, to stimulate, to make people think, to join society together, to bring us together for experiences, to love, to grow, to share, that’s what it’s for. And you won’t do that if you come for something that you think you know more about than the one sitting next to you. And you don’t posses the art, none of us does. It’s ephemeral, it’s what happens here… I don’t possess it. I get a change to rent it. I get the chance to play it. I’ve given my life in order to have that privilege…
About Opera: I saw your schedule on operabase and I was like WOW, what’s this?…
Graham Vick: That’s what I do. I give in return for what I am given. But it’s not mine, none of it. It’s not mine, it’s not the audience’s, it’s passing through, it’s on the move, it’s what’s joyous and exciting. If you can’t embrace the fact that the world is constantly turning, then you’re not gonna have a happy life…
About Opera: You feel all the time sorry about the past.
Graham Vick: I think that’s the basic answer to the question. But I think it is difficult because we are all going to return slowly to court theatre. We are going to return to art paid for. You know, the new opera house in Saint Petersburg, paid partly by Putin and large percentages by oligarch family and friends of the Marinsky. They are pretty terrifying. And they are purchasing social respectability by buying art. This is a complex and challenging future. Because it can’t be like that.
About Opera: It can’t. But in America it’s like that.
Graham Vick: In America it is like that. It’s horrible. It’s pretty horrible. And there is Russia now because it is like that. Lots of clauses in everybody’s contracts. There are people like me stopping working in Russia. I had a Marinsky contract and it was terrible because they were continuously on stage, telling me what to do.
About Opera: But you did Kovanschina…
Graham Vick: I did War and Peace. In fact two. One in 1991, for the Kirov in Leningrad, and one this year, in Sankt Petersburg, in Mariinksy opera house.
About Opera: And you felt that pressure of money?
Graham Vick: Oh, I fought with lawyers this thing. I won the battles with the lawyers, but I don’t want to spend my life in battles with lawyers. I won’t go back.
About Opera: The first opera production of you I have ever seen was in the early 90s The Queen of Spades, Glyndebourne. I loved those trees in the background! And the set up which was… WOW! That was really great!
Graham Vick: It was fantastic to have Yuri Marusin… He was amazing, he was great!
About Opera: He really was!
Graham Vick: Great, great man! What an opera!
About Opera: That opera was the first opera sung in this building in 1953. This building is not very, very old.
Graham Vick: A good building, I think. Good scale, good size, good relationship.
About Opera: And the premiere for the reception of the building…
Graham Vick: It’s impressive that all the foyers and stuff are like this, depressive. An artificial idea.. Franco Zeffirelli… In Athens, in Academia School, it’s an old cinema, so that’s literally you walk in from the street, like in the movies, no stage door. So all the stage crew go through the front, round the back, this way you get the ice-cream and then you go in! Perfect! It’s fantastic! The minute you come out the door there’s a glass door and whole of Athens… That’s my ideal!
About Opera: Yes, but here in Bucharest there was Ceausescu who destroyed a lot of all buildings and you feel attached right now to these kind of buildings.
Graham Vick: My country’s full of this stuff! But you know, you have a lot here. But it’s just the opera thing is that it’s still in people’s head. A lot of people associate opera which for you and me is a sung drama, they associate it with the VIP room, with Franco Zeffirelli, which I think are just attic things, nothing to do with the fact.
About Opera: But I think it’s about myself. When I watch an opera, I think it’s about myself.
Graham Vick: Obviously. That’s it. That’s the passion.
About Opera: And I think that also the composers thought the opera was about themselves, they are auto portraits.
Graham Vick: They were writing about the life of the world they lived in. They had no fears to draw on it. They drew on it. That’s what you do, that’s all you have. And in a rehearsal room… it’s a drawn. That’s nice. That’s the thrill, the joy of it. Thank you very much!
About Opera: Thank you very much! Looking forward to seeing your production in February.
Graham Vick: I’m very sorry you were intimidated. I feel embarrassed now. There’s a very good, if ever you can find it somewhere, I did a lecture about 12 years ago, which is better than the article, I think, called “Inclusion or Be Damned”. Which is more provocative. In a way that you’ll find interesting, I think. Very, very nice to meet you!
About Opera: Thank you very much!
Graham Vick: So, come to the premiere!
About Opera: I will, definitely, no doubt about it.
Graham Vick: I’ll see you then. Thank you, bye!
Falstaff from The Bucharest National Opera, directed by Graham Vick can be seen this season on 19, 20, 21 and 22 February 2015, 5 and 6 March 2015, 14 and 15 May 2015.
The announced cast for the premiere is:
Falstaff – Ştefan Ignat (debut)
Ford – Cătălin Ţoropoc (debut)
Alice – Iulia Isaev
Nanetta – Ana Cebotari (debut)
Meg Page – Sorana Negrea (debut)
Quickly – Andreea Iftimescu (debut)
Fenton – Ştefan von Korch (debut)
Caius – Liviu Indricău (debut)
Bardolfo – Valentin Racoveanu
Pistola – Iustin Zetea (debut)
Conductor: Guillermo Garcia Calvo
Director: Graham Vick
Chorus Master: Stelian Olariu
Assistant Chorus Master : Daniel Jinga
Photo gallery from rehearsals: