Graham Vick: You are already prisoners

On Friday, July 1st, the Bucharest National Opera will present its last première of this season (which will also be the last performance of the theatre before holidays). The British director Graham Vick, CBE, returns after more than one year to Bucharest, after his extensively commented Falstaff of February 2015. I met the great opera director on a very hot day, for an interview about this new staging of Beethoven’s masterpiece.


Alexandru Pătrașcu: As we discussed last time, when you staged Falstaff, you told me that your two favourite operas are Così fan tutte and Fidelio. This is Fidelio number…

Graham Vick: Number 4.

A.P.: Number 4?

G.V.: In fact, Fidelio number 3, and I’ve done Leonore the original version, that became Fidelio, so I call it number 4.

A.P.: And it’s a new concept, a new vision.

G.V.: A new concept, a new vision, yes. A developing vision. I mean it has its roots in other versions. It’s a growing vision, I think. I’ve learned from each time I’ve done it. I’ve tried pushing different directions, different ways, and they’ve all had an influence on this version. But it’s completely new.

A.P.: I read again today your conference Inclusion or Be Damned. You are saying there something like: in fact, Leonora is a housewife who becomes a hero. It’s about the potential of anybody to be a hero, if he or she stands up for something.

G.V.: That’s what’s so wonderful about this opera: it’s about the human spirit. The story isn’t about a dramatic soprano who was born to be a heroine, with the ego of a dramatic soprano, you know? It’s about the wife of a man, a wife who completely identifies herself through him. So, when he disappears, she doesn’t know who she is, she has to look for him. And by that need to find the completion of herself, she goes on a journey, she has no choice, her love is that strong, but her sense of love is only limited to him. So, without him she can’t not only  breathe, she can’t live, she can’t love, she can’t do anything. So the need is a basic need, and she starts looking for him. And it makes her, little by little, do acts which are both heroic and difficult, negative, she compromises her own integrity, she does bad things as well as good, she does not behave the way Florestan behaves, for her love. And little by little, the journey of the piece is how the love for one man grows to a much bigger understanding of the suffering and nature of humanity. She learns for herself, through empathy, a journey of universal love. And the big, big question the opera poses, I think, and this is very much what I am trying to get here, is “What do we do? Do we act or do we stay on the ground, without integrity, intact, and be silent, and be silenced, or do we enter the lion’s den? Do we commit small crimes in the name of a bigger good? Do we let us be compromised in a small way for a greater good? Is one person’s love more important than another’s?” They are very difficult questions, moment by moment they seem easy, but it’s very hard to know where you come down to. Rocco, a small corrupt man, with a big heart, how corrupt is he? It depends on where you are doing the piece. It depends on the nature of the culture: how do people see survival? What do people do in order for their families to survive? It’s interesting questions to ask. And ultimately nobody can say that Florestan is right or that Leonora is right. But through her journey, of course, she becomes much more than Mrs Florestan. The real journey from Fidelio to Leonora is a woman growing to no longer identify herself as half of her husband. But to stand there and say “I am Leonora, I am a woman, I have an identity and I can act.”

A.P.: So, she’s not a Walkiria. She’s not Brünnhilde.

G.V.: No, no. I think that’s a terrible mistake. Because then it’s somebody who was born for heroism, born with an ego, born to play a man. In the text it’s very clear, before the trio in the first scene, the original dialogue has a little joke. When Rocco asks Leonora: “Fidelio, listen lad,” in fact boy, Söhnchen, little sonny boy, “do you really have the guts to come down into the prison and help me?” And she says “Of course I’ve got the guts.” And Rocco continues: “Maybe you have, with your long eye-lashes and your lily-white fingers and wrists”. You see, it’s a boy, it’s a girl-boy, it’s not a man. And that’s what Marzelline is loving, this rather sensitive boy, this romantic, sensitive boy, who has nothing to do with Jaquino, Rocco, the prison life of men. There’s this sensitive other thing she’s very drawn to. And of course it has a feminine side. It’s that sensitivity that touches and draws Marzelline and it’s the intelligence that attracts the father. Because she’s not trying to be a man, she’s trying to get away with it. She’s trying to find her husband.


A.P.: I saw some pictures from the rehearsals. The context seems to be contemporary.

G.V.: Yes, I mean, it’s a contemporary piece of theatre. It happens on a stage, there is no set, there’s no set at all, really, and the costumes are contemporary.

A.P.: So, you don’t need walls, you don’t need cells…

G.V.: I hope not, because I haven’t got any. (laughs)

A.P.: You wanted them and you didn’t get them?

G.V.: No, I mean, the piece is a metaphorical piece, it’s a mythic piece, it’s the Orpheus myth, it’s the descent into darkness, the coming out into the light, it’s the loved one going to rescue the lover from being tested to the limit, it’s all of those things. The prison wall… it’s never explained in the text what kind of prison is. People say it’s a political prison. Where does it say in the text it’s a political prison? Not in any text I ever read! And in fact in the play that it’s based on it happens in the time of the Terror. And the man in prison is a Lord, an aristocrat, and the wife is an aristocrat. And it’s an aristocratic woman saving her aristocratic husband from the Terror after the Revolution. It’s about as far from the universal brotherhood as you can get. That’s the original plot. In order to make sense of it, you can’t go into the plot, because you tie yourself in knots of making it smaller and smaller and smaller.  Whereas the revisions Beethoven made as he was nagging at it and not being happy make it bigger and bigger and bigger. You begin with a singspiel written for Schikaneder, at the Theater an der Wien, popular, local, rescue opera, dialogue, stuff, and you end with Beethoven doing a dress rehearsal for the IXth Symphony. And somewhere in between you try to find a theatrical language which would suit it. And it certainly isn’t about a prisoner clanking his chains, it’s about the Count de Monte Cristo.

A.P.: But there is a political side anyway…

G.V.: There is a simplistic political side, which is simply about tyranny, about the idea of tyranny. But there is only one man in one cell, Florestan. And he’s singular. There aren’t lots of Florestans all out there. Everybody else is in a normal prison. And for all the text says, there is no reason to think they’re not murderers and cut-throats. It doesn’t say they are men of conscience. But the themes of darkness and light, the themes of being locked away, the themes of imprisonment, of reaching to the light, frightened, of silence of speech, these are mythic themes. They’re not themes about whether you committed a crime and are locked in a room. And Florestan’s darkness, again, is a big operatic mythical darkness. Like for Beethoven it could be deafness, couldn’t it? “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!” is about the spirit, not about the eyes. It’s about isolation, and you can be isolated in a crowd.

A.P.: There is a story that an architect told me, a story that took place during the ‘50s, when here, in Romania, we had a sort of a gulag, it was a channel that was supposed to link the Danube to the Black Sea. And political prisoners were taken there for forced labour. An architect* (see the note at the end) was imprisoned there and was forced to do all sorts of tasks, as a prisoner, and his wife went to this prison and tried to be hired there, as civilian employee, in order to be…

G.V.: In order to be close to him.

A.P.: And she was hired finally as an engineer. Later they discovered that her husband was there, imprisoned, and fired her. She wasn’t imprisoned, but kicked out. It is interesting that this case is not an ideal case, but just a fait divers, just like the original play, based on a fait divers, too.

G.V.: Yes, it was based on a fact that had happened, absolutely.

A.P.: And this story is going to repeat over and over, since 1805, when the first Fidelio had its première, and till the reality of the XXth century.

G.V.: This political element of the story is a sketch upon which to hang a profoundly spiritual journey. Because the big moment, you sure know, Leonora’s aria, is about the flame of her love, is about the nature of the human spirit, about the nature of despair: are we capable of nourishing it, are we capable of keeping it alive, believing? It’s about the darkness. These are the biggest things in the piece. You know, Pizzaro is two dimensional. I mean, it’s clear what he is. It’s not a subtle political argument. Rocco is a subtler figure. And it’s not that it’s not a political production, but it’s the big mythical ideas that really drive the piece. It’s about darkness, light, providence, the hand of God… It’s about the last trumpet. I mean, it’s all there. God is stated in the piece. The presence of something is there throughout. Faith is mentioned, its qualities, its value. And in the end, the fact that we are not abandoned, but not in a dogmatic religious sense. There is a sense that there is a huge providence thing, bigger than any other, which is actually, ultimately, taking care.  That is the overwhelming sense of the piece.


A.P.: You know, every member of the audience will understand this according to his past, to his experience, to his context, to his personal context. Even if he is British, or if he is Romanian.

G.V.: Yes, that’s right.

A.P.: This light and darkness, this terror could mean different things for different people…

G.V.: That is the plan of releasing it without the prison set. I mean, the last thing for me to do was to come here and talk about what it means to be a political prisoner. I mean, it would be a ridiculous arrogance on my part. No?

A.P.: Yes, you are right. There is no need to stress too much this element.

G.V.: But I have a lot of other experiences to show: of the opera, of Beethoven, of the themes of the piece, of the inside of the working, and how it developed, as I’ve done the original, I’ve done lots of work… So I’ve got all of that to bring and to show as a way of enriching it and doing an open experience which provokes and gives a context for everyone to find their own way, and their own personal journey and experience.  And this is what I hope will happen.

A.P.: Does this concept of yours have a special meaning for the Romanian public?

G.V.: Well, Romania has its own history and I think it’s not possible not to think about that while addressing the theme. The way I am addressing the theme will be in the audience, as you quite rightly put it. I have chosen to do my own version of the dialogues, a rather radical rewriting, and in Romanian.

A.P.: For instance, people who are 70 years old will understand the communism, etc, but…

G.V.: People have different histories. If you were born 20 years ago, or 60 years ago, you have a different life, a different life experience.

A.P.: The ballet dancers from the Opera could understand a completely different story from this. But still, in terms of light and darkness, terror and so on…

G.V.: Myths are cross-cultural. The big journey, the big myths, we find them, versions of them in all cultures, they exist profoundly within our psyche, within our soul. This is an elemental piece.

A.P.: So, I understood that the dialogues will be in Romanian?

G.V.: Yes.

A.P.: That’s fantastic!

G.V.: That’s what I think.

A.P.: Because there’s a lot of talking…

G.V.: And there’s more talking now, because I’ve rewritten them. And that’s quite radical. The spoken part… in fact it’s a new version.

A.P.: So, we’ll have a Leonora/Fidelio, Graham Vick version, Bucharest, 2016.

G.V.: All the dialogues, the text in German is completely, fully what it is, and all the plot is what it is, but I’ve expanded, I’ve done some things with the dialogues, which you’ll see.

A.P.: I can’t wait to see this.

G.V.: I don’t want to say more, but it’s quite radical. I’ve made a contribution, to put it that way. (laughs) You know, there’s a problem in the opera: the dialogues of the piece are rather heavy, not very interesting from the expressive point of view. And the German is not very good. Therefore they don’t help the musical structure, or the expressive structure. So, I’ve reworked them to make them expressive, dynamic, and to give them the same emotive power as the music, and to join them in a different kind of a way. Each time I’ve done it, I’ve done it more. (laughs) Each time I’ve intervened more.

A.P.: So, when you did Fidelio in England, you had the dialogues in English?

G.V.: Yes, in English. And I re-sang it in English as well. But here everybody was keen to sing it in German. And that’s ok, you have the translation, and the power of the language on the music. But you have no argument to do the spoken part in German, which is not the native language of anybody, neither of the cast, nor of the audience. So, there is simply no reason to do it in German.


A.P.: Would you have the Leonora 3 overture between the acts?

G.V.: No, we won’t.

A.P.: OK. Why?

G.V.: It was never meant to be between the acts. It was written as an overture, and then Beethoven decided quite rightly that it was a very big mistake to do this as an overture. I did one production in Birmingham where I put it before the finale. But that was because I did there an entire piece of theatre, with 100 people in it. I did this in a tent, during a Birmingham event. It’s different Leonora nr. 3, it contains all the drama, and if you hear that before the opera, you’re hearing the revival. It’s already played, all of it, it even includes the big moment of the trumpet, it’s disappointing. So Beethoven quite rightly settled on the Fidelio overture.

A.P.: I spoke about this with the Romanian conductor Christian Badea. I don’t know if you know him.

G.V.: Aha! Christian Badea! Of course I know him.

A.P.: And he has done Fidelio quite a few times, in Detroit, I think. Anyway, he said he doesn’t like to do the overture between the acts, the Mahler version, because, he says, it spoils the drama completely.

G.V.: Leonora 3 is a kind of symphonic poem in a way. It’s a wonderful modern drama in itself. But it does all the big moments, so if you do it, they’re done and later you just hear them repeated.

A.P.: And you know that these days, in Bucharest, even here, in the Opera, there is also Andrei Serban, who also did a Fidelio, at the Covent Garden.

G.V.: Yes, he did, the one with the angels.  And he’s here?

A.P.: Yes, he is, and I think he will attend your première.

G.V.: Well, that would be fun. It will be nice to see him.

A.P.: His production was contested and not very much liked at the beginning.

G.V.: Yes, I now remember. It was a good idea not enormously well realised.

A.P.: Yes, but then, when they changed it, everybody regretted that they changed it.

G.V.: Yes, of course they did. Look, you have an idea and you do it. Next step: you’ve got no idea. That’s the problem. It was a very ambitious idea to achieve in that system, where you have a limited amount of technical time.  And Andrei, who works in a very spontaneous, improvisatory way, had this kind of idea of angels and everything, and of throwing that scenery in an act, but to work that out beautifully takes more time. And there, in a fast changing schedule, with an international repertoire, like an Opera has, it’s difficult to find that time. So I think it got stuck  in the course of sorting it out in whatever stage it happened to be by the time the first night happened. You understand what I mean, it was like a work in progress. Because it’s a very challenging thing to do, to find a way to do this so that it’s in tune with the music. It takes experiment, time and all of that. It’s very hard to do that kind of work in those theatres.

Fidelio (Andrei Șerban/Sally Jacobs - ROH, 1986)
Fidelio (Andrei Șerban/Sally Jacobs – ROH, 1986)

A.P.: How is the cast here?

G.V.: Great! A wonderful Leonora, a fascinating woman, extraordinary gifted artist. The cast is splendid, I’m enjoying very much working with them. They all have an appetite for good work, for adventure, for exploring. They got used to me coming in every day with something new, just when they got used to something else. It’s a joy, they all give me enormous pleasure.

A.P.: We’ve never seen here this mezzo from Brasov. I can’t wait to see her.

G.V.: She’s an extraordinary interesting creature. Very special, very special.

A.P.: So this title has not been in the repertoire here for 30 years or something, since …

G.V.: Since, the 1970s I think, so it’s 40 years.

A.P.: Yes, since the time when Ludovic Spiess was singing Florestan. In fact, this title entered the repertoire because of him. Because Spiess like this role very much. So, after he retired, basically there was no more Fidelio here. It’s very interesting what you said, about not trying to politicise too much this opera. Because it was confiscated by all the totalitarian regimes, and the communists were taking this Fidelio as as piece of showing the moral injustice of the bourgeoisie, so people did not see too much in this from a political perspective, they saw propaganda in Beethoven’s music during the communism. Now, you can see whatever you want. But certainly this title hasn’t been staged here since the ‘70s. The same applies to Turandot.

Fidelio - ONB, 1955 (Pantelimon Frunză, Ioana Nicola, Mircea Buciu, Lella Cincu)
Fidelio – ONB, 1955 (Pantelimon Frunză, Ioana Nicola, Mircea Buciu, Lella Cincu)

G.V.: It’s interesting, you know, the political significance of this opera, because it’s an icon. The Wiener Staatsoper celebrated the night of the Anschluss with a performance of Fidelio. And then, when the allies liberated Vienna from the Third Reich, the Opera celebrated with a performance of Fidelio. To me, this says it all about it.

A.P.: Well, they managed to make an Austrian, like Hitler, become German…

G.V.: So, why shouldn’t they make Beethoven Austrian? (laughs)

A.P.: They’re very good at that.

G.V.: So, there we are. It’s about ideals, of course. Florestan who does what he has to do, Leonora who is driven completely by hope and by love, Rocco who knows where he draws the line, knows how far he’ll go in his corruption, but there is a point he won’t go beyond because he cares about his daughter. This is interesting stuff. And the end, with the antique chorus of brother with brother, difficult moment. Because the characters just speak words without having the right to say them. That’s a political statement. Because it’s not about the characters here, it’s just an utterance of an idea.

A.P.: Do you think we’ll cry?

G.V.: I hope so. I intended to be a very intensely emotional experience.

A.P.: Are you going to turn the lights off when Florestan appears and sings “Gott”?

G.V.: I think you’ll have to wait for the first night to see what I’m doing there.

A.P.: The first night will be also the last night of this production? Because there’s only one scheduled performance.

G.V.: No, I don’t think so. It’s like that because it’s the end of the season. They managed to fit it in only at the end of the season. I think a second performance was planned, but Mr Mandeal was not available for that. But I hope there will be more performances in autumn.

A.P.: You know Mandeal…

G.V.: Since we did Œdipe together, in Italy.

A.P.: And you worked well together.

G.V.: Yes, we worked very well there. I have a lot of respect, admiration and affection for him.

A.P.: Did anybody cry during the rehearsals?

G.V.: Yes, if you ask me, yes. It’s a very moving opera.

A.P.: It is… It is one of the most moving operas in the history. It is the first real German opera. In fact, after the singspiel, this is the fundamental German opera.

G.V.: And Die Entführung aus dem Serail, of course. That one is an equally great opera. And it also makes me cry.

A.P.: In a different way.

G.V.: You’re right, in a different way. But it’s also a very emotional piece.

A.P.: I can’t wait to see it.

G.V.: Look, it’s something. I deliberately set out not to spend money this time. The whole of Europe is struggling everywhere in culture, so I tried very hard to hold down. And it’s not a piece that demands spectacle, it’s a piece about ideas, about heart, so you don’t need to do scenery, you can express theatre through people. In a piece as humanistic as this, people have to be the means to express the ideas. So I’d rather put people at the heart of it this time, instead of having audience remember a beautiful pig, of which I am very proud. I’m very proud of the pig, but with this piece we wanted to go to a different place and do a different kind of theatre.

A.P.: I am very proud of your pig, too.

G.V.: Look, I’ve come back, I wanted to come back here. Falstaff was a very good experience for me.  I loved the process of working with the people here. Romanian artists have it in their blood, they are born with this ability to play.  They have something special about feeling, performing, intuition, I find here something that I don’t find in other places. And it touches me and it makes me want to use it, and go deeper, and provoke a little bit. But not in a bad way, just to stick it out. And this cast confirmed all of that for me.

A.P.: Yes, they are like this, up to the point where this artistry spills out and invades their own life.

G.V.: And the theatre here has, for me, a kind of ideal balance: a stage big enough for big music and an auditorium intimate enough for everything to be felt directly. It’s not an opera with a distance, not an opera with 3500 seats. So everybody is in the room, everybody can share the experience form the stage.

A.P.: Are we going to become the prisoners at some point?

G.V.: You are already.

A.P.: Will the chorus invade the auditorium? Will they sing among us?

G.V.: Who knows? It has been done in some of my shows. Maybe I’ll do it, maybe I won’t.

A.P.: You haven’t decided yet.

G.V.: No, for the chorus I haven’t decided yet, so I’m not just being evasive. But it’s important to say that all of this was planned before any of the recent events in the theatre. I planned a production in which the theatre was occupied, and I planned this in February. Yes, I planned a whole production which includes polemic, which includes an occupied theatre, which includes arguments, and all sorts of things, that are in the nature of the piece. But it was all conceived before any of the recent events. And nobody will believe this when you see the show. Still, that’s completely how it was.

A.P.: So, there will be an invasion!

G.V.: Who knows?

A.P.: Will you use choreography?

G.V.: No, there will be no choreography in this show.

A.P.: Choreography is over.

G.V.: Choreography is definitely not over. It’s just not part of this production.

A.P.: Well, if you want to add something, anything else.

G.V.: I think it’s very good, it’s what I wanted and I’ve done it, a little intriguing, it’s clearly going to be unusual, challenging, but there’s a lot to draw and attract, I hope.  It will be a Fidelio unlike any other, but for here.

And I hope it will help people get to the heart of the piece, which is one of my favourite pieces, as you say. And I feel this piece is a very good match here. The substance of the piece and the people performing it are a very good fit. Not in a literal way, you know.

A.P.: And we going to cry.

G.V.: I hope so. Thank you very much for talking with me about this.

A.P.: I thank you!

*Note: Arh. Ioan Pușchilă, in Vlad Mitric-Ciupe, Arhitecții români și detenția politică 1944-1964. Între destin concentraționar și vocație profesională, (Romanian Architects and Political Detention 1944-1964. Between Concentrationary Destiny and Professional Vocation), Vremea Publishing House, Bucharest, 2014. 

On a personal level, one must notice the fact that the entire family was a victim, and also the noblesse and strength of character of Mrs Marcela Pușchilă, architect, who, more than not giving up on him, also raised three children alone, for 7 years, waiting for the family to be reunited. While Ioan Pușchilă was imprisoned at the Channel, his wife managed to find a job in Constanța, in order to be close to him. She was quickly forced to leave by other colleagues, architects too: „You sneaked in here just to be close to your bandit husband!”

Opera Națională Bucureşti: 1 iulie 2016
Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio
Regia: Graham Vick
Dirijor: Cristian Mandeal
Decoruri: Samal Blak
Costume: Mauro Tinti
Lighting design: Giuseppe di Iorio
Asistent de regie: Matthias Janser

Leonora – Asineta Răducan
Jaquino – Andrei Lazăr
Pizarro – Valentin Vasiliu
Rocco – Horia Sandu
Marzelline –Laura Nicorescu
Fernando – Cătălin Ţoropoc
Florestan- Marius Vlad Budoiu

Photo gallery from Fidelio rehearsals at ONB (© GIN FOTO/ ONB):