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The Carsen Show

This season, one of the oldest productions in the Met repertoire, Franco Zeffirelli's Falstaff, will be replaced by Robert Carsen's new staging. BRIAN KELLOW speaks with Carsen, whose guiding principle is simple: "Each show creates its own language," he says, "and you have to get the audience to believe in it."

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George Gagnidze in Carsen's Aix staging of Rigoletto, 2013
© Patrick Berger/Artcomart 2013
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Portrait photographed by Alain Kaiser in Strasbourg
© Alain Kaiser 2013
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Patrizia Ciofi in Carsen's 2004 La Traviata at La Fenice
Michele Crosera 2013

OPERA NEWS: What drew you to Falstaff — a work you've staged only once before?

ROBERT CARSEN: Verdi chose this work for what he knew would be the last opera that he would write. That he managed to reinvent his whole musical language, in such an almost virtuosic way at his comparatively advanced age, was to me remarkable. I have never understood why it doesn't occupy the same position with audiences as some of his other works do. For me, the work is really maybe the most celebratory of life of any work in the whole repertoire. Of course, there are clouds in front of the sun, and there's a certain melancholy, and the sense of the end of the life, but Falstaff is larger than life while containing the vital life force. He is the life and soul of the party, and it's because of him that the others are able to be who they are. I also love the critical look at the society. It's maybe the only real social comedy that Verdi wrote, and when I say social comedy, I think of Rosenkavalier and The Marriage of Figaro, works set in the time and place in which all the characters interact on many levels — the level of family, and with a certain class structure in society. 

But I think of Falstaff as a social comedy because you have Alice dealing with a jealous husband and saying, you'd better be careful before you ever suspect me of being unfaithful again. At the end of Figaro, the Countess is never going to go back to what she was before, and [here] Verdi manages somehow to give a sense of the upcoming emancipation of women. I think the piece goes in the direction of the battle of the sexes, for sure, and he also gives us a sense of this community. The rejection of Falstaff by Prince Hal, who has to grow up and become King and can't behave in the same way, is dropped, really. The nearest we get to any of that is the beginning of the third act. He's depressed, and then we're off and running again. The melancholy underneath the surface is palpable.

The other thing that's important about this production is that we have moved it to another Elizabethan England — the late 1950s, when Britain was coming out of the postwar depression and things were beginning to look better. I wouldn't really know how to do Falstaff in the first Elizabethan period. I just wouldn't. But it communes very well with modern life. You have the lamenting of one period and the arrival of a new modern age, so you have all the aristocratic values that Falstaff holds so dear, and of course some of them are invented, because his ancestry is a bit exaggerated. There was a perfect period after the Second World War, when seventy percent of the population was in service, looking after people. All these grand houses were closed down or bought by other people or turned into hotels after the war. It's a good period to look at someone like Ford — this wealthy man, who has no style at all. I used to wonder how Boito could have made such a mistake in the last line of the opera before the fugue, when Ford says, "Let's all go and have dinner with Sir Falstaff." You have to say "Sir John" or "Sir John Falstaff" in England. Then I came to the conclusion that he wanted Ford not to know how to say it. So you have this wonderful sense of the passing of an era. 

ON: You've done so well putting nature on the stage in so many of your productions — Les Boréades, with its explosion of spring flowers, and Onegin, with the autumn leaves that are all cleared away at the end, because now it's the winter of his life. How will we see nature put on the stage in Falstaff?

RC: Not quite in the way you would expect. I didn't want to put a big fake oak tree in the middle. We have oak in the production in another way. Quite a lot of it — but it's used in another way.

But it's very important, when you go into the third act, that you're outside. The rest of the opera is more indoors, and the second scene of Act III could almost be a different opera — you're in this strange, rather magical situation, where the rules have changed and the music is quite, quite different and quite surreal and unreal. 

ON: I was very taken with your production of Rigoletto at Aix-en-Provence this past July, partly because most stagings of the opera never seem to get at the real darkness of the work. I'd love to know more about how your circus-themed staging in Aix evolved.

RC: It was a combination of several things. Strangely enough, with Rigoletto, something happened to me that has happened only maybe twice before. With the set designer, we worked out another production altogether. It was only when we had the finished model that I realized that it was efficient, but not particularly revealing about the piece. Rigoletto is a difficult piece from a director's point of view. Verdi put so many demands on you in telling the very fast-moving and linear narrative. It's very action-driven. There aren't many moments of reflection in it, really. If you are not careful and try to follow his indications and different locales, you end up actually trying to figure all that out without a production that is contributing anything to the debate. 

I had wanted to put Rigoletto firmly in the middle of the story, and I was trying to find a way of directing this, telling the story without its being completely realistic. I wanted there to be more metaphoric weight about the character. Otherwise, you wind up with a transposition — a different city, a different time. I felt that if you're being strictly logical, the king's jester hasn't really existed since the Renaissance — and I wouldn't know how to set it in the Renaissance. So when I was dissatisfied with this other version, which was very much based, as is this one, on the abuse of women, I thought, "This is not doing what I want it to do, and I'm not ending up with Rigoletto in the middle." And then I thought the circus atmosphere could be something where he can always be in the middle. 

One of the difficulties of directing Rigoletto is that you have this strong narrative line and tightly wound plot with all the inevitable horrors of how it plays itself out — but Verdi makes these very abrupt changes from irony to tragedy to the grotesque to the comic to the lyrical, and it just turns on a dime. It changes, changes. And one of the difficult things about Verdi is that there's nothing cosmetic about his writing. He doesn't sand down the edges — he just moves from one thing to the next. It's like a Rodin sculpture — he doesn't want to glamorize anything. 

With Rigoletto, Verdi's great achievement is to give us a character we shouldn't really like, and shouldn't have much sympathy with — I mean, why is he keeping this poor girl isolated from everyone, and why is he refusing to accept that she's becoming a young woman? And why are we sitting there watching these terrible things happen to people all the time? For spectators, I think there are a lot of issues Rigoletto brings up. The Duke doesn't say one single word in his entire text that isn't about women and about scoring with them. And oddly, like Don Giovanni, the women are unbelievably attracted to him — the virgin and the whore both wanting to save his life. You can't just write him off as a rapist abusing the power of his position. Verdi didn't write him that way. Somehow there's a great attraction to this character. I find it repellent what he says, but there's something strangely attractive as well. And I wanted to show how empty this world of the Duke's is, with all those girls, and people behaving like they're animals being tamed by the lion tamer. 

ON: Were the audiences in Aix at all shocked by the production?

RC: Nothing that happened in that Rigoletto was meant to provoke people — although people have a strange double standard, sometimes, about what they see on a theater stage and on an opera stage. They're the same thing, really. I'm always interested in looking at the work as if it's just composed. I don't think it's the work's fault that it's over 100 years old. That's no reason for it to seem embalmed. If you study what the composers write and why they write, and how they have to find the right story — in some cases Puccini literally had to get turned on sexually by his heroine before he could put pencil to paper.

ON: The Rigoletto is a return to Aix-en-Provence after a very long absence.

RC: I worked there between 1991 and 1996 every year. And then Stéphane Lissner took over in 1997. If I had been him, I wouldn't have hired me either.  I'd been there six years in a row. It wouldn't have made sense for a new artistic director to go along with the same person. And there were financial problems — they were only doing one opera production a year for the last three years of the festival. And Stéphane restructured the whole thing and found all sorts of money and made it work in a fantastic way. I would have loved to go back, but I wasn't surprised. When he left for La Scala, he asked me to come and work for him in his first year. Each Intendant wants to bring his own people. Then Bernard Foccroulle took over, and I knew him very well, because he was running La Monnaie. I never worked for him there. But I am thrilled to come back with Rigoletto.

Most people love Rigoletto,  but they want something new done with it.

In Rigoletto, you don't really know who anybody is. There's a problem of identity. His daughter doesn't know what he does or his name, or her mother's name, or the name of the man she's fallen in love with. Sparafucile rather surprisingly asks Rigoletto, “What's the name of the victim?” and Rigoletto says sarcastically, “You want to know mine too, I suppose?” Then there's this question of who are we, and the roles we have to play in life. And there's something unsettling and maybe even tragic about a clown — we all play parts and have to remove our masks from time to time. I'm careful about using the word “tragedy” with Rigoletto. To me, a tragic character is a character like Macbeth, who is someone with potential to be a great man who then destroys his life.

ON: Sparafucile is such a great character — there's even a hint of buffo there, in such a dark way.

RC: There's a terrible irony. He's the man who knows the secrets that you've got and is good at manipulating people's psychology to get the secrets out of them. He's a wonderful character. And quite scary. And there's a strange, morbid attraction to someone like that as well. 

ON: You are so good at putting sex and sensuality on the stage. I remember how beautifully you did it in Alcina. Was there a particular production that was a turning point for you in that respect, or did you have instinctive command of this always?

RC: Opera is always famously about Eros and Thanatos — love and death. Somehow, the way opera works, the way the sounds of the human voice works, there's something very erotic and sexual about it. You feel it in the vibrations, and how people sing and use the body. I feel that in exploring the abstract and dark side of the psyche, you can't really ignore that.

In Handel operas — you mentioned Alcina — there is a sense of erotic longing all the time in the music. It's somehow the way the audience projects onto the characters — mostly the women. 

ON: Is considering the audience in a particular place in any way a factor when you're developing a new production?

RC: It isn't, really. Rigoletto is a coproduction with Strasbourg, Aix, Geneva, Brussels and Moscow. It isn't, really. I think of the audience, but not of the audience in this city as being that different from the audience in that city. I think about the theater sometimes, very particularly what you can do and can't do. There are more coproductions, and production costs need to be shared out. I think opera addresses common emotions, whatever language we speak. The event is being communicated in the language of the composers. And that's something mysterious and abstract and something that may mean something slightly different to one person than another. For me, the actual event of the theater and the performance and everyone working together to create something that could take all of us above what we are normally — I think that is what opera is about. When you get all the elements to combine, and the heart and head are both stimulated, then you get something mysterious, and you don't know if it's going to work. In my case, I worked in collaboration with my team, and of course there's analysis involved, and a great deal of text preparation and study, but when you're rehearsing, it's a question of what seems the right thing to do. And sometimes things don't come out the way you think they're going to come out. And you have to change it. 

ON: You've been doing some major installations in recent years.

RC: A number of years ago, Guy Cogeval wrote me a letter saying he was running a museum in Paris. He had been to three of my opera productions. He said he thought it be wonderful if I designed an exhibition. I met him, and we became friends. For twenty years, I never did anything. Five years ago, I was approached by the president of Chateau de Versailles, Jean Jacques Aillagon, and asked if I would design an exhibition of Marie Antoinette for the Grand Palais in Paris. I doubted I could do it, but I didn't have any time to study for it, and it was a subject that hadn't interested me. I did do it in the end, and it went very well, and then I did one on Charles Garnier, and two more in September — one called Bohème, about artists and Gypsies, a big exhibition at the Grand Palais, and then Fashion and Impressionism, designed for the Musée d'Orsay. The Met in New York didn't want my involvement. I've also designed for the Art Institute in Chicago. I have a couple more that I'm going to do. I really enjoy it. And I learn a lot.

ON: Are there any stage performances you saw as a young person that made an overwhelming impression on you, and were instrumental in leading you into your career?

RC: There were two amazing performances I saw as a kid, both directed by Peter Brook. One was Marat/Sade, and the other was A Midsummer Night's Dream. They were on tour. I was very little. My parents were a bit freaked out to take me to Marat/Sade. It was so violent and strange. I was very young when I saw them. They were probably formative.

ON: I was surprised that your wonderful 1997 production of Eugene Onegin was being replaced this season at the Met. Was your minimalist vision of the opera difficult to sell to the administration?

RC: No, there wasn't any problem with that. When we opened, we got a very bad review in The New York Times. I loved the production from the beginning. I said, well, that's one guy who doesn't like it. But I think it will find its audience. And at every revival after that, people were so warm and positive about it. 

ON: That production does what many productions of the opera don't — it puts Onegin center stage.

RC: That idea came to me very quickly. I was trying to make it Onegin from his point of view and not allow Tatiana to hijack the evening. The opera is about this very strange, cold man — not really such an admirable person — and I thought it was important to see it from his point of view. There was the part that may have confused some people, the part where Onegin is dressing for the ball while the guy is lying there — his complete toilette, from his nails to all the brushes. I did a lot of research into the gentleman's toilette of the period. My job is to get people to look and listen. I'm always wanting people to hear it in a different way, or as if they hadn't heard it before. Not to sing along with it in their heads.

ON: In your Traviata at La Fenice, the emphasis is on the element of money in the story. I loved the moment when Violetta, played by Patrizia Ciofi, stood frozen after Alfredo threw the money at her. So often, the Violetta falls to the ground or bites her fist melodramatically, but in your production, she's so stunned that she can't move.

RC: Violetta is the only one of that trio who knows how to behave. And of course, it's appalling, Alfredo paying her back as a whore. The whole thing of that Traviata being all about money is that I wanted to remind people what we're talking about. People think it's so lovely, but it's the most appalling story. And it was a shocker at the time for so many reasons. It was the first time money was openly discussed. And if you go through the libretto and count the number of times there are references to money, it's incredible. And, of course, it is another example of Verdi championing women's rights and what he was going through with Strepponi and how she was being treated — that was all part of what was at work when he fastened on to that piece.

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Adrianne Pieczonka (center) as Mme. Lidoine in Carsen's Dialogues des Carmélites at Canadian Opera Company, 2013
© Michael Cooper 2013

ON: Your Dialogues des Carmélites originated at Netherlands Opera in 1997 and has played around the world. Was it daunting to take on that opera, when the Met's John Dexter staging was so groundbreaking and famous?

RC: I had seen the Dexter production, and I thought it was wonderful. With Dialogues, I thought the trick was to avoid having any crosses or crucifixes on the stage. Our exposure to Tosca means that that kind of imagery can kind of go kitsch on you. I thought a real investigation of faith here would be not to have anything like that onstage. We did have the rosaries, which are part of the Carmelite costumes. I didn't want the guillotine, which also looks like a theatrical prop. There's a responsibility — when you're dealing with this or From the House of the Dead or Fidelio, and the symbol of human freedom of speech and persecution — there's a responsibility toward the gravitas of the subject. 

ON: Give me an example of an opera you would not be interested in staging.

RC: Anything with Rossini's name on it. I did Italiana at the beginning, and I have to say I enjoyed it. I couldn't do any of the other ones. As my father would say, it doesn't do anything for me. 

ON: You began as an actor. How did you segue into directing?

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spacer "Face to Face" Robert Carsen and Frank Corsaro (Eric Myers, February 2004)

RC: The thing that prepared me for directing was my time at the Bristol Old Vic, where I met the person who changed my life, my teacher for acting technique, Rudi Shelly. And many of the best actors, like Jeremy Irons and Daniel Day-Lewis, went to that school and passed through Rudi's hands. Extraordinary man. He was in his late seventies when I was being taught by him. He told me that I should be a director. I didn't understand — I thought he was saying I was a bad actor. He said, "No, you're good. But I have so many students, and you to me are a director. You're interested in everything, and all the scenes, not just those that you're in. You're always suggesting things — you seem to have a director's mind." I thought about it and said, "Maybe he's right."   

ON: Is there a singer you feel exemplifies "in the moment" performing — complete musical and dramatic spontaneity — more than any other you've worked with?  

RC: Julia Varady. I'm always telling young singers to look at her master classes. She was an amazingly complete artist, and she managed to make you feel that she was saying what she was saying for the first time, and the music was composed to make her say what she felt. She had a unique way of locking into the moment — not just revisiting it. 

ON: What should singers know who are coming to work on one of your productions?

RC: I much prefer working with someone who isn't waiting to be given every thought and every movement — where you have to feed them with a baby spoon. It's wonderful when you have artists who just have an ability to express dramatically and instinctively. On Rigoletto, I was pleased, because every person brought the maximum ability of energy and concentration to the production more or less every night. Ability is different for everybody. I had to work with Irina Lungu [the production's Gilda] intensely to get her to move out of her comfort zone as a point of departure to perform. Sometimes I ask the conductors, please let's not say a thing about how this goes musically. I want them to concentrate on how it feels to be this character. The audience isn't going to be moved if they have a perfect package in front of them. It's like having a perfect gymnast — nothing is out of place. It doesn't matter if something's not perfect. You encourage the singers to take risks in becoming the characters — and not worry about making a mistake. spacer

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