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Opera Noir

JOHN ALLISON interviews Mariusz Treliński, who brings a filmmaker’s sensibility to the Met’s new double bill of Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle.

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Mariusz Treliński
© Ira Grzybowska 2015
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© Jacek Poremba 2015

"I cut by light. Since I was fifteen years old, I’ve been looking at the world through an eye of a camera. Earlier in fact, I’d say, because before children learn to speak they are fascinated by the images that surround them. An image shimmers with meanings, and it’s never as literally defined as a word — in this way, it’s rather like music. So I tell stories with images, and in some ways I paint operas rather than psychologize them.” 

Mariusz Treliński, who started off his career as a film director in the late 1980s after studies at Poland’s renowned film school in Łódź, is reflecting on the way in which his background has influenced his opera productions. Movies continue to inspire his stage work, as several of his most recent productions show. His Manon Lescaut, for instance, features references to The Obscure Object of Desire, Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet. His production of Der Fliegende Holländer alludes to Melancholia.

When it comes to his double bill of Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle, which has its Met premiere on January 26, Treliński mentions Rebecca, Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film. “If I had to name just one title here, that would be it, but actually I have aimed for a general atmosphere of thrillers and horror films, not to mention film noir. I’ve always been fascinated by films from the 1940s, not least for their aura of stifled eroticism. The limitations imposed in the 1930s by the Hays Code meant that Hollywood filmmakers couldn’t show anything explicitly violent or erotic, but these things often simmer away under the surface. My productions of both the Tchaikovsky and Bartók one-acters are very black-and-white, partly because they have to do with darkness and light, and partly because these backgrounds allow their female protagonists to stand out.”

Bluebeard’s Castle had been on Treliński’s directorial wish-list for a long time, and his insights into the work suggest that he has thought deeply about the piece. “The world of opera has very few works that are so ambiguous, so interesting to interpret, shimmering with different meanings at each new reading.” But his wish was not fulfilled until December 2013, when — back home at the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, where he became artistic director for the second time in 2008, and where many of his most well-traveled productions have started — he coupled Bartók’s only opera with his already existing production of Tchaikovsky’s final work for the lyric theater, revising the latter in the process. His Iolanta had originally been paired with another Russian one-acter, Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, in one of Treliński’s regular collaborations with Valery Gergiev; both in Baden-Baden, where the production originated, and in St. Petersburg, the role of Iolanta had been sung by Anna Netrebko.

For obvious musical reasons, the roles of Iolanta and Judith are played by different singers, yet in this double bill Treliński sees them in some ways as the same female protagonist in different phases of her life. In Treliński’s view, Bluebeard’s Castle is the opposite of Iolanta, and his antiheroine Iolanta/Judith abandons the freedom she gained through her restored eyesight to go back into a very dark place. “To me, the fate of Judith continues the story of Iolanta. It’s my way of trying to tell a story encompassing an entire human fate, of both departure and return. Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle share a number of features. Both are drawn from fairy tales. Both are about a woman in a relationship with a strong, dominant man. I’ve sought to locate the connections between these two operas in Iolanta’s relationship with her father. It’s a very strong relationship, possessive and overprotective. Iolanta certainly belongs to King René, and anyone who comes in from the outside will destroy their bond. So I see this as a mix of love and abuse, tenderness and brutality. She loves and fears her father. 

“In the finale of Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta/Judith steps out of this world, away from this relationship, for a more normal life with Vaudémont. But after many years she returns to this claustrophobic world. Iolanta/Judith seeks out Bluebeard and opens his rooms to discover the truth about herself. In the end, Judith meets herself, confronting something that she hadn’t realized. She consciously enters into the arms of a dangerous male figure, thus returning to the trauma of her childhood. It is her own repetition compulsion — the fact that she can never escape what she experienced in childhood. She is addicted to this kind of relationship. Telling the story from Judith’s point of view allows us to look at the opera differently, to question why Judith comes to Bluebeard’s place. After all, she abandons her safe world and chooses a voluntary death. She knows that Bluebeard is probably a serial killer — she’s heard the rumors of his murderous past. For me, most productions of Bartók’s opera are weakened by the need to show things from Bluebeard’s point of view. That’s as fruitless as trying to explain the character of Don Giovanni.”

Treliński describes Bartók’s opera as “a work with an incredible undertone of dread. The impending darkness in the final scene is also the darkness of history. This is an opera composed in the early years of the century — though of course it was not premiered until 1918 — and you can feel the disintegration of the previous century. This is also the time of Freud, and it was he who famously articulated how the narcissism of human self-confidence had received three painful blows — the first dealt by Copernicus, who proved that the universe didn’t revolve around humankind, the second by Darwin, who deprived humans of their central place in the natural order, and the third by psychoanalysis, which showed that people couldn’t even control themselves but were prey to unconscious forces within. Perhaps this is what Béla Balázs had in mind when he wrote his libretto. It’s also significant to me that Balázs was one of the most interesting film critics of his day — a pioneer of an approach to cinema that recognized it as a new art, a new language. Bluebeard’s Castle is an amazingly cinematic work to me.”

It seems that Treliński, born in Warsaw in 1961, was predestined to go to Łódź to study film at the Państwowa Wyzsza Szkoła Filmowa, Telewizyjna i Teatralna (State Higher School of Film, Television and Theater). Those were turbulent times. Studying through the period of martial law and directing his first television films when Poland was still under communist rule, Treliński made his feature-film debut in an already different world, with Pozegnanie Jesieni (Farewell to Autumn, based on a novel by Witkiewicz) at the 1990 Venice Film Festival. That decade saw him do a mix of film and theater work, some of it reflecting his changing world: in 2000, he caused a scandal with his feature film Egois΄ci (The Egoists), a story about Warsaw’s contemporary elite.

Treliński had, meanwhile, made his opera debut. In 1995, the Warsaw Autumn Festival — one of the world’s leading promoters of contemporary music — commissioned him to direct Elzbieta Sikora’s one-act L’Arrache-coeur, subsequently seen at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. But the most significant turning point came in 1999, when he staged Madama Butterfly at the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, teaming up for the first time with Slovakian set-designer Boris Kudlička, with whom he has collaborated ever since. In a series of early productions together — also including the now widely seen Don Giovanni and Eugene Onegin,as well as the first of their two versions of King Roger — they established an aesthetic that frequently involves big, glossy surfaces and plenty of light. “It’s always crucial for me to go beyond sheer realism. Kudlicˇka’s sets always present the internal landscapes of our characters. It’s the music and emotions that determine the shapes and color of what one sees onstage. So I’d say that the reality of the space — whether it’s a room or a garden — is much less important. What matters is whether this space is claustrophobic and oppressively dominant or open and full of light. These are subjective things, and I cannot stick to realism.”

An international career beckoned when, following the spectacular success of Butterfly in Warsaw, Plácido Domingo invited Treliński to work with his companies in Washington and Los Angeles. “Since then, Butterfly has been staged on almost every continent, and I can say that it changed my life. I’ve devoted the last fifteen years of my life to opera.” Despite the fact that Poland boasts many cutting-edge film and theater directors, and audiences receptive to their work, operatic aesthetics in the country had been a little more old-fashioned, and Treliński has seen it as his challenge to shake things up. “I arrived on the operatic scene as an outsider, with a great admiration for the musical achievements but a dislike of what I often saw on the stage. I couldn’t stand the conservatism of the performances — they were traditional, self-absorbed and lifeless. Over the years, I have done my best to change the face of what Polish National Opera is doing at the Teatr Wielki, and to gradually attract new audiences, those people who went to cinemas, theater and contemporary art exhibitions but hadn’t been interested in coming to the opera. By inviting other outsiders — fashion designers, photographers, video artists and modern choreographers — to work on our stage, I have tried to connect the sublime operatic music with more contemporary sensibilities.”

Under Treliński’s artistic directorship, Polish National Opera has certainly undergone remarkable changes, coproducing with many of the world’s leading stages, now including the Metropolitan Opera. “But what has always been extremely important to me is the approval of the Polish audience. I can say that they come now looking for excitement and surprises. For many years, the company had focused on a very narrow canon, but together with our general director, Waldemar Dabrowski, we have gradually extended our profile and, for the first time in our history, have performed such composers as Dusapin, Rihm, Glass, Weinberg, Hosokawa and even Janáček, who hadn’t been played here before.”

With that accomplished, Treliński has found time in his schedule full of new opera productions — his first Salome recently opened in Prague — to think about returning to film. “I am currently working on a new project about the Polish–American writer Jerzy Kosiński, the cult figure and world-famous novelist. He rose to stardom with The Painted Bird in 1965 and was quickly embraced by the American literary establishment. But in the early 1980s, Kosiński was suddenly accused of plagiarism and faking large chunks of his life story. Persecuted by the media, he committed suicide in Manhattan in spectacular fashion. It will be a film about self-creation in art. But then for me, all art is about exceeding reality. I always try to portray characters as stretched between their passions, their mysteries and the external world.” spacer 

JOHN ALLISON is Editor of Opera magazine and music critic on the London Telegraph. 

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