Bringing scandal in his wake

Portrait of Calixto Bieito

By Aleksi Barrière 11 April 2019


© David Ruano

Bringing scandal in his wake

Carmen, directed by Calixto Bieito, is back on stage at the Opéra Bastille. Last season, whilst unveiling his new version of Lear, the Spanish director explained how he had revisited Bizet's work. Octave publishes the portrait of a director sometimes described as opera's "enfant terrible"...

Calixto Bieito is one of those directors whose reputation is clouded with a whiff of sulphur: those who venture into the “Comments” section of videos of his productions will find exasperated diatribes, flowery insults and even incitements to murder, in various languages, from numerous indignant music lovers. As often happens in such cases, a reputation is forged from a few iconic moments: in the wake of a Don Giovanni more libidinous and drug-crazed than ever, for English National Opera, his interpretation of Un ballo in maschiera by Verdi with the same company in 2002 was, from the preview onwards, reduced to its opening image: that of a row of politicians, all in suits and ties, facing the public and reading the paper on the toilet. The torture and multiple rapes in his Il Trovatore at the Hanover Staatsoper in 2003 and the prostitutes in his Die Entfuhrüng aus dem Serail (Komische Oper 2013) similarly made history and literally turned the stomachs of the more sensitive members of the audience, prompting them to walk out. One has no difficulty in remembering the most shocking scenes from these diverse productions and identifying them as the hallmark of a director whom the press has labelled as an “enfant terrible”, as if opera were not already the theatrical genre most abounding in murder, rape and debauchery, without any help from Bieito.

It is doubtless our great composers' taste for extreme manifestations of vice which attracted this director to the turpitudinous side of opera: Calixto Bieto’s international reputation was sealed at the turn of the century with British revivals of works like the zarzuela La Verbena de la paloma (Edinburgh Festival 1997), a social commentary in which he brought into sharp relief all the violence of class and gender struggles, or his Macbeth at the Barbican Centre in 2003. Each production struck the spectator by its attempt to penetrate the beating heart of the work’s innate cruelty rather than resort to any artificially contrived notion. First performed in Barcelona, where this native of Castile, later adopted by Catalunya, has pursued the major part of his directing and administrative career, these productions emanate directly from the brutal, radical Catalonian theatrical crucible that also gave us La Fura dels Baus with whom Bieito also shares a taste for post-apocalyptic, Blade Runner-style science-fiction universes. Although one might legitimately reproach him his penchant for the German tradition of contemporary transposition and fake blood, it is certainly amid the contrasts of his native culture that he developed his aesthetic, undergoing such diverse influences as a Jesuit education, (the man with a papal Christian name, however, denies taking a stance in opposition to Jesuit rigour), the theatre of Calderón, the engravings of Goya and the cinema of Buñuel. To these one must add the memories of the final years of Franco’s dictatorship and the history of a family torn apart by the Spanish Civil War, all of which he drew upon for his versio of Carmen. Set in the 1930s, this production has been touring opera houses for several years and will enter the Paris Opera repertoire in 2017. The contrast between his childhood experience of the peaceful Basque village of Guernica, - it was a regular holiday destination - and Picasso’s vision of it in his painting of the same name denouncing the 1937 bombing by Franco and his allies, burst upon the imagination of the stage director's hyper-sensitive mind with the raw force of an x-ray, the determining and harrowing expression through art of the horror concealed beneath the gentle mediocrity of normality.

This director is at his most incisive in his acting directions which carry the singers towards an explosive physical liberation.

The light bulb in Picasso’s painting that cruelly illuminates the scene of bloody devastation seems in some way to be present in all of Bieito’s productions: in addition to the electric and coloured lights of a post-industrial world that he always deploys, a certain cold white light flattening the figures against the wall of reality seems to be the ambiance which, for this director, most closely corresponds to what he wants to show us. What he lights in this way is often, in effect, sex and violence; a welter of blood and mud-soiled bodies and faces. However, amid the outrage of this apocalyptic orgy which seems to spread from production to production, it is not merely abstract archetypes that we encounter, cold debauched figures whose only raison d’être is to produce provocative images, but fully fleshed-out, living characters. This director is at his most incisive in his acting directions, which carry the singers towards an explosive physical liberation, prolonging and amplifying the explosions of vocal expression in a Dionysian theatrical space built on but not limited by the musical score. Those singers who don’t feel threatened by this approach speak highly of a director who never imposes anything, and experience that corporeal jubilation so rarely experienced, amid the demands of vocal technique and the need to keep an eye on the conductor while performing an opera. As for the audience, they receive the full force of this violence, to a degree that has even provoked physical nausea, a fact which does not dismay Bieito for whom opera is incontestably a moment of unique and extreme density, a visual and auditory slap in the face. Not for this director the Brechtian spectator calmly smoking his cigar: on the contrary, he openly admits to seeking emotional saturation, a nervous breaking point that leaves a deep mark leading only later to reflection, discussion and debate, a phase which must remain distinct from the emotional reaction.

One might be surprised that his excesses, which these days would seem perfectly ordinary in the theatre, are so shocking at the opera.

In a world where we are bombarded with images of real-life horror in the media and in our daily lives, and in which haemaglobin is often only perceived as a form of simulation or, worse, as a reference, Bieito’s undertaking is of course perilous. The operatic form, however, in its intrinsic stylisation, calling upon the plasticity and inventiveness of scenography, naturally avoids the trap of gory hyperrealism, and as a “supra-aesthetic” experience of the intolerable, inherited from Pasolini and Fassbinder, evokes the imaginary rituals of the Theatre of Cruelty which, as Artaud reminds us, “means theatre that is difficult and cruel for myself first of all” and in that sense is potentially cathartic. Opera is to such a degree a theatre of hypnotic and emotionally stirring images and sounds– which corresponds to Bieito’s artistic aims – that one might be surprised that his excesses, however justified and which, on the contrary, would these days seem perfectly ordinary on the stage of a theatre, are so shocking at the opera. Perhaps the reason lies not with audiences and their expectations but with Bieito’s productions themselves: perhaps they really are more shocking than theatrical productions, more astounding, more excessive, vaster and crueller precisely because they are operatic.

Facing the ordeal is, therefore, the maxim of this theatre of cruelty – but to what end? If one considers the lineage of opera directors identifiable by the modernity of their approach, Peter Sellars, for example, in his productions of the nineties, always led his characters, all seemingly prisoners of the outward signs of the showiest form of modernity, towards the most luminous states of choreographic and spiritual elevation. Bieito, on the other hand, is at pains to eliminate the least hint of transcendence. He denies being a nihilist – in any case, his would be a highly fertile void – and never reduces love to mere sexual impulse, but his universe seems to leave little room for hope, like the grimacing faces and convulsions of Goya’s final work, which clearly haunts him. Elucidating his vision of Don Giovanni, in which the final chastisement comes neither from heaven nor from hell, he summarises an idea he found in the text of Wozzeck, which he staged as a fable about a post-apocalyptic world devoid of life and meaning (Gran Teatre de Liceu, 2006): “Hell is not situated beneath the stage.” Just like us in our daily lives, his characters are, therefore, living metaphors, trapped between the stage and the lighting rig, exposed to public view by dispassionate white light. The more or less “trash” imagery which results might seem to repeat itself without much variation in Bieito’s hands, at the risk of wearying audiences looking for new images. This obsessive repetition is however, not just a tic, but the most recognisable mark of existentialist angst.

The perspective offered by this blood-soaked pessimism will perhaps become clear in the stormy wilderness of Lear, an opera that cries out for a director in the tradition of theatre of cruelty. Shakespeare, it is thought, wrote under the influence of Montaigne’s scepticism, of whom the following lines might well sum up Bieito’s aesthetic: “The most calamitous and fragile of creatures is man,

and yet the proudest. He finds himself lodged here amid the slime and excrement of the world, fastened, nailed to the worst, the most dead and brackish regions of the universe…” To quote the expression of the critic Jan Kott, who saw in him a corollary with the modern sense of the absurd, Shakespeare promises in Reimann/Bieito’s version to become more than ever “our contemporary”. Perhaps, through his vision of a tragedy that ends in tears of grief and a prediction that disaster will usher in times of hardship, Calixto Bieito, a sombre director for a sombre age, will offer us, in spite of all, a horizon towards which we may look with hope for the future and for opera.

Aleksi Barrière is a playwright, director and translator. Co-founder, with the conductor Clément Mao Takacs, of the company La Chambre aux échos (the Echo Chamber), which is dedicated to musical theatre located between repertory and contemporary creation, he is the instigator of many educational and editorial artistic projects.  

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