He has that elegant appearance, that inner dialogue with civilisation and its earliest texts, and then that solemn vision of human nature which stirs melancholy in others.
But with Romeo
Castellucci, that solemnity tends towards a living salutary emotion revealed in
each of his productions. “I really like to cry” he admits in a corridor
of the Palais Garnier a week before the premiere. “I cry at different works of
art. I cry at Buster Keaton”. Castellucci smiles for a moment. He is tired.
Work advances but the production is not yet complete and probably won’t be
until the last moment, when the paintings that succeed one another on stage are
arranged with precision as anticipated under his watchful eye and in the way he
has long conceived them: “I’d say we’re
halfway through part one, so no, we haven’t finished”, he tells me calmly.
We have known for at least twenty years that Romeo Castellucci creates works as both a visual artist and a man of the theatre. His Die Zauberflöte, presented last October at La Monnaie in Brussels, or his ground-breaking Moses und Aron at the Opéra Bastille four years ago, thrust upon opera that aura of symbolism, that aesthetic suspension between painting, dance, performance and music, which is the essence of his style.
To find the gestures for the singers of Il Primo Omicidio, he worked from 17th century canvases painted in Scarlatti’s era, combining them with his own inner images, ideas and fantasies. Scarlatti’s oratorio is divided into two parts: the troubled life of Adam and Eve following the Original Sin, the presentation of the offerings of each of the sons, God’s choice in favour of the bloody sacrifice of the shepherd Abel, Cain’s jealousy, then the murder, condemnation, and painful departure of Cain. Adam and Eve play a central role in this reinterpretation of the legend with its lively, fast-paced, poetic language by the baroque, composer and librettist Antonio Ottoboni. Castellucci himself discovered it with a genuine surprise when he started to work on Il Primo Omicidio: “Eve’s feelings at the beginning and at the end or Cain’s grief expressed in his farewell words to his parents, are extremely moving”. And it is rare in that period before the Da Ponte/Mozart duo, to find so fine a libretto. Especially in the context of the Counterreformation. Castellucci, to whom, as we know, theology is familiar, emphasizes the dimension of rhetorical catechism sought by Scarlatti in his oratorio “and I’m not afraid of that word. On the contrary, our role is to bring out the beauty of that rhetoric”.
And also to subvert it , since it goes without saying that in the confrontation between Abel and Cain, Castellucci positions himself firmly on the side of the murderer…
Cain, discoverer of death
The story of Cain’s act of murder takes up twenty-five verses of the fourth chapter in the Book of Genesis. The first man to die in the Bible and the first murderer are thus handled as quickly as possible. In 1707, Scarlatti composed an oratorio lasting almost three hours which maestro René Jacobs revived in 1998 with a recording in which he himself sang the voice of God. Because God does indeed appear, adorned in a simple costume with a powdered face, to choose his preferred offering, thus fomenting Cain’s wrath. Here, God is Benno Schachtner, a subtle countertenor. On stage, his double also appears, because this oratorio works on mirror images. This is Lucifer, played by the baritone Robert Gleadow, whose virtuosity conveys the sheer joy of song.
But let’s return to Castellucci’s first tableau, where simplicity dominates: four characters dressed as puritans appear on stage. This is a family that has already fallen from grace. Eve has experienced the pains of childbirth and the two sons, over whom hang the anxieties of their mother, have become a farmer and a shepherd respectively. “My sons, my wretched sons, wretched because they are mine, by my own guilt alone”, sings Eve in the superb opening aria performed by Birgitte Christensen who on this rehearsal day seems perfectly at ease.
On stage, the sons are played by two women, the mezzo-soprano Olivia Vermeulen with her radiant smile, and Kristina Hammarström, who with her impeccable voice as Cain carries the oratorio on her delicate shoulders. To see those two inseparables silhouettes in the first part that evening—one blonde the other brunette—it was difficult not to draw a parallel with Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, and more particularly the film by Elia Kazan: the brothers, twins by appearance, one of whom will soon be driven out in the name of some dark, intransigent power appearing on stage behind a wall of PVC, behind which doors open and close on an altar of offerings. Then comes one of the most beautiful moments of the first part, when the inverted altarpiece descends to the stage and the bright inverted gold of Simone Martini’s L’Annonciation appears like a bolt out of the blue above Cain and hugs his neck. At that moment, Castellucci stops the rehearsal. This technical procedure, which requires extreme precision—since the altarpiece needs to come down on Kristina Hammarström without actually touching her—has not yet been fully perfected. Castellucci’s tableaux are planned right down to the last centimetre, particularly in part one. Right up to the offerings—which are not incarnate but pure technical symbols—the staging blends symbolism and abstraction into both the scenography and gestures, using what Castellucci likes to call “synecdoques” to represent events. In this production there is an openness toward permanent thought which is even more pronounced than in his production of Die Zauberflöte. Part two, a dreamlike escape which plunges us into the origins of the criminal act, gives voice to what in the first part was a suppressed cry.
Little by little, we begin to grasp what Castellucci wanted to achieve at the heart of the opera; to bring out the duality of Cain who is both the guilty party and a victim. A criminal and humbled. A blind man and a bearer of knowledge. He explains as much in the same corridor of the Palais Garnier: “There is a double aspect to each character. The brothers reinforce the ambiguity. Why did God choose Abel’s sacrifice? Probably because of the blood. God is bloodthirsty. There is no object, because an object is not unequivocal.”Is ambiguity possible at the heart of an oratorio which he himself has described as a rhetorical catechism? “This production is not a matter of religion, you have to understand that” he repeats to me several times over, less worried about being attacked than being misunderstood—the scandal around his creations fires up only a handful of catholic fundamentalists. “I was particularly impressed by the way Scarlatti and Ottoboni treated the characters of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel, with a gentleness that I find powerful. Listening to the music we have doubts about Cain’s guilt and to what degree he is guilty. A certain innocence resonates in him. He seems driven to act by a jealousy of love. We can imagine him as a child who has been ill-considered by his parents. And it is clear that he didn’t understand the consequences of his act, since no one before him had known death. He was the first man to discover death.”
A story invented by children.
The linchpin of this production appears in part two: at the moment of the murder, the singers, Cain, Abel, God, and Lucifer are replaced by children. These boys, aged between eight and ten, are dressed in the same way as the singers and will continue to act out the singers' roles on stage, miming in play-back the songs of the performers who have been relocated to the orchestra pit. On this particular day of rehearsals, the singers of the Hauts-de-Seine Childrens' Chorus, while perfectly adept at the play-back, still have some trouble reproducing the production’s choreographed gestures. Silvia Costa, the director’s principal collaborator and long-time creative partner—whose incredible work as a director in her own right is also familiar to us—once again shows the children the poses and gestures that transform them into figures from a painting. Castellucci himself then comes to advise the young boy who plays Cain. The latter, shirtless, and delivered over to the judgement of God, seems forlorn on stage in the middle of the wild garden setting that graces part two. Castellucci has built his entire production around the presence of children: “the singers become children. The children represent this synecdoque of humanity. With the murder, there is a reduction, the adults are seen as children. Yet at the same time, through the narrative, we can imagine a story invented by the children.”
When we leave the rehearsal, I cannot help but think back to Castellucci’s interpretation of Cain and his empathic approach which transforms the first murderer in history into a jealous and deranged child in what is one of the core myths of our civilisation along with Oedipus. It is perhaps the first image of the artist as conceived by the director, wandering in the obscurity of an incessant question: “I’m much closer to Cain than all the characters. He’s a hero, like a Greek hero who takes the wrong path. He is the one who is enveloped by error. And error is the cradle of art, of thought. It is because we are in error, in the wrong place that we can imagine our condition. I don’t think art is the answer to error, but the question of error resonates twice as powerfully in it. There’s a sentence in the opera uttered by the character God. After Cain has been condemned for the murder, he says a terrible thing: “You are condemned to live”. A paradoxical phrase if ever there was one. There’s a separation between the experience of life and life itself. You could say that Cain is condemned to be detached from life, and I think that is an experience that we can feel each day. It is why he is simultaneously a modern and a tragic character.”Is this another reason to make us cry? The tall silhouette that is Romeo Castellucci heads back to the rehearsal which on this particular evening will continue until 11:30pm. He hesitates before answering: “Obviously, I would like my audience to cry, but not because of me. I am an open door through which something else passes—the music of course—an emotive wave which strikes the viewer.”