Romeo Castellucci’s performances are an exercise in culture shock in which the alchemy between extreme violence and paradoxical gentleness often leaves an indelible mark on the audience’s psyche: “A spectator needs to be shaken to the core(1).”
It was only natural that his work on the origins of tragedy and the forces acting upon the human psyche, together with his talent for expressing the great legends of Western thought in a language in tune with modern thinking would lead Romeo Castellucci to opera: a genre in which his productions have already made their presence felt.
We propose to relive the career of a master of imagery in ten productions.
1 - Genesi. From the Museum of Sleep, based on the Bible
First performed on June 5th 1999 at the Holland Festival (Amsterdam)
Adam is writhing in pain, Eve has had a breast removed and children are playing with cuddly toys in a lacteal world. In a flash, human viscera rain down upon the unsullied ground like a divine deluge: it is the Garden of Eden according to Castellucci: Auschwitz. Genesis as seen through the eyes of Cain. God created man, but created him a murderer. By assassinating his brother Abel, Cain is the first to live the tragic experience of humanity: that of a life stretched between a beginning and an end where every act carries its own negative charge and the force of nonexistence threatens all ambition of being. Paris audiences discover the impassioned poetry of this Italian dramatist.
2 - Il Combattimento, music by Claudio Monteverdi and Scott Gibbons
First performed at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels on May 5th 2000
For his first operatic adventure, Castellucci opted to transpose the duel between the valiant Tancredi and Clorinda—his lover disguised as a soldier—and reposition it between the flimsy screens of a hospital room. In this place of birth and death, Tancredi and Clorinda only recognize each other at the very end. Beyond the reality, a natural need unites all that appear distinct to us: like the crusaders who once battled for Jerusalem and whose fight to the death is reduced here to a free-for-all between spermatozoa struggling for their survival on a TV screen. This dizzyingly clinical exploration gradually strips the combatant of his armour and the theatre of its veil.
3 - P.6#Paris. Tragedia endogonidia. VI épisode
First performed on October 18th 2003 at the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris (Ateliers Berthier)
Another rain which, this time, sets things shaking: three cars fall from the flies and slam violently onto the stage with a metallic crash. Three sharp bangs, as if to open the play or mark the force of destiny. Jesus climbs atop one before being taken away by a man in a red top hat. Some French flags unfurl from the walls and flap in the breeze. The Revolution? The Liberation? P.6#Paris is the sixth of eleven episodes of the Tragedia endogonidia – an evolving form in permanent reproduction—which took Castellucci all over Europe: to Cesena, Avignon, Berlin, Brussels, Bergen, Paris, Rome, Strasbourg, London, Marseille. Each time, the same question: How do you reinvent and depict a tragedy here and now? And each time, the attempt to extricate oneself from the deadening white noise of contemporary society.
4 - Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso based on Dante’s Divine Comedy
First performed on July 5, 2008 in the Cour d’honneur of the Palais des Papes as part of the Avignon Festival.
man dressed in black advances alone across the immense bare stage of the Cour
d’honneur. “My name is Romeo Castellucci”
he says. Seven dogs enter, pounce and devour him. Impassive, he accepts the
pain in silence. He is an image, a pure image: Dante. The poet before the
citadel. Thus begins Inferno, the
first part of an adaptation of The Divine
Comedy for the Avignon Festival. The work will give him the opportunity to continue his
quest for verticality over the entire height of the Palais des Papes. An unprecedented sight:
in the darkness, under the blustering Mistral and amid the cries of the swifts
overhead, a bare-handed silhouette begins to climb the imposing wall of the
Cour d’honneur. All the way up to heaven, all the way up to the stars until the
stars themselves finally fall in a new squall: a shower of TV screens smashing
on the ground.
5 - Parsifal based on the work by Richard Wagner
Créé le 27 janvier 2011 au Théâtre royal de La Monnaie (Bruxelles)
Castellucci had already tried his hand at opera with his version of Combattimento in 2000, he had yet to
direct one. The Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie offered him one of the most sacred
works in the repertoire: Parsifal. Moving
beyond Medieval and Christian imagery, he challenges the insistent figuratism to offer an oneiric and metaphysical vision which
culminates in the Grail scene: at the very moment the latter is supposed to
appear, the music becomes sublime and huge white curtains illuminated by a
blinding light eclipse the stage. The sacred as unrepresentable? With this
radical gesture, and whilst still remaining faithful to Wagner, he explores the
essence of “Kunstreligion” in a new light.
6 - Sul concetto di volto nel Figlio di Dio (in English: On the concept of the Face of God)
First performed on July 20, 2011 at Avignon’s Opéra-Théâtre as part of the Avignon Festival.
An immense image of Antonello da Messina’s Salvator Mundi (1465): the face of Christ. Before a reproduction of the painting, the stylish apartment of an elderly incontinent man. His son cleans and changes him a number of times before finally giving up. In the silence, he crouches under the disintegrating face of Christ. Castellucci saw in this tragically banal situation—that of a son accompanying his father in his twilight years—one of the nightmares of our era. In doing so, he revealed an eminently sensitive question: are we still capable of loving? Amid the controversy that arose when the work was first performed in Paris, some were quick to see blasphemy rather than a heartrending vision of one of the most intimately private taboos of our society.
7 - The Rite of Spring, music by Stravinsky and Scott Gibbons
First performed on August 5, 2014 at the Gebläsehalle Landschaftspark in Duisburg-Nord as part of the Ruhrtriennale Festival.
A hundred years after the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées witnessed the first performance of The Rite of Spring, the aesthetic manifesto of Stravinsky and Nijinsky which the stage director views as an “electrocution”, Castellucci revisits the very notion of choreography. Out of the darkness, little red dots appear. The performers have been activated: They are machines. They pour streams of dust into a large watertight cube in rhythm to the wild music. We learn from text projected overhead that the substance is powdered animal bone that has been industrially manufactured for use as a fertiliser. The performance is a powerful aesthetic and political statement: a contemporary interpretation of the sacred: a sacrifice that our society, which refuses to look at death, conceals. This vision, which closes with the sanitized images of men in overalls gathering up the dust, is a direct evocation of Genesis: “For dust you are, and to dust you will return.”
8 – Orphée and Eurydice, music by Gluck
First performed on June 17, 2014 at the Théâtre royal de La Monnaie (Brussels)
It takes a while to realize that the events happening on the screen covering the proscenium are not fictitious. We cross a park. At the end of a gravel pathway we see a large white building: a hospital. Inside one of the rooms, a women lies motionless. Her name is Els and she suffers from Locked-in syndrome. Els, who is filmed live, is Castellucci’s Eurydice. From her hospital bed she listens to the live feed of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice being played in the theatre. But Els is not just an image, she is also a woman, and it is precisely that which transforms her into one of the strongest images of Eurydice ever made. Rarely has a director known how to communicate the challenges of Orpheus’s quest so powerfully—to rescue the person he loves and bring her back among the living–and his response: poetry alone can revive the dead. Through the appearance of a sublimated reality in the theatre, Castellucci makes the legend palpable: He takes it to the highest degree of emotion without ever forsaking the storyline which lends grandeur to his interpretation.
9 - Schwanengesang D744, music by Schubert : Schwanengesang (posthumous cycle)
First performed on July 25, 2013 at Avignon’s Opéra-Théâtre as part of the Avignon Festival.
Schwanengesang (Swan Song) is a cycle of Lieder by Schubert. A “theatrical recital” which begins as a recital. But something is amiss. It lacks the warmth of a recital. The singer is cold and tense. She glances furtively, her hands tremble. The audience is uncomfortable yet Schubert’s sublime music lets the ever more palpable tension appear to be a sign of artistic engagement. During the eighth Lied however, everything goes awry. The singer cracks: She falls, she shrieks, and starts to cry. And then everything goes downhill until the inevitable explosion: the pain becomes rage expressed in insults to the audience. A shocking Dionysian vision: the singer herself being swallowed up by the melody is one of the most original propositions on the recital format and the extreme intimacy of song.
10 - Go down, Moses
First performed on October 25, 2014 at the Théâtre Vidy in Lausanne
Before directing Schönberg’s Moses und Aron for the Paris Opera, Castellucci had already created a production based on Moses. Like the Egyptian people, like the African-American slaves immortalized by Faulkner—who drew inspiration from the Negro spiritual Go Down, Moses to write his novel—like all men of all eras, we are slaves. But slaves of what? To find out, Castellucci proposes a probing exploration into the sub-consciousness of our times and the feverish excesses of our civilisation. The performance is a series of fragments—undecipherable riddles—snatched from a mind under anaesthesia: a dream about the life of Moses, the fantasy of a new Moses coming to liberate the world of today.
“Go down, Moses!” For God only talks to Moses in the silence and solitude of the Sinai Mountains where everything stands out against a white background—a theme that will again be taken up at the Opéra Bastille.
The production is also the opportunity for Castellucci to continue his introspective exploration of art—assimilated with religion by the superimposition of the Golden Calf and the painted cows of the Lascaux Cave—which here runs up against an impasse as problematic as it is stimulating for him as a poet of sound and vision: the interdiction of the image as embodied by Moses.
Emmanuel Quinchez is a former student of Sciences-Po and the École Normale Supérieure with a degree in contemporary philosophy, he founded Miroirs Etendus, an organization dedicated to the creation of modern-day operas. In addition to his work as a producer, he collaborates regularly with various opera houses (the Paris Opera, the Opéra-Comique, and the Lille Opera).