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The spirit of Boccanegra sails onwards

Interview with Calixto Bieito — By Marion Mirande and Simon Hatab

Of great musical finesse, Simon Boccanegra is an opera that takes us on a voyage to the world of the Genoese doge - a politician and former corsair, redeemed by his relationship with his daughter. After his striking production of Aribert Reimann’s Lear and Carmen by Georges Bizet, Calixto Bieito returns to the Paris Opera to take up this neglected work by Verdi, offering us a reading as sensitive as it is enlightening.   

Simon Boccanegra is based on the eponymous work by the Spanish Romantic playwright, Antonio García Gutiérrez. What, in Verdi, remains of his drama?

The romantic aesthetic fascinated Verdi, that of Schiller particularly, and of course, that of Spain. In the subjects tackled by Spanish Romanticism, he found echoes of situations familiar to him: a father love for his child; confrontations with death; hatred and family feuds ... Themes that resonate strongly with Spanish history, past and present. For me, the most emblematic work of Spanish identity belongs to the Romantic period: the painting by Francisco Goya, The Second of May 1808 in Madrid. In it I perceive the expression of the Latin spirit, explosive and rebellious. One might think that the extreme behaviour portrayed in theatre or in the arts is the stuff of mythology and is exaggerated. But it is not. This impetuosity is characteristic of the Spanish, notably of people one meets in the villages, as is also the case in Italian culture, where emotions are felt very intensely, even beyond reason.   

You once qualified this opera as a strange work... In what way is it strange?

Simon Boccanegra differs noticeably from Verdi’s other operas, such as Il Trovatore or La Traviata. The music is less well-known ... Verdi concentrated here on the characters and their personalities. He sought to underline their depth of feeling. This makes it a very complex opera from a psychological point of view, posing numerous enigmas concerning Mankind and human nature. Verdi stripped away the varnish of appearances in order to question the very essence of his characters and reveal their intimate natures. This is also true of the treatment of the father-daughter relationship which also appears in several of his other works. In Simon Boccanegra, however, it is more thoughtful and profound.   

How do you envisage the interactions between the private and public spheres that punctuate the work from beginning to end?

Simon’s peace-making policy has its origins in his love for his daughter, but also in her loss which prompts him to seek a lost harmony. A quest that will unfortunately prove sterile... The character’s sadness echoes today's world in which disillusionment with humanity is every day palpable. As well as transforming Gutiérrez’s text, Arrigo Boito’s inclusion in the libretto of Petrarch’s letter calling for reconciliation confers on Simon a humanist dimension. His exhortation for peace has not been common in the mouths of politicians, either in Verdi’s day or in our own.

Simon Boccanegra is a work in which the sea is omnipresent. Have you tried to give the maritime image a more up-to-date, political resonance?

For Simon, the sea is synonymous with freedom. The immigrant crisis reminds us daily that the sea is also murderous. However, that wasn’t a theme I wished to take up. It didn’t seem really opportune. Above all, I tried to explore what there is within Simon, the memories he keeps locked inside him, the dreams, the nightmares. Therefore I had to imagine a mental space, a refuge, that would allow him to escape from his grief to the obscure zones of his soul and to find once more the feeling of liberty that was once afforded him by the sea.    

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