As a sideline to your career as a film director, you have been staging operas for twenty-odd years. Do you consider opera as a sort of occasional excursion outside your main field or is there a continuous thread leading you from one art form to the other?
Mario Martone: In fact, music has always been present in my career. I started working when I was very young, in the late seventies. I was 17 or 18. At the time, I was part of an avant-garde group called Falso Movimento (False Movement). We organised visual and musical performances. One of my first performances in fact used the music of Verdi’s Otello, arranged by the America composer, Peter Gordon. The production was presented at the MaMa, the New York experimental art centre, before touring in various other countries… Cinema came into my life later, when I was about thirty. Soon after the turn of the century, I staged my first opera: Così fan tutte with Claudio Abbado. My career has been made up of lines, threads which, at a certain point, began to intersect: after that, in 2010, I made Noi Credevamo1 for which I used 19th century Italian music – Verdi, Rossini, Bellini… I was working on the interactions between Art and History, and Roberto Abbado conducted the Turin Orchestra. To return to your question, I would say then that I have always used music in my work but with great freedom. My artistic career is like an archipelago: my creations are distinct from each other, often far apart, but they end up intersecting each other after several years.
One of the features of the Cavalleria rusticana / Sancta Susanna evening is that the production of Cavalleria rusticana, which occupies the first half, is already in existence: you staged it in 2011 at La Scala Milan. But there it was followed by Pagliacci, as is often the case, according to operatic tradition. Can you say a few words on the creative process that led you to replace Leoncavallo’s work by that of Hindemith?
M.M.: When La Scala asked me to stage the diptych Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci, I hesitated for a long time. Italian Verismo is certainly not my favourite repertoire. There is something that disturbs me in its rhetoric. I finally took on the project when I realised that I could adopt an aesthetic of sobriety: rather than adding images I could take them out. In Cavalleria Rusticana, I thus decided to eliminate all the Sicilian folklore – the market place, the church bells, the farmers’ wagons…: everything that seemed to me to weigh down the drama and obscure its essence, which is that of a Greek tragedy. One mustn’t forget that before it became that picturesque world full of farm carts, Sicily was part of Ancient Greece. [laughs].If we look at Cavalleria from that angle, the piece takes on a different meaning. I emptied the stage until I had this almost bare space in which the liturgical ritual, the Easter Mass, takes place [mentioned in the libretto]. This arrangement gives the chorus central importance. In focussing on the singers of the chorus, I wanted to return to the sacred dimension of the opera.
At that time, did you consider Cavalleria and Pagliacci as forming a single production?
My artistic career is like an archipelago: my creations are often far apart, but they end up intersecting each other. Mario Martone
When the Paris Opera asked you to restage your Cavalleria Rusticana, you abandoned Pagliacci in favour of Sancta Susanna. Clearly, the divorce between Mascagni and Leoncavallo wasn’t too painful since you have never conceived of these works as belonging together. But how did you envisage the new combination of Cavalleria and Hindemith’s opera?
What creates continuity between Mascagni’s work and Hindemith’s is therefore a certain interweaving of desire with what is sacred?
Between Mascagni’s late 19th century verismo and Hindemith’s German expressionism, how do you see the aesthetic rupture between the two works?
The theme of spiritual devotion has been widely exploited by artists. Are there any painters that inspired you for Sancta Susanna?
M.M.: Yes, Giotto: at the beginning of the opera, Susanna’s cell is inspired by his very Italian vision, before the invention of perspective. But this inspiration is only visible at the beginning of the opera. Afterwards, everything explodes…
Interviewed by Simon Hatab and Farah Makki
Translated from the Italian by Farah Makki