Visions of Claus Guth

A portrait of the stage director

By Konrad Kuhn 12 November 2021


© Elena Bauer / OnP

Visions of Claus Guth

For many years now, Claus Guth has been one of the world's most sought-after opera directors; his productions can be seen from Vienna to Barcelona, from Amsterdam to Zurich, from London and Milan to Lyon, from Glyndebourne to Aix-en-Provence (next summer) and Salzburg, from Madrid and Moscow to Toronto and New York – and, of course, in his native Germany: Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, Bayreuth... as well as at the Paris Opera since 2016.

What makes Claus Guth so special? Because of his origins, he is sometimes referred to as a representative of what is known as "Regietheater", which is generally understood to mean a staging style that seeks to attract attention by arbitrarily rewriting works from the classical repertoire, is aesthetically unsightly and deliberately provocative. These characteristics do not apply to Claus Guth.

When he sets the action of La Bohème in space, it is anything but accidental. On the contrary, he is focussing on the score's very heart; there is hardly any other opera in which the metaphor of cold is so present, both in the text and the music. One need only think of the Barrière d'Enfer scene at the beginning of Act III. Or of Mimi's muff, warming her ever freezing hands just a little. Where is it colder than in space? And where else have we sensed such interplanetary expanses (and precisely not the cramped confines of an attic room) other than in the duets of Mimi and Rodolfo?

What is Puccini's opera about? Ultimately, a group of young people are helpless when faced by the death of one of their number. Their hopes, both in art and in love, are shattered. Claus Guth underlines this by sending the protagonists hurtling towards certain death in their malfunctioning spaceship. Oxygen reserves run out and they land on a planet far from Earth that becomes their final destination. Only memories remain. The text of the libretto, Murger's Scènes de la vie de bohème, is itself like an 'idealised' memory of youth, written by an older generation of men. The memory of a time when everything seemed possible. Memories that take on physical form. And suddenly, a comforting image of Paris emerges in the high-tech ship: the Café Momus, the toy seller, the fuss made by Musette to frighten off her rich protector... everything is there, but in memories. And on the barren surface of the alien planet that can only be trodden in a cosmonaut's suit, there appears solitary red balloon.

Take Rigoletto: When Bastille's huge stage is transformed into a gigantic cardboard box, what does it mean? Again, this is anything but arbitrary. Verdi makes it clear that the hunchbacked buffoon is under a curse from the start. The tragedy of the jester who seeks to dissociate his personal happiness as a father from his cynical role at court, by keeping his teenage daughter strictly locked up, and who for this very reason becomes Gilda's murderer in the end, unfolds with implacable logic. All the more implacable since, from the start, we see Rigoletto as a broken person. His life is destroyed. His existence is contained in a cardboard box in which there is nothing but the fool's cap and the blood-stained dress of the daughter whose death he himself caused. Objects that make him relive the tragedy over and over again. By doubling up the character (alongside the baritone, an actor plays the aged Rigoletto on stage), he becomes a powerless spectator of the key scenes that led to the catastrophe. What has happened has happened, nothing can prevent that. Thus, the entire universe of this captivating drama is contained in a cardboard box and it is precisely this reduction that captivates us. Locations are indicated by a handful of scenic elements, the story imagined by Victor Hugo is reduced to its substance and the usual clichés are elegantly circumvented.

Of course, underlying such stagings is the desire to bring a new voice to widely known repertoire works. But always with the intention of reaching the heart of these works. Taking not the libretto but above all the music as a starting point. In this respect, Claus Guth is truly impulsive and relies entirely on his instinct: if a score does not speak to him directly, if the sounds do not set his imagination in motion, he refuses to stage the piece. After listening intuitively to the score, he studies it scene by scene to develop a precise interpretation - leaving the singers ample freedom to enhance their performance and often to surpass themselves within the scope of precise indications during rehearsals.

Born in Frankfurt am Main, the director first took an interest in film. At the age of 16, he was already making short films on super-8 film. At the University of Munich he studied philosophy, German literature and theatre before studying directing at the August Everding Theatre Academy in Munich. His has retained a strong interest in film which is reflected in his productions by the multiple use of video projections, which are never reduced to decorative accessories.

Over the course of more than 30 years, he has built up a multi-faceted corpus of productions. Wagner and Strauss are the main focuses. The Mozart-Da Ponte cycle staged for the Salzburg Festival has become legendary, and has been completed by La clemenza di Tito and Lucia Silla, as well as by the fragment Zaïde, for which Guth asked the Israeli composer Chaya Chernowin to write a complementary continuation. The same applies to Purcell's The Fairy Queen: in collaboration with the composer Hellmuth Oehring, the artist combines baroque arias and choruses with contemporary sounds.

A Monteverdi cycle was created at the Theater an der Wien. Alongside Verdi and Puccini, the French repertoire is present with works such as Pelléas et Mélisande, Paul Dukas' Ariane et Barbe-Bleue and - in Frankfurt in July 2021 - Dialogues des Carmélites. The German repertoire includes Beethoven's Fidelio, Schubert's rarely performed opera Fierrabras and Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow.

The director's reputation has been established above all through his productions of contemporary operas. The world premieres include - in addition to those already mentioned - works by Peter Ruzicka, Beat Furrer, Klaus Huber, Luciano Berio and Pascal Dusapin. Another piece was premiered at the Paris Opera: Berénice, after Racine, by Swiss composer Michael Jarrell, had its world premiere at the Palais Garnier in 2018. This production typifies another characteristic of Claus Guth's work: his interest in the psychological depth of characters and themes. A breathtaking psychotrip into an impossible love, Bérénice captivated the Parisian audience.

Tracing the entanglements of opera characters' childhood traumas, their repressed emotions down to the finest ramifications, scrutinising the psychological aspects behind the seemingly fairy-tale or mythical subject matter, is one of Claus Guth's strengths, as is his flair for uncovering these layers in the music. His dissecting gaze then often gives rise to poetic images.

Another focal point is Georg Friedrich Handel. Alongside operas such as Rodelinda and Orlando, it is the oratorios that particularly appeal to Claus Guth. A work like Messiah becomes a gripping family drama showing us human beings in borderline situations. The existential questions of guilt and redemption and of what happens after death become as urgent as they were for Handel. Saul and Jephta, premiered in Amsterdam and also performed in Paris, are two further oratorios based on biblical subjects. Unlike Messiah, these oratorios are action-packed. Nevertheless, the role of the chorus provides them with a dramatic quality different from that of an opera, offering scenic possibilities of their own. In Jephta, all that is needed are a few abstract set elements, such as the giant letters which can be perceived as writing but which also create spaces.

Every time he embarks upon a new project, Guth asks the following question: What is my specific interest in this work? What is it really about? Only when the answer to this question points in a specific direction does he turn his attention to its aesthetic application. What stands out, therefore, is not so much one particular aesthetic as an in-depth appreciation of each work's music, along with the director's love for the singers who are ultimately his main source of inspiration.

Rigoletto - The Joker of the 19th century?

15 min


Rigoletto - The Joker of the 19th century?

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