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Encounters

“We are always victims of music”

An interview with Romeo Castellucci — By Aïnhoa Jean-Calmettes

After his production of Moses und Aron in 2015, Romeo Castellucci is returning to the Paris Opera. Now, the director evokes “the wound” that Il Primo Omicidio caused him and the searing images that propelled him to come to grips with Scarlatti’s oratorio.   

The most difficult aspect when directing an opera is to make a repertoire work one’s own. How do you appropriate Scarlatti’s Il Primo Omicidio?

R.C.: First of all, I have to peel away all my armour by immersing myself in the work. I need to listen to it profoundly, in a way that has nothing in common with listening in a cultivated or cultural way. The work has to penetrate me and, in a certain way, wound me. If there’s a wound, then there’s an opening and something can happen. To imagine a new form, one has to have the infantile conviction of being the composer of the music. Obviously, this is self-indulgent, and in any situation, not exactly reasonable, but sometimes reasonable choices are the worst. We must lose ourselves in a task far greater than ourselves and overcome the fear. There is an obvious connection between fear and failure, but we need that.

When you staged your production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at La Monnaie in Brussels, an image came to you whilst you were in your car: you saw Eurydice as a woman in a coma. Orpheus’s journey into the Underworld then became a film shot in real time across Brussels, during which he searches for Els, a woman afflicted with Locked-in syndrome. Did you have that type of vision for Il Primo Omicidio?

R.C.: Yes, I had an intense one, but it didn’t pan out. I had to abandon it.

Why didn’t it work?

R.C.: I wanted to involve some genuine fratricides. It was important for me to have them physically on stage in the second act. So, there would have been a sort of double narration. We were able to meet two people who committed fratricide, one was in France and the other in Italy, but strangely—or perhaps not—they both did something stupid in prison just before getting permission to appear from the judge. That falls within the realms of profound psychology…

Scarlatti’s music is so beautiful that it becomes a danger for you: it distracts you.

R.C.: We are always victims of the music. We’re not protected from it. It’s not a book or a discourse: the music is a poison which perturbs us in a morbid way. I believe it was Hegel who wrote: “Music is the night of the philosopher”. Music is a weapon against the listener, but that’s what makes it so rich. In a certain way, Greek tragedy also plays against the audience: it pushes them into a corner, into an impossible choice from which they cannot escape.

In your view, the main difference between opera and theatre is not the music but the relationship with time.

R.C.: Time is the most important material in theatre, it’s our clay. The characteristics of time, the fact that one can stretch it, compress it or change its nature depends entirely on the staging. Time for a director is like colour to a painter or marble to a sculptor. At the Opera, that dimension is given. It is the principal architecture. Then there is the emotive tonality of the music and the libretto. You can find an angle of interpretation for the libretto, but you can’t change the music or the time. So you have to go back to the source, as with inverse engineering, to dissect the music to understand the philosophical principle of what binds it, to go deep into the fibre of the composition to be able to take the place of the musician.

How does baroque music resonate with our times?

R.C.: The themes treated are never anecdotal. They are universally simple, profound and radical. There is always a fight between life and death. Baroque is the artistic expression closest to death. It was born from the experience of the great plague; it is like a flower of evil, a flower of darkness.

Religion may have the duty to create fear but the theatre has no duty towards you. Now, the oratorio is a form of religious music. How do you escape that dimension in the production?

R.C. : Through blasphemy. One has to be very careful with that word, because it’s like dynamite. An oratorio is not an object of faith, it has nothing to do with faith. We are not saved or educated by this form. On the contrary, it’s about discovering the other side, the side of darkness. And in this case the perspective is reversed: God is no longer the judge, it is about judging God. It is the viewpoint of the son towards the adult, of the creature towards God. It is in this way that the work is blasphemous: the object is the same but the point of view is reversed.
    

Where did you find the inspiration for the poses that the singers take?

R.C.: Primarily in the baroque and neoclassical repertoire of Italy and France. It was a way for me to accept the pathos but also to embrace the rhetoric of art history. It’s a choice not to choose. I need to have the conviction that I’ve not invented anything; to have the illusion that I’m not there. I need to be absent, I don’t like artistic languages where I can read the artist’s intentions. That’s no longer art, that’s communication, that’s ego. And art is not the place for the ego. It’s more a question of fading into the background: that is the great lesson of art history.    

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