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Paul Curran: „Traviata’s sets were inspired by the incredible beauty of Bucharest”


In the first moments, after passing through a series of complicated halls, transformed into a site, I didn’t understand anything of that crowd of people. A vast space, a replica of the stage, this is what rehearsal hall means. The sets are replaced with some cardboard panels, the cards and the money were some pieces of paper, in what was supposed to be the last scene of the second act in La traviata, at the Romanian National Opera, Bucharest. The chorus was dressed in plain clothes, so were the soloists, who could not be distinguished in the crowd. The piano stopped, so did the team coordinating the entire session. They were all gathered around a rather short guy, who had a score in his hand and was talking to them in English, while a translator did her job impeccably, and translated simultaneously into Romanian, helped by a mike in order to be heard better: „I accept any of these two options for your singing and moving: fantastically or disastruously is OK for me. But not mediocrely. It is difficult and tiresome to be mediocre. Shall we start again?” The entire team is moving and Paul Curran is satisfied: „Good! Remember: when Alfredo insults Violetta, then the women in the room feel offended and they agress him. And the men are trying to calm them”.

This is how I met the director Paul Curran, who is directing the opening performance of the Romanian National Opera, for 2014-15. In 2011, the Scottish director directed Rimsky-Korsakov at the Covent Garden. Next February he will direct a new production of La donna del Lago at the Metropolitan, included in the HD transmissions, so accessible in Romania, too. Until then, Joyce di Donato’s fans (as she will sing at the Met in Rossini’s opera) can see La traviata, a double premiere, both for the Romanian National Opera and for Paul Curran, in Bucharest.

I must admit that, for one hour, I watched a performance and I felt privileged. It was not the performance that we would see on stage, but one in which a numerous team was working in the most serious and professional way, coordinated by this Scottish director famous in the world of the opera, who spoke Italian and English, who was full of humour, who was persuading the others, with the score in one hand and passionately presenting his ideas. When the rehearsal was over, precisely at the hour when he told he would be ready for the interview, Paul Curran told me he hadn’t felt very well today, still, I had found him asbolutely energetic. We started to talk about this new production of La Traviata, that I can hardly wait to see, on October 30th, at the Romanian National Opera of Bucharest.

Operasjef Paul Curranlørdagsportrett

Despre Opera: So, how many Traviatas did you make?

Paul Curran: None. This is the first.

Despre Opera: None? This is your first Traviata. Then… your are debuting in Traviata in Bucharest, as a matter of fact. 

Paul Curran: Yes, it’s my first time. Funnily enough, I’ve never been asked to do it anywhere. That’s strange.

Despre Opera: Is this one of your favourite operas?

Paul Curran: Yes, absolutely.

Despre Opera: They say that this opera is so popular that at any minute, on this planet, there is somewhere a place where somebody is doing it. Probably that’s true, or almost true. Aren’t you, I don’t know, intimidated by this thing?

Paul Curran: Absolutely, always. But you are intimidated by everything that happened before, because it’s like being a sculpture and somebody shows you a sculpture by Bernini, or by Michelangelo, you’re scared to shit, you’re like “how do I make better than that?” So, yes, it’s intimidating, but not scaring.

Despre Opera: Not scaring?

Paul Curran: No, because it’s a story like any other story and we need to confront the story always for today. We cannot meet these stories only in the XIXth century or the XVIIIth century. You have to meet it for today. So, of course you get worried. Is this movement, is this idea too cliché, is this not clear? Whatever… The only thing I have as a director is I want clarity of storytelling at all times.

Despre Opera: That’s, I think, it’s like a leit motive in each review I’ve read about your productions. I’ve searched in the digital collection of Opera Magazine about you, there are so many of the reviews of your operas, all of them are telling the same thing: that the coherence of the show is always…

Paul Curran: Storytelling…

Despre Opera: The storytelling is very, very good. Irrespective if the production itself, if the concept itself is radical, Regietheater or not. And do you think that in Traviata you can bring something new? Is this coming from your personal experience, the way you feel it?

Paul Curran: I don’t know if you can bring something new, but I think the story is always new, because what you can bring is you can freshen, you can waken it up. You can waken up. It’s like The Sleeping Beauty. You hear me talking to the chorus today. It’s making the chorus realise that what you are saying is important, but what you are thinking is more important. And simply by making people think and work like that, it starts to lift the level of the production. You saw me today: I said “that was very boring, think about it!, do it”, and then it wasn’t boring. But they didn’t do much different other than apply their concentration. So I think … one of the most important things we can do is go back to zero. Go back to just what’s on the page. And what’s on the page is: we need to do this, we need to take a look at that. Can you reinvent it? No, but you can retell it. And you can retell it sometimes with a different voice.

Paul & Bear

Paul & Bear

Despre Opera: Well, I think Verdi, in this Traviata, is creating an emotion to any listener, with the music, to the point that you feel that Violetta’s drama is something that’s near personal to you. Like you’re somehow, this is my opinion… I think, like you are blamed by Verdi. The public which represents the society in which Violetta is having her tragedy is guilty about her destiny.

Paul Curran: YES, ABSOLUTELY! It’s all our fault and we are all partly to blame for this. And we all have an equal responsibility for this. Whether it’s that we support by saying nothing or just observing that these things go on, or whether it’s another thing, all of us have a little bit of Violetta in us. I think it’s interesting. Nobody has ever had a free lunch. You’ve always paid for lunch in some way. There’s always been something that you slightly prostituted yourself for. And people may say “How dare you know? I’ve never done that!” Really…

Despre Opera: You don’t talk about yourself, but you may cry when you see other people talking about this.

Paul Curran: Even the wife of a church minister, I am sorry, they have done something, more than once, that you could easily call, in the basic sense, prostitution. Why? Because this story just keeps going on. The more we pretend it doesn’t exist, the more we keep about being shocked about it, the bigger problem it becomes. I don’t understand these days, for example in the West, a sex scandal is not such a big deal any more. Because who cares? For example, in Russia, or in Eastern countries, the whole gay thing is like huge. OK, so you don’t agree with it, some people agree, some don’t, whatever. But if you take it off the agenda, it’s not a problem. By pinpointing it, you make it a bigger problem. Prohibition in 1919 did exactly the same thing, ban alcohol and everybody will want it. Make prostitution a major problem, everybody wants it, society gets corrupted, because it’s so simple. Society always wants and needs sex. So, I think this can be looked out in every decade, in every era, seen like through new eyes, but it’s the same story.

Despre Opera: The same facts.

Paul Curran: Yes, it’s a question of morals. And it’s interesting that not a lot of people have very clean morals.

Despre Opera: Speaking of morals, I am living today under the impression of a theatre play I saw last night: Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Seczuan

Paul Curran: Aha, yes!

Despre Opera: Which brings into attention the character of a former prostitute who is trying to do good things and who doesn’t succeed in that, she finally does bad things. Well, keeping apart the Brecht’s marxism, focusing only to this psychological drama I thought, while coming here to talk to you, that it might be a resemblance between Bertolt Brecht’s play and Traviata. How do you look in your production of Traviata in Bucharest about this idea of good, and bad? Is this concept in your approach to Traviata, or you look more to the psychological drama, to the life in itself?

Paul Curran: I think when societies decide what is good and bad, when societies decide what morality absolutely is, than we’re in big trouble. Because it keeps changing. It keeps changing depending on what society we are in, it keeps changing depending on the influences that come from outside. So there is, I believe, intrinsically within human beings, a feeling of good and bad, but I think it’s different in different people. It’s different in a serial killer than there is in you or me, perhaps. That’s one of the problems of being a human being. But I don’t view the piece morally as good or bad. I only think the interest is in the psychological drama of what society accept, what they don’t accept, and what they are ultimately hypocritical about. That’s more disgusting to me. The hypocrisy of accepting this woman as a prostitute – everybody will use her, when her use is over, next! It’s like any little pop star. Miley Cyrus! Miley Cyrus is out there! Will we really know who Miley Cyrus is in three years? Do you think?

Despre Opera: No!

Paul Curran: Because her cute half naked little body will have got three years older, we’ll be looking for somebody else. It’s this constant idea of prostituting the sexual self that interests me. Violetta is an interesting character, because she’s not essentially sexual. She uses sex, but she’s not a sexual being. She’s an emotional being. At the beginning she is denied emotion. A lot. A huge amount. So she doesn’t want emotion. Until she meets this other character, and then she goes “Oh, maybe I do want that, maybe…”

Despre Opera: I think that this denial you are talking about is more persistent even in Dumas’ novel rather than in Verdi’s opera.

Paul Curran: Much more! To be honest, the opera leaves us with a big weakness, in the first act. When meeting Alfredo, and deciding to go with them, it’s very fast, because she rejects him completely, she says “no, you’d be better to find another lover, I only offer friendship, I offer… that’s all… Then, all of a sudden, she says D’amarmi dite ancora?, “tell me that you love me”. It’s a very big jump. And the book is much more interesting. Then she says “OK, fine, we can do this. But, tonight I will still fuck the baron. And you can like it or not, but I will fuck the baron. Because he’s paying. That’s the game. Is that OK?” And he says yes.

Despre Opera: And in Dumas’novel she is even more mature because she predicts how Alfredo will react, she predicts what he will do later.

Paul Curran: It’s very easy to predict how Alfredo will react. Because she understands he’s a stalker. He’s been stalking her for over a year. So, he’s, I’m sorry, I don”t care who it is, if somebody’s been stalking somebody for a year, they are nuts. That’s unstable. So she predicts because she sees his behaviour and she knows what that means.

Despre Opera: OK, are we going to see this particular thing in your production?

Paul Curran: There is no space in the opera for that. I would love that but that would mean writing another scene…

Operasjef Paul Curranlørdagsportrett

Despre Opera: Can you reveal something about this production? Where, when it is set up? 

Paul Curran: Very easily… In doing Traviata I wanted it to have a feeling that was quite contemporary but that made sense with the world of morals of that era of 1840-1853, when it was written. That world does not exist in 2014. So, I could not make it 2014, because it’s, frankly, a different world. A different world of communications, a different world of moral acceptance etc. So we were looking for another era. We came to an era – where I think the XXth century went through interesting waves of liberalism and conservatism. One of the last great conservative waves was the 1950s, the end of the 1950s, going into the 1960s. Just think of the TV show Mad Men. That world. Why? Because after the war things got very conservative. The 1930s had been wild and crazy, like the 1920s, but then, the 40s and 50s got more conservative. By the middle of the 60s people were fed up with this conservatism, and they rebelled and we had flower power and hippies and all of that. So, we were on the wave of conservatism of 1959-1960. So, that’s when it’s set. Which I think is far enough away, yet close enough for us to understand.

Despre Opera: And the place?

Paul Curran: Paris.

Despre Opera:  Paris… When I am thinking about this concept of Regietheater – it’s just one of my theories – I am wondering if it is relevant to the Romanian public. Do you have any translations typical to Regietheatre, to be also localised to Romania? To bring something which is relevant to the Romanian public?

Paul Curran: I think there is a very big element… Have you seen the designs for this?

Despre Opera: No.

Paul Curran: So, in the design, one of the things that inspired us what when we were going around Bucharest and we saw – I’ve never been to Bucharest before – and we saw how incredibly beautiful it is, so what we did… When I came here I said “my God, it looks like a cross between Paris and Vienna”.  So, the first act is very much set in this rather beautiful ornate 18th-19th century place.

Despre Opera: Yes.

Paul Curran: With that huge big staircase, a piano, other bits of furniture… The act you just saw. Flora’s is this, a very long space. So this looks like half the places is in the old town. So, yes, people will certainly recognise it. You have to play for the public that is here. Yes.

Despre Opera: I am grateful to you for this. Really.

Paul Curran: As I saw once, I saw a production that was set in a sado-maso club. I didn’t understand it. The whole thing was set in an S&M club. And I didn’t understand it. I had been to an S&M club, it was terribly boring, it wasn’t my thing, and it didn’t look like that. It didn’t make any sense.

Despre Opera: I once talked to Madame Virginia Zeani, who is a Romanian soprano who sang a lot of times Traviata and they say that she sang the most times this role. And when I asked her “Do you know a lady called Violetta Valéry? Can you tell me about her?” And she said “Well, every time I sing Violetta Valéry I am imagining myself that I am married to Verdi”. 

Paul Curran: Giuseppina Streponi.

Despre Opera: And that since she played Violetta many times, along her long carreer, at different ages, she said “Well, you know marriage at 20 years old is  something, at 30 is something else, at 40 again different, but every time my Violetta was married to Verdi. I felt like I married Verdi because of his music and what the music inspired. But also Virginia Zeani is a big voice teacher, she definitely has a gift for explaining things, for communication, and she really impressed me with this approach to the role. Well, you’re a director, you have to see things in a global perspective. How do you present Violetta’s character? 

Paul Curran: Violetta is complex, it’s very much taken from the book we were just talking today about. It’s Sempre libera, it’s the big aria at the end of the first act. It’s quite odd, because it’s an aria that actually goes backwards, dramatically, in that she’s just said to this boy she’s just met, “ok, I’m gonna be with you, let’s do this, come back tomorrow, when the flower is gone, and my period is over”, and then she says this big thing, “it’s very strange, is this really for me?” And at the end of it she says, “Fuck him!”, Folie, Folie, “crazy, crazy, no, I don’t want that, I want to be free”. I see Violetta as one of the first real and true feminists in literature. Like Madame Bovary, or any of those. She’s a woman who wants to live her life her way within a men’s society. She doesn’t want to be told “these are the rules and you will abide by them”. If you look at Musetta in Bohème, in the third act, she says to Marcello, when they’re fighting, Voglio piena liberta, “I want full liberty”. So, what I never understood is why should she even need to ask, why would he have full liberty and she not? That doesn’t make sense to me. But of course in the context of that society she is under this, she may as well have a burka on. So, I see Violetta very much as a very modern woman, who is struggling within all these rules and regulations, and who is forced into a life as many women are: they get pregnant, they are forced into a life they have to live. There comes a point when you have to live what you are given. So I see her as this rather feminist character who talks about a woman being just a woman, just being for herself. The father Germont, when he meets her in the second act, he’s a real politician and he manipulates her. He’s not very nice to her, certainly when he begins,  but then all of a sudden he starts to understand her as an independent being. He all of a sudden goes “Yes, right, now I get it”. And that’s a wonderfully modern idea that, hugely modern idea. And I think it’s all in the text. I think it’s also in Dumas’ original story.

Despre Opera: In Romania there is a long tradition of sopranos singing Traviata successfully all over the world.

Paul Curran: Cotrubaș.

Despre Opera: Angela Gheorghiu, Virginia Zeani. Have you heard any one of them singing?

Paul Curran: Cotrubaș, yes, but only on the record. I met her once, she came to Oslo, she was in the jury of a competition. She was so tiny…

Despre Opera: She was very genuine in her appearances on the stage. She has a fresh air all the time. As far as I watched her on DVDs, because I never saw her live. 

Paul Curran: She was still singing when I was a teenager, but I just missed her performances.

Despre Opera: Well, I was in Romania when she was still singing, and it was during the communism. And she  retired in the early nineties, as far as I remember. But discovering her records, and especially with Traviata, where she really struggles with the difficulties of the first act. She is struggling, but her emotion in the second act, and her passion in the third act are really… moving.

Paul Curran: Because one really needs three different voices for this…

Despre Opera: OK, so, I am out of questions. If you want to add something to all of this. 

Paul Curran: No particularly, you saw the rehearsal today. I really enjoyed working with the chorus. I loved working with them. One of the interesting things for this theatre, it’s worth saying, is an new management coming in here, changing things, it’s fantastic.

Despre Opera: I agree.

Paul Curran: You need to take with you a tradition that’s already there, and renew from a positive place. Very positive place. In other words, I think this management are doing fantastic things. Taking Traviata, a piece they’ve done… This present production has been going for ten years. They got stuck in it like with old friends. It’s a very simple routine. It’s like being married, doing the same routine. So, what’s interesting for me it’s the challenge of making, of thinking it in a completely different way, in a moment to moment way, a more dramatic way, a more human way, rather than… I’ll say something that I say very often these days. Like the scene with Alfredo and his friends. He knows his name. Why are you telling his name? It’s a question. You don’t need to remind him of his name, he’s not an idiot. Those sorts of things, they’ve got very used to doing. Like they keep giggling in the same places, I keep saying to them “Why are you laughing? It’s not funny, it’s not a joke”. But that’s where the old production… Oooohhhh… It was very fake.

Despre Opera: The old production, I hated it, I really hated it.

Paul Curran: Hopefully, this will feel different, more fresh, more alive, certainly it will get lots of energy.

Despre Opera: I decided to see the old production only when a big star came to sing – which doesn’t happen very often in Bucharest – the last time I saw it was when Elena Moșuc sang. And she sang beautifully. The production was a museum, it was dead.

Paul Curran: And with the chorus, I remind them “you are not an observer, you are a participant, and you have to be part of it, you can’t stand back, you’re not a singing furniture, you’re actually part of it…” And they’re getting it. Well, it takes a bit of energy, but it’s been a great process.

Despre Opera: Thank you very, very much!

Paul Curran: A pleasure, thank you for coming!

Credit Photo: www.paulcurrandirector.com

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