Wrestling with Verdi’s ‘foul truth’

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

Women wearing flashy East-meets-West dresses and men in dark suits frolic drunkenly in a hotel lounge. Behind them can be seen the ends of the hallways for each floor of guest rooms. Couples slip away from the group from time to time, disappear down a hallway and into a room. The whole set is a cylindrical construction that rotates slowly all the time, so displaying all the sides of life laid bare therein.

Award-winning German director Andreas Kriegenburg chose this setting of an urban hotel for his new adaptation of Giuseppe Verdi’s three-act opera “Rigoletto,” whose world premiere (with Japanese supertitles) was at the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT), last month.

Scheduled to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth, the production, with Pietro Rizzo conducting, also marked a return to the NNTT for Kriegenburg, who debuted there directing “Wozzeck” in its 2009 joint production with the Bavarian State Opera of the 1922 work by Austrian composer Alban Berg.

In conversation recently with The Japan Times, Kriegenburg explained why “his” hotel had replaced the licentious Duke of Mantua’s palace in Verdi’s 1851 original.

“The important thing is that it’s a hotel and it’s in a city,” he declared. “Firstly, this opera was in a contemporary setting at the time Verdi wrote it, and so I have also made this a contemporary setting. Additionally, I thought a hotel was appropriate because of its anonymity and because hotels can also be gathering places for those in society who have lost their moral compass — and its role as a symbol of wealth makes it a modern parallel to 19th-century palaces.”

Here, however, he’s not only set the main action in a hotel — but one that’s continually rotating on stage. This, the director — who turns 50 on Nov. 15 — points out, “symbolizes life and the urges we are always tormented by, and it represents the idea of how a story cannot be stopped once it has begun.

“Also, I think it helps to show at once the contrast between the beautiful, elegant hotel interior and the horrible acts that are committed there. So, at the very same time the duke (Woo-Kyung Kim) and Gilda (Elena Gorshunova) — the beloved daughter of Rigoletto (Marco Vratogna), the duke’s hunchbacked jester — are declaring their love for each other, a woman beaten by a man totters across an upper floor. Elsewhere, another man proclaims his love to a woman — while nearby a woman is being violently assaulted. I wanted to show all this reality.”

“Rigoletto,” whose title role is a baritone part, is known for its many beautiful and flamboyant songs, but they take on an unsettling edge in this production. Even “La donna è mobile” sung by the womanizing duke in a tenor part at the start of the third act — normally a bright, soaring number — comes off as a sinister omen that befits the work’s original title of “The Curse.”

That this darker side was not lost on Kriegenburg was clear as he explained, “The most difficult challenge for a director taking on a Verdi piece today is determining how much of the negative side, the clear malice hidden in Verdi’s works, to force the audience to endure. I think it’s a matter of balance.

“In ‘Rigoletto,’ the characters are caught in a certain society, and while they disdain it terribly, they are in a situation they can’t escape from. So you find the duke, from the beginning of the first act, coolly claiming that love for pleasure is more important than sincerity. He seduces a married person in public, and even after he spends the night with Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, he doesn’t seem to care how she feels.

“What makes Verdi so clever is that he has this horrible man sing such beautiful melodies, and the audience can’t help but love him. The audience also has such high expectations and good impressions of Verdi, and the question is how far to betray this; how much foul truth to convey.”

Although Kriegenburg applies a somewhat soft touch to all this darkness and base scheming, he — like many German directors — favors an aggressive style with his bold settings and fluent use of artistic and physical expression that beckon the senses and thrills and inspires his audiences.

Since famously starting out with a brief spell as a theater carpenter, he has been producing top-caliber drama works for 30 years, and only also began directing opera in 2006. Japanese audiences first discovered his talents three years later with that production of “Wozzeck,” in which he had a box-shaped room floating unstably in the air above loudly splashing water flooding the entire stage and creating an effect that fascinated all who saw it.

“One reason for the water was that the world Wozzeck [a poor soldier] inhabits is muddy and wet: a very uncomfortable environment. Another reason was that the sound of Berg’s complex musical score coexisting with the simple and natural splashing sound made an interesting contrast. Those two things were the reason for the idea of the water. Fortunately, Maestro Kent Nagano loved it very much when it was first staged in Munich, but it was a struggle to convince the choir. In that regard, I must express my gratitude to the Japanese choir for not complaining (laughs).”

Fortunately for its many fans — and those who missed it in 2009 — Kriegenburg’s “Wozzeck” returns to the NNTT in April. But for those of us who love theater, too, I wondered aloud to the great dramatist whether he will soon be bringing one of his distinctive productions to Japan as well.

“Unfortunately, I haven’t yet spoken with anyone about that,” he said. “But I am very interested in Japanese traditional theater styles, and I want to see what I can do in a different cultural environment, so it’s definitely something I’d like to try.

Here’s hoping the huge success of his “Wozzeck” and “Rigoletto” will open the door to a Kriegenburg theater staging in this country in the near future.

This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.