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Listening in on people

Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito talk to dramaturg Lars Gebhardt on prejudice against Bellini, uncovering layers of meaning in rehearsals and Kleist

La Sonnambula
Melodramma by Vincenzo Bellini
Conductor: Stephan Zilias
Directors: Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito
With Venera Gimadieva, Jesús León / Lawrence Brownlee, Ante Jerkunica, Helene Schneiderman, Alexandra Hutton et al.
Premiere on 26 January 2019

Romantic bel canto opera composed by the likes of Donizetti and Bellini still tends to be treated as the poor relation. Does the “lovely singing” with its focus on melody obstruct our view of the action?
Sergio Morabito: Up till now we’ve been involved with three of Bellini’s ten operas and have always enjoyed the working processes that that entailed. Each one of the ten operas has its own sound and its own dramaturgy. If you compare NORMA, I PURITANI and LA SONNAMBULA, there’s no avoiding the blatant differences between the three works. Each creates its own world, portrayed in sound and action. Bellini’s operas are very exciting, seeing as they were written during the upheavals of the early 19th century and are full of allusions to the movements of post-Revolution France, the Restoration and the reverberations of the 1830 revolution in Paris. This is especially true of LA SONNAMBULA, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect. The action takes place in a remote village, yet even this plain, parochial society is not immune to the upheaval happening in the outside world. The return of the son of the former count triggers a chain of dramatic events that lifts the lid on the buried pasts of the various characters. It turns out that the returnee, as a young man 18 years previously, had an affair with a humble girl from the village. The woman fell pregnant and was fatally banished as the penalty for this transgression. The child she gave birth to was Amina, the sleepwalker.

Jossi Wieler: There is more to bel canto characters, especially Bellini’s, than is apparent from a first reading or listening. When you get deeper into the material, you can peel back the layers of each character and learn a lot about how they relate to each other. It’s not just about “lovely singing”; the operas explore very complex relationships, dramatic transformations and change going on within one’s own psyche and the psychologies within the group. This is articulated in a nuanced way by the music and also conveyed by the libretto, which the singing often detracts from.

A propos libretto: at rehearsals you work intensively with the actors on the nuances and interpretation of the supposedly banal text…
Sergio Morabito: With Bellini, even though the orchestra has a key function and is important for the atmosphere of the work, the focus is on the tunefulness of the singing and the singers have a lot of scope for interpretation. That’s what these roles offer the singer – and the lyrics are an essential part of it. People too often forget that. Bel canto doesn’t mean “sing beautifully and don’t pay any mind to the words”. On the contrary, the text is absolutely what underlies the colour, the articulation of feeling and the onstage action set to music. The roles require that singers and director immerse themselves in the story and open up to what is being said via the medium of song – the orchestra is much less of a safety net. It really is the case that you can add your own colour and slant to the lyrics. Plus you’ve got to place it in a situational and psychological context that you can then render onstage. Bellini’s melodies often supersede the action of the storyline, transcending a dangerous or difficult situation, but we only get to experience the full impact of the singing and music if we can articulate the adversity associated with an inhospitable or hostile reality. If I start abstracting and subordinate everything to the melodies, I miss the weightier experience of Romantic bel canto.

Jossi Wieler: in rehearsals we always dig deep down to harness whatever is unique to each artist’s character. We try to establish a kind of working ambience that frees the singers up to get fully behind what they’re acting out and singing. We do a lot of talking through the character dynamics before tackling a particular scene and try to give every singer more or less a free rein. That’s how it is with a revival, too. Seven years ago we had the premiere of LA SONNAMBULA in Stuttgart – and now it’s a wonderful thing to be rehashing the production for Berlin with a new and very special cast.

Sergio Morabito: We theatre people often feel a certain affinity with the opera composers of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. They didn’t write their operas with a vague eye on eternity, or for stowing away in a drawer, or for Bayreuth or a worldwide market, but rather for specific singers and a particular orchestra and performance space. The fact that those authors, as theatre folk, were in a position to – in fact had to - react to whatever unexpected things the gestation process threw at them, this makes their works malleable for today’s musical theatre. We’re constantly awestruck at how they managed – like Rossini with THE BARBER – to throw something together in six weeks. But that’s about how long we get given for rehearsals. The production changes with a new line-up of singers – just as the composers tweaked their scores to accommodate an alteration to the cast or a revival of an opera. It’s really exciting.

It’s not just the soloists who have to get right to the core of the characters they’re playing. The chorus members, too, get the individual treatment and comprise more than just a block of singers…
Jossi Wieler: The chorus in this piece plays a proactive part in proceedings, not at all relegated to the side lines. It’s not just an accompaniment to the characters; it also has its own stance vis-à-vis the dramas unfolding, the love, betrayal and jealousy. Usually a very opportunistic, unprincipled, conformist stance. In our production the villagers rise up against the count, who wants a return to the old, pre-revolutionary power structures and property paradigms. In our work with Bellini’s operas we made a crucial discovery, that the chorus is not just a collective entity but made up of communities consisting of individual personalities. In this work we have peasants, tradesmen, an impecunious populace. But every chorus member brings his or her personal biography and existential problems to the task, and to make all that visible to the audience we always appeal to the imagination of each individual member. Which is exactly what puts the flesh and blood into a collective.

As a semi-seria, or half-serious, opera it does not seek to evoke a particular historical setting, which was typical of Romantic bel canto, but places us amidst simple folk. The self-contained village society, which provides the setting for the drama revolving around Amina, is brought to life in Anna Viebrock’s costumes. We sense and feel the oppressive, restrictive dimensions of this world. Is there an element of modern society in all that?
Jossi Wieler: Closeness, understanding and emotionality are always the result of listening in on people and their relationships and listening in on a score. And when I say a score, I mean music and lyrics. Every production, every new way of telling an old story, should teach you something about the present. And naturally that’s what we’re trying to do with this work. LA SONNAMBULA dates from the first half of the 19th century – you can’t ignore the conflicts and problems inherent to this opera. The torpor, the dearth of energy, the ageing population – the people we are presented with are people who have been left behind. The action takes place in the rather strange stairwell that is used by the occupants as a tavern and a gathering place. Anna Viebrock was inspired to model it on an Austrian hostel for workers’ families, who had been made redundant in the 1970s. This meticulously created space depicts a closed world that is stirred up by the arrival of a stranger. What we don’t yet know is that he is a returnee whose suppressed past is linked to that of the village.

The title of the opera puts the spotlight squarely on the main protagonist, Amina, the orphan girl, who goes sleepwalking on the eve of her marriage. Romantic writers and composers loved the bijective quality of spectral characters, remote settings and nature scenes. Is there more to read from this than just a romantic ghost?
Sergio Morabito: It’s fascinating to see that this image of a sleepwalking woman is not confined to the Romantic picturesque school but is actually a type of modern-day psychology. The young woman appears to be emulating subconsciously the story of her mother. Amina grew up without parents, having being brought up by Teresa, her foster-mother, who did not so much value her for her own sake but rather for the contribution she could make to the home economics. Although Amina knows nothing about her parents’ backstory and where she came from, children often end up subsuming into their own biography the suppressed experiences of their parents, unintentionally emulating those parts of their parents’ lives that are veiled in secrecy and fantasising about or enacting the suppressed material. Amina’s encounter with the older, unfamiliar man, who is taken by her because she reminds him of his mother, triggers her sleepwalking episode. In the first scene of nocturnal wanderings she clambers into the stranger’s bedroom, thereby creating the impression that she has deceived Elvino, the rich landowner, on the eve of their marriage. Just as her mother before her, she is shunned and expelled from the village community. Our production takes it a step further and makes her unwittingly pregnant. Living as she does in a backward, uneducated world, she is ignorant of what is happening to her body.

 Jossi Wieler: It’s very noticeable that these sleepwalking scenes are reminiscent of some of Heinrich von Kleist’s characters. Käthchen of Heibronn, the Prince of Homburg, the Marquise of O, Alkmene … all of them experience something that is beyond the ken of society and thus the object of sanction. So it is with Amina. In essence we are dealing here with a form of investigation into the workings of the subconscious long before Freud coined the formal discipline. Issues are turned up that we are now able to fathom and classify with the help of psychoanalysis.