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Kiarostami at the Opera

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in Paris

12 May 2009 15:00No Comments
festival Aix en Provence. 2008 "Cosi Fan Tutte" Wolfgang. A. Moz

In July 2008, Festival d'Aix-en-Provence celebrated its 60th anniversary. For decades now, Aix has stood for innovation in staging and radical interpretation of classic operas. Directors such as Peter Brook, Luc Bondy, Patrice Chereau, and conductors such as Daniel Harding and Simon Rattle have all participated in this magnificent festival. Six decades ago, when this opera festival got its start, it was Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte that inaugurated the event. So for the anniversary, it was decided that someone different would direct it again. Renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was a great choice. He was a figure outside the usual opera circuit, and, hailing from the East, he had fresh eyes and ears. And so it was that Bernard Foccroules, the director of the festival, offered this popular opera-bouffe to Kiarostami to stage in France last year.

I was among a handful of Iranians who attended this production, which prompted much curiosity in Iran and elsewhere. Kiarostami directing an opera? What a strange idea, uttered many Iranian artists and intellectuals. Why is he doing so many different things? Installations, experimental short films, video art, transcribing Hafez into Haiku? He should stop doing so many things and focus on films. By the way, what does he know about opera anyway?

As strange as it may seem, asking an artist who knows nothing about opera to direct one is quite common. I have to confess, it is not always the best thing to do, but I have seen some artists completely outside the operatic system direct amazing productions: Ingmar Bergman (The Magic Flute), Luchino Visconti (The Traviata), Michael Hanecke (Don Giovanni), David Cronenberg (The Fly), Emir Kusturica (Le Temps de Gitans). Even visual artists such as Marc Chagall, David Hockney and William Kentridge have staged Mozart's Magic Flute.

It's not that our own intellectuals don't like Kiarostami. They all respect him as an artist and a man--they just don't get his curiosity or understand his desire to venture beyond his own universe. I believe he is doing the right thing though. More and more artists today use different media to express themselves. Western art gives Kiarostami a new venue, so why would he limit himself? Is it written anywhere that a film director must only be a film director? Maybe we, Iranians, should expand our very traditional concept of the artist which is perhaps a product of our ancient nationalism. We speak of artists as if they belonged to us, as if they were the product of our nation. In other words, we still mix politics and art, and refuse the artist his individuality since he represents the culture and the Iranian identity. But this attitude reveals how far we are from the western concept of individualism. By this I don't mean to say we should become more westernized--I am only saying that I believe in and will always defend the artist's right to express his individuality.

Last year I wrote a critique of the opera for an Iranian magazine, but decided not to publish it because I believed my criticism would be misunderstood, and I was afraid it would have provided a reason for many to judge him even more harshly. But a year has passed, and as the French say, "A lot of water has flowed under the bridge." With that part of the controversy at rest upon the passage of time, this may actually be a better time to raise the curtain on the production.

As many fans know, from May 29th through July 5th, this production is to be performed again in London, at the Coliseum Theater, The English National Opera (ENO). But Kiarostami, who has had visa issues with UK authorities, decided not go to England. A stage revival without the presence of a director never has the same energy and creativity. I strongly doubt this Mozart production will impact the audience the way it did in Aix. And I for one have no intention of attending this production in London.

Kiarostami's Cosi Fan Tutte in France

Opera is a huge technical feat; you need a good team: a stage and costume designer, a light designer and a sometimes a dramaturge; a technical team sees to functionality. But more importantly, the director needs a good assistant who knows operatic conventions. And of course you have the music, the opera singers and the conductor, the most important elements. In other words, a beautiful musical production with terrible staging can still move an audience. Just think of the Metropolitan Opera in New York! The most conventional productions are forgiven the moment one's favorite opera singer takes the stage. So Kiarostami had all of that going for him. He had chosen Peter Brook's stage and costume designer, Chloe Obolensky, and light designer Jean Kalman. He had been given young and excellent singers, and one of the most talented conductors, Christophe Rousset. Technically, Kiarostami couldn't fail. The big question was however would Kiarostami bring any added value to the production?

So the unexpected was not Kiarostami lack of experience with opera. What was interesting for the festival organizers and audience was the fact that he didn't come from the Western world and therefore had probably not grown up with opera. (I don't know how many operas Kiarostami has attended in his lifetime; my guess is not many.) So from this point of view, Iranians were right: Kiarostami, a Middle Eastern artist, didn't know much about opera staging. Kiarostami, I believe, is one of the best contemporary film directors. The personal and poetic universe he inhabits is difficult to imagine transposed on an 18th-century opera, not least of all because his cultural background led him to create a very specific temporality and to adhere to a minimalist aesthetic.

Opera requires a knowledge and a sense of music that is indeed cultural. Mozart's operas, and particularly Cosi, are the most difficult ones to stage. Cosi Fan Tutte belongs to what is called the Da Ponte trilogy, along with Don Giovanni and the Nozze di Figaro. Those three operas, written by the librettist Da Ponte in collaboration with the composer, belong to the Age of Enlightenment, with its revolutionary elements and a perfect balance of music and drama.

In English, the Italian title, "Cosi Fan Tutte," means roughly that "women act the same." They are inconsistent, unfaithful, and unable to respect their commitments. Don Alfonso, an old and experienced man, makes a bet with two young men (Ferrando, a tenor, and Guglielmo, a baritone). He bets that their fiancees (Dorabella, a mezzo soprano, and Fiordilogi, a soprano) will be unable to remain faithful in the absence of their lovers. After some arguments, the men decide to test the women's fidelity. Ferrando and Guglielmo will leave as soldiers to the war and return as Albanese tourists and try to seduce their fiancees, who will (of course) be unable to detect the deception. With the help of his mischievous servant, Despina, Don Alfonso stages this drama; and, as it turns out, he is right: After lamenting the departure of their fiances for the front, Dorabella and Fiordiligi fall in love with the two Albanese. Unwittingly, they exchange partners. They even get married by Despina, disguised as a notary.

When the warship returns, our two Albanese leave the stage momentarily. They return and accuse their fiancees of betrayal. The women feel terribly ashamed. They beg for forgiveness and the men, advised by Don Alfsonso, forgive them. So the opera finishes on a bittersweet note, with the young and innocent at heart realizing that life and love are ephemeral and feelings ever changing.

Kiarostami respects the 18th-century context; the set shows us a typical house in the south of France--red tiles, ceramics, herbs, flowers, particularly lavenders, and other Provencal features. A video projection of the Calanques, a beautiful maritime site near Marseilles, plays in the backdrop. As Kiarostami said in the program offered by the festival, the action should take place in a summer house, during the holidays, when hearts are more likely to be open to new love experiences. Costumes are beautifully designed and respect 18th-century tendencies. But what we see on display is perhaps our own contemporary reality. After all, the scenery on stage was not so different from the actual surroundings of the spectators: Provence during the summer holidays.

Personally, I wasn't prepared for such a setting, particularly at the Aix Festival, famous for its audacious staging. But I also sensed a delicate freshness. Even though the singers were acting in a very conventional style, the events on stage were poetic: the waves were slowly moving, the flowers were swaying in the wind, and we were hypnotized by the beauty of Mozart's music. But, after a while, I needed something different. I was bored; this was music a la lettre--nice and poetic, but far too conventional. Rather than a mise en scene, it was a perfect mise en place with everything in the right place and time. This mise en place, however, was often interrupted by the intervention of the technical staff who changed the set and props before the visible eye. And this changement a vue was kind of interesting since it could be interpreted to reinforce Don Alfonso's machinations: Women's love is inconsistent, ever changing. But still, I got tired of looking at the endless blue of the sea, the flowers and the white linen drying on the clothesline--all moving in an artificial wind.

I gazed up at the clouds, and as I did so, I had a moment. Despite the perpetual motions on stage, the clouds were not moving at all. Their colours were slightly changing though, becoming greyer, but I couldn't detect a single movement. I thought of the Indian philosopher Rajnish talking about the clouds as a metaphor of life. If life was supposed to be as unpredictable as the movement of a cloud, this was not the case here. The sky was fake; and we were watching a play into a play, since everything was a coup monte against the two young sisters. So everybody, Don Alfonso, the servant Despina, the technical staff, and the audience knew what was going on. The clouds also recalled "The Truman Show," the 1998 movie in which Jim Carrey plays the role of an American who one day discovers that all his life he's been the actor of a reality show. The woman he believes is his wife is in fact an actress; even the sky above his head is a huge painted dome. And here, by opening boundaries between reality and fiction, Kiarostami remains faithful to his own artistic language. This staging, though tiring in its respect for convention, was dramaturgically intelligent and indeed a signature of the great director of "Close-Up."

But there was something I had a hard time accepting from an Iranian director. Maybe this has to do with my own feminist outlook, but as a spectator and opera dramaturge, I was disturbed by Kiarostami's patriarchal vision of the opera. Don Alfonso doesn't believe in women and wants to teach them a lesson. Good for him. But can we really talk about a valued life experience when the two women are forced to open their hearts to their new lovers? Is this not entrapment? Is it freedom of choice and is it for love that Dorabella and Fiordiligi marry the Albanese? Or are they afraid of losing their fiances in the war and terrified at the prospect of finding themselves with no one to take care of them? Aren't the two sisters making a choice under social pressure, and under the manipulative power of Don Alfonso and Despina-with the added help of the technical staff and our silent complicity, I might add?

And what happened to the summer holiday theme?

For me, the central question is this: Why does this opera accuse women of infidelity? This plot is linked to the Age of Enlightenment. Don Giovanni, Nozze di Figaro all talk about love, marriage, and the liberation of women. We Iranians are grappling with similar issues today. In an interview, Kiarostami talks about love and invokes Molana, Hafez, Saadi, the great Persian mystical poets who sing the praises of love, it all its beauty and suffering. Of course, the poetic aspect of his vision has a place. But from a director, an Iranian one, expressing himself in the context of intercultural dialogue, I was expecting something more engaged from a dramaturgical point of view. Kiarostami has the right of course to remain a poet and dwell on love and its ephemeral nature, but did he not miss the point? With a chance to stage this play, he was being asked to see beyond Don Alfonso's machinations-to make a stand, to say something about the the emancipation of women.

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