A Theatre of Details

A Theatre of Details

Christof Loy makes his La Scala debut in Jules Massenet's masterpiece from Goethe's Werther. He elaborates on his working method, inherited from the great German theatre tradition of the 1960s

7.6 foto per sito intervista Loy

Forget Goethe? Might this be the assumption of anyone who is about to stage Massenet's Werther? It is an opera in which the disturbances of the young man who initiated the Sturm und Drang are filtered, sweetened, some say even watered down by the fin de siècle climate in which it was born (Courir called it a "kitschy Tristan"). But for German director Christof Loy, one should not be prejudiced. One falls into the blunt sentimentality only if emotions are dealt with in a generic way. And Goethe can resurface even in this drame lyrique of late Romanticism.

MP This performance at La Scala is not your first Werther.

CL I staged another one in Bremen in 1996. At that time, I had treated it almost as a chamber opera, I was not interested in all the surroundings. I had cut out the children, the villagers and other ensemble scenes to focus all my attention on the four main characters. In the German world in which I grew up, this opera is not well regarded, if we think of the snobs who believe only Schoenberg's Moses und Aron is serious music. In order to defend this music at its best, one has to work very closely on the acting, because only the details can give the quality, otherwise one falls into sentimentality. After all, it is caution to be observed at all times; even Fiordiligi's aria "Per pietà, ben mio, perdona" would become melancholy.

MP And how do you set up this detail work?

CL One must always ask, what is the specific emotion we are looking for. It is not enough to say that the character is sad. Perhaps he is sad and giving up? Or does he hate himself for being sad? Or does he still want to find a way out of this sadness? These are completely different emotions from each other.

MP For a German, the figure of Goethe is a bit like Dante for us. What is your relationship to Werther?

CL It may sound strange to you, but I knew Massenet's opera first. I am an atypical German -- after all, I am atypical in many other ways. I was a young boy obsessed with music and I happened upon the disc with Alfredo Kraus and Tatiana Troyanos directed by Michel Plasson. I immediately wanted to go and read Goethe's novel. Then the next year we read it in school. Our teachers had all studied in ‘68 and were not detached from the political interpretation, "Werther is a victim of society." Even then it seemed a bit simplistic, I felt that this character, not even that "sympatisch," was more complex than that. Then of course, Werther is obviously also a victim, but if he does not fit into society, it is because every society has to be rule-based, whereas he is a rebel, a troublemaker. I tend to defend these kinds of characters: I accept the rules, but I admire people who try not to reduce human beings to a single norm.

MP Does this also apply to opera?

CL Of course. But in Massenet there is also another aspect that interests me, which I came to later, which is when, exploring more of Goethe's work, I discovered Elective Affinities. I must have been 16, and since then it has been one of the seminal novels of my life, which I continue to read and reread even years later. While in The Sorrows of Young Werther, there is the triangle between Werther, Charlotte and Albert, in Elective Affinities, there are two couples, so the possibilities explored in the earlier novel are expanded. Here, in Massenet's Werther the introduction of Sophie's character leads to an all-too-similar quartet, with many more possible combinations, some of which have something chemical about them that cannot be destroyed in any way, as in the case of Werther and Charlotte.

MP Werther belongs to a long list of "fragile" heroes of the 19th century. But unlike the others, he does not hide his fragility.

CL To me, that is precisely the idea of a hero. A hero who has no doubts is not a hero; he is just a fool. A hero is someone who must convince himself every day to do something he is afraid of. But there's more: Werther also has destructive energy, which is why he does not fit into any category of roles that existed before or after, because in an unconscious way he uses his fragility to emotionally manipulate others, first and foremost, Charlotte.

MP Let’s talk a little more about Charlotte’s character.

CL Charlotte promises her dying mother that she will marry Albert, and from that moment on, she becomes a true symbol of responsibility: once she has given her word, she must stick to it, otherwise the whole system would falter. To put it philosophically, she experiences it as a Kantian categorical imperative, a moral implication that she must follow because the whole society expects it. She keeps repeating in the play that this is her "devoir," and Werther would like her to escape the rigidity of this pattern.

MP Childhood plays a central role in the opera: the children's choirs, the playful atmosphere of certain scenes...Does Werther dream of becoming a child again?

CL The point is that he never became an adult. In fact, it is strange that we know nothing about him, about his past, in this piece. More details are known about the minor characters than about the main character. Werther could be an orphaned child who grew up in an aristocratic home. In any case, he seems to have had no idea what it means to be responsible for others. And that is the big difference between him and Charlotte, who on the contrary, feels responsible for everything: for the children, for her widowed father, for her mother whom she took care of when she was dying. She feels the weight of everyone on her shoulders. Perhaps that is why she is attracted to the unattached adventurer who relies only on himself: "C'est moi! C'est moi!" repeats Werther. But even thinking all the time about oneself is not healthy.

MP Is a "Werther effect" thinkable today? An identification with the protagonist that prompts emulation?

CL I believe one can identify with all four characters, depending on the moment one is living in, not just with Werther. Massenet constructed a piece in which all kinds of relationships are considered. That's also why today, almost 30 years after my first Werther, I consider the presence of the rest of the world on stage, an entire village watching, to be fundamental. Because you cannot separate the problems of a relationship from the environment in which you live: conflicts are mostly due to the fact that you always have to refer to an outside world.

ML In the set design, the outside world can be glimpsed only through a door in the centre of a large wall.

CL Because it is like a holy grail in this constellation of relationships. I like that it is a kind of secret garden that everyone would like to enter. Maybe even Werther, the rebel. He too, deep down, would like to be part of a society, to have a more stable life in which Charlotte can eventually become his wife. But this sentimental vision will never be his life. Often, we fixate on dreams that we can never achieve.

MP According to your method, from the very first rehearsal, singers must always be in costume. What does this add to your work?

CL It's actually a habit that comes from German theatre, ever since the revolution in the 1960s when Peter Stein, then Luc Bondy, Claus Peymann and other directors started working this way. I was an assistant then and it was normal; I grew up with this system. I think it helps singers from the very beginning to have the courage to be a little different, without the jeans and sneakers. It's like going back to where we started, when we did theatre as children, we would dress up and immediately become kings and queens. It awakens our basic instincts. I'm not in the habit of using a lot of effects in my shows, I try to let the audience see what I'm interested in, to the point where they even forget about the big star on stage. Sometimes certain details of a show stay with you for years, that means it was more than just a moment of entertainment. Of course, you have to entertain the audience, but you also have to teach them something.

MP According to the Brechtian principle?

CL Yes, but not only in an intellectual sense. Brecht also had an idea of theatre that we might call more sensual. If I have to name one, I would mention Schiller, his idea of theatre as a moral institution. Or at least, I believe in it.

Mattia Palma
Translation by Alexa Ahern