Guillaume Tell, Metropolis and the fight for freedom

Guillaume Tell, Metropolis and the fight for freedom

For her debut at La Scala, Chiara Muti directs Rossini's last theatrical masterpiece, a biblically charged affair centred on the conflict between virtue and vice, good and evil

© Silvia Lelli 160224 6875 1

“At the beginning, everything is dark. A labyrinth of walls rises up all around, suffocating the horizon. Square, bleak buildings outline a city inspired by the visionary Metropolis by Fritz Lang, a cult film from 1927 that prophesied the annihilation of society and an automated humanity, a slave to profit.” These are the words, tinted with biblical influence, that begin the director’s notes by Chiara Muti for Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, a colossal opera by the Pesaro-born genius. For the first time, the La Scala audience will have a chance to hear the piece in its original version in French.



BS A debut at La Scala with Guillaume Tell; that’s enough to make one’s hands shake…

CM When the CEO called me to propose this piece, I asked him, “But why Guillaume Tell?” And he said, “Because after seeing your Don Giovanni I can already imagine what you might do.” As a female director, you might feel closer to pieces like Norma, Traviata or Medea, but often your favourite opera is always the last one you prepared. As soon as you immerse yourself in the work, your passion grows and the pieces you believe to be more distant from you end up being much closer, offering surprising passages.


BS Where did you start when establishing your direction?

CM From the fight for freedom, the conflict between virtue and vice, good and evil.


BS So, we are talking about archetypes.

CM Yes, it is a story with biblical scope. Guillaume is the pure one, a visionary man who does not accept vice. He is a hero despite himself because for him, morality and respect come before everything else. That’s not true for all the others; that’s not true for Gessler, who represents evil. In laying out the dramaturgy, I let myself be transported by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. I asked myself: what freedom are we losing? And I realized that we are unwittingly self-subjugating ourselves to a mechanism that continues to impose on us more and more absurd and inhumane rules that everyone must accept to live peacefully. I see it in the new generations, with their nose to the ground, physically lying on the ground, no longer looking up at the sky but rather at these horrendous media that are closing us off from the world and whose display light is like the face of Narcissus: the more you look at it the deeper into the abyss you unknowingly fall. This evil is destroying us and the genius Lang, in Metropolis, foreshadowed everything: that machines would consume us all, that man would become a slave to profit and would annihilate himself. That was in 1927.


BS Your version is thus a criticism of the capitalist system?

CM I don’t want to be political; I put my all into it. I’m referring to a global system in which money rules all and hides a perverse mechanism for enslaving the masses. An economic lobby centred on dehumanization, if you will. This atrocity of evil, in my direction, is represented by Gessler, biblically the devil. Paradoxically, today, everyone is ready to say they are happy for the sake of a quiet life, as in the first act of Tell in which the shepherds celebrate; but I wonder, what are they celebrating if they have lost everything? Therefore, in the first act, you won’t see nature or the Alps but rather the grey shepherds, dressed like in Metropolis, dusty, neither women or men, just enslaved silhouettes amidst large square buildings. The contact with nature is lost; we no longer empathize with each other; after all, humans are the only species that slaughters fellow humans. Guillaume is the only one who can wield the legendary crossbow.


BS Well then, there is no more timely a piece than this. The world is bloodied by fratricidal wars, and unfortunately for us, it seems impossible to find “righteous men” like Guillaume who can lead us to salvation.

CM Guillaume is pure like Saint Francis, and Saint Frances would never have entered politics because he was not vain. The political race has a narcissistic component. Guillaume doesn’t want to be a famous warrior; he doesn’t want to be a Danton. He is a wandering man, a philosopher, a poet; I could venture to say he is a Christ. That’s why I added many biblical references and symbols, like the dance of the seven deadly sins in a diabolical sabbath or the apple on the head of an innocent child that Guillaume must strike to destroy the original sin weighing on us. For him, the buildings erected by the devil, or the Habsburgs if you prefer, are a great act of pride and, like in Babylon, they will collapse. This is the inevitable collapse destined for those who challenge the creator. Schiller, in Inno alla gioia, writes "feel creation, look to the stars, there you will find the answers." But today, we all look to the ground, at our feet, and only Guillaume is not blind.


BS In a nutshell, you believe there is a serious spiritual crisis taking place. We have lost our relationship with the transcendent, with the stars.

CM Yes, I love talking about creation. The stars are the smiles of those who stand beside us.


BS And a smile shines brighter than the screen of a smartphone.

CM Of course, but young people today don’t understand that. Not to mention that they no longer know how to enjoy the privilege of boredom. To us, it means getting lost within ourselves, searching for other worlds, making space for imagination, which is perhaps the only thing that differentiates us from machines, as well as the ability to make mistakes. If a machine makes a mistake, it freezes; when we make mistakes, we learn twice as much and find a new path. Even the greatest discoveries often come from a mistake, just think of penicillin. To err is what makes us who we are.


BS A person who knows how to find value in mistakes must have had great teachers. Who do you remember with the most gratitude?

CM Strehler first and foremost. Thanks to him, I fell in love with theatre! I was 9 when I discovered Le nozze di Figaro, and it was a complete coup de foudre. I watched this man dressed in full black who as soon as he entered a room, he “changed” the environment around him. All the characters acted differently, jumped about, picked the right tempos, were transformed. My love for theatre, for studying characters and for words, was born with him. That’s not to mention the work he did with lights: indescribable. I remember entire nights at La Scala in which the perception of time vanished, with him calling the electricians by name he was so kind. That’s when I understood this was my world, because when I would leave, reality seemed grey. My love for music of course came from my father, there’s no doubt about it! But in this case, the relationship went beyond that of a student and teacher. Another person I could never forget is Valeria Moriconi. I did my first audition with her in which I played Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni by Molière, as well as my first tour on a text by Marivaux. I remember everything I learned from her behind the scenes. I can say that I learned from older giants, who in turn learned from older giants, while still feeling like a child.


BS What was your greatest joy experienced in the theatre?

CM That’s difficult because unfortunately I have a problem with perfectionism – I get it from my father – which eats at me and from which I must free myself. It is a double-edged sword that can clip your wings. In any case, perhaps the Don Giovanni at the Regio di Torino with my father. I am so happy about it because, for the first time, I was certain of the path I was on, so sure that I was able to convince even him. His understanding glance at the end deeply moved me.


BS The figure of your father, as is normal, comes up constantly. What is the most useful advice he has given you?

CM He is a craftsman, you see; if he must pick up a symphony after 40 years, he does it as if he were studying it for the first time. This is because the masterpieces must always be treated with respect, never to be used as they appear, but rather you must put yourself in service of them. My father always told me, “If you can, it’s a life of solitude and work.” At home, he always talked like that. He instilled a seriousness in me, and the awareness that you must never look for shortcuts.


BS What character would you like to play in Tell?

CM Guillaume, without a doubt. After all, Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet, and before her, in Elizabethan theatre, Giulietta was a man. So it all adds up; anything can be done in theatre


BS If Rossini was sitting here in my place, what would you ask him?

CM Why did you stop writing at 37 after Guillaume Tell?

Biagio Scuderi
Translation by Alexa Ahern