Parlando: The COC Blog


Darkness and Joy: Exploring the Humanity of Claus Guth's Figaro

By: Gianmarco Segato


Claus Guth’s production of The Marriage of Figaro has had a lengthier gestation period than most. It premiered at the 2006 Salzburg Festival, was quickly revived there in 2007 and 2009, and culminated in the German director staging all three of Mozart’s collaborations with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte at the 2011 festival (Don Giovanni being added in 2008 and Così fan tutte in 2009). Initially, Guth resisted Mozart’s iconic comedy, questioning whether it was possible for him to confront the dangerous elements in a work whose music he had enjoyed with “uncontrolled excess”* while growing up. It was the Salzburg production’s first conductor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who managed to shift Guth’s focus away from Figaro’s distractingly glittery musical delights towards its intelligent, witty exploration of real, human relationships—the very elements that pushed comic opera beyond its more formulaic, slapstick Italian commedia dell’arte roots.

From this emerged an interpretation that relocates the action from 18th-century Andalusia to fin-de-siècle Central Europe by way of the intense, modernist stage dramas of Ibsen and Strindberg, and the films of Ingmar Bergman.

Guth’s concept for his Figaro was by no means static, enmeshed as it became with his simultaneous stagings of Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. He began to identify fascinating crossovers and linkages between specific character types within the Mozart/da Ponte trilogy. For example, Guth came to view Figaro’s philandering Count Almaviva as a double for the womanizing anti-hero, Don Giovanni. Accordingly, he portrays the Count as a middle-aged, sex-obsessed roué who despite carrying on an affair with his wife’s maid, Susanna, still struggles to maintain a degree of bourgeois domesticity. He constantly mops his sweaty brow with a white handkerchief, panic-stricken he will be caught in the act.

This production’s most striking directorial intervention comes in the form of a non-speaking character, Cherubim, costumed exactly like the page, Cherubino. His silent, trickster-like presence (he has been portrayed by dancer and champion unicyclist Uli Kirsch in all iterations of the production) functions a lot like the personification of Love/Eros in early Baroque opera; he is invisible to the other characters and frequently manipulates them, pushing them together or pulling them apart. Guth’s Cherubim symbolizes the engine which drives Mozart’s complex musicodramatic creation: Eros (love/lust), and therefore expands and magnifies the real Cherubino’s function. Within Figaro’s world, the randy young page stands apart as the only character not yet shoehorned into a clearly defined societal role; as one who wears his heart on his sleeve and manages to remind the women (the Countess, Susanna and Barbarina) of their buried sexual desires. As such, he is deemed an agent of chaos and his symbolic threat is dispensed with when Guth has him killed by his alter-ego, Cherubim, at the end of the opera.

Guth notes a prevailing pessimism that pervades Mozart’s world view— in Figaro it has not yet completely taken over and so, “the more amusing elements are roughly equal to what frightens and depresses human beings.”* Darkness is always rumbling just beneath the surface, even in unexpected places like the opera’s grand finale. In most stagings, this moment is an excuse for general rejoicing despite the betrayals, both real and perceived, that have preceded it. Guth “found it rather attractive to add to this slightly mad jubilation, something rather like slightly hysterical laughter in view of the abyss.”*

If the happiness of Figaro’s all-too recognizably human characters is not a complete and outright lie, it is at the very least, deeply conflicted.

* From an interview with Claus Guth by Monika Mertl in the 2011 Salzburg Festival house program

For more information on our current production of The Marriage of Figaro and to buy tickets, visit here.

Gianmarco Segato is Adult Programs Manager at the COC.

Photo credit: Russell Braun as the Count and and Uli Kirsch as Cherubim (top) in The Marriage of Figaro (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper 

Posted by Gianmarco Segato / in Marriage of Figaro / comments (0) / permalink


Siegfried, Memory, and Identity

By Stephan Bonfield 

When we first meet the hero Siegfried, we encounter a man-child-demigod trying to learn about his own past and identity from someone who can tell him very little about either. What the unscrupulous Mime does know, he buttresses with untruths in a petulant, fitful manner, claiming to be both Siegfried's father and mother, so as to use him for his own sinister purposes to acquire the Ring.

We may not realize it right away, but our first encounter with Siegfried is with someone whose very human qualities we know all too well, recognizable from earlier stages in our own lives—naïveté, innocence, manipulability—in short, someone with an underdeveloped identity.

When we begin to seek first awareness of our own identities we start with who our parents are. Unlike Siegfried, most of us are fortunate enough to know our parents' identities, and even to know a lot about our own heritage. Knowing our past becomes a guarantor for taking first firm steps toward knowing ourselves.

But for Siegfried, the basic first step toward taking action in the world is hampered by his disconnection from his own past. He knows nothing of the events we saw in the previous music drama Die Walküre, nothing of his parents Siegmund or Sieglinde, nor of his infamous grandfather Wotan, who now seeks truth about the fate of the gods and the world disguised as The Wanderer. Above all, Siegfried knows nothing of fear itself, that great human attribute that makes us cautious in our tentative first steps toward self-knowledge.

Wagner presents Siegfried's lack of knowledge about his own identity in revealing, metaphorical fashion. The hero, for all his strength and eventual indomitability in battle, still remains a mystery to himself, something like how the human race discourses with its own obscured past by trying to seek clues to its own evolutionary emergence. Humanity is symbolized in the personage of Siegfried, emerging nascent, fresh and new in the primeval world, which Wagner describes in darkest primordial woodwind hues as the curtain rises on the forested cave of our hidden unconscious origins.

Wagner liked to say that his earliest understanding of Siegfried could be seen in "each throbbing of his [own] pulse, each effort of his muscles as he moved," and in him, he "saw the archetype of man himself." Siegfried was Wagner's artistic representation of the emergence of human consciousness.

Furthermore, Wagner composed Siegfried when Germany was itself emerging as a nation during a time of great political upheaval; struggling to life; flexing a newly-unified, muscular national identity, and likewise, the composer came to envision humanity in much the same way, being birthed from the cosmic undergrowth into a visibly new thicket of life. Siegfried's character also stands as a representation of humanity birthed into fledgling self-awareness, emerging from a primordial past, long-ago forgotten.

Siegfried is descended from the gods but does not know it. Even when told something of his past by Brünnhilde at the end of the opera, he seems to lack the fundamental curiosity to explore this cosmic relationship further. He even forgets the meaning of fear he learned when he first encountered Brünnhilde. Siegfried seems to have lost his way in understanding his own lineage, a vital piece of information needed to establish a connection with the past, his own present identity, and an emotionally secure path toward responsible future action. In other words, cut off from memory of his past, and lacking an emotionally mature present, Siegfried lacks the profound conscious self-awareness necessary to construct his own future.

Wagner appears to be making the interesting but astonishing assertion that somewhere along the way, we too forgot, or worse, became oblivious to the notion that, like Siegfried, we were descended from some transcendently creative power. Wagner often wrote of Greek epic heroes who were descended from gods themselves and in Siegfried, seems to suggest that in our mytho-poetic understanding of our own origins we have forgotten that we too were stamped from a similar forge of eternal fire.

Much like Siegfried, who cannot even recognize his own grandfather, Wotan, king of the Norse pantheon, we also seem to reside in a sort of collective amnesia, cut off from our past origins, and still seeking clues as to our present identity as human beings. When Wotan, disguised as The Wanderer confronts his grandson to ask whether he knows who he is, Siegfried impertinently answers that he doesn't much care, and essentially tells the Ruler of the Gods to stop speaking in useless riddles and to get out of his way. He over-runs The Wanderer and splits his spear, smashing the old-world order, destroying any connection with the past and effectively securing the eventual doom of the gods in the next music drama Götterdämmerung.

Much has been written about this epic moment, often described as a cost borne of colossal human ignorance. Humanity, in its rush to overthrow its gods because of the imperturbable need to move forward, effectively guarantees its own inevitable destruction by sequestering the past into ignorance, dooming the human race to repeat its mistakes. When we lose memory of both our past and our identity, we ensure our own fall into ignorance and destruction, just as surely as Siegfried does when his naïveté tragically betrays him in Götterdämmerung and he is treacherously slain.

And herein lies the point of Wagner's central message in Siegfried. As Siegfried forges his sword—a bold metaphor for the creation of his new and heroic identity—so we too as a civilization must forge identity and memory together, based on an unstoppable love that thirsts for the knowledge of our origins. For Wagner, anything less meant being cursed by a loveless Will to blind power, like Alberich's curse on the Ring. If we remain naïve to this evil tendency of human nature, then like Siegfried, we ensure our own destruction.

How can we escape such a fate? To find out, we will have to return next season for Götterdämmerung.

To learn more about our current production of Siegfried and to buy tickets, visit here.

Stephan Bonfield is a frequent speaker at the COC and other opera companies across Canada and is the opera and ballet critic for The Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal.

Photo credit: (left to right) Alan Held as the Wanderer, George Molnar as the Bear, Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime in Siegfried (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper

Posted by Stephan Bonfield / in Siegfried / comments (0) / permalink


In Conversation: Christine Goerke


On Wednesday, February 3, our Opera Insights series featured Christine Goerke, the opera world’s most sought-after Brünnhilde (currently starring in our production of Siegfried), in an intimate evening of conversation about her life and career. The host was recently retired Toronto Star theatre critic, Richard Ouzounian. Listen to their immensely entertaining and candidly revealing conversation here!



For more information on our FREE Opera Insights events, visit here


Photo credit: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in Siegfried (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper

Posted by COC Staff / in Siegfried / comments (0) / permalink

Previous << 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30  >> Next 

Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001



Subscribe to the COC e-mail newsletter.
Contact Tanner
Have a question? Want to share a link? Submit a comment!