kostuumontwerp voor Dark Angel/Fidelio
Photo: Simon Machabeli, costume design for Dark Angel/Fidelio

Director Andriy Zholdak talks to dramaturg Luc Joosten

27 May 2024

“When I’m asked what an artwork in general means to me, and Fidelio in particular, I like to refer to Francis Ford Coppola. When asked what his Godfather films were about, rather than pointing to obvious topics such as the mafia, violence or crime, he said, “The films are about family”. A surprising but apt answer that summarises the entire series of films. It is a central theme that recurs at various levels and in different forms, sometimes quite literally but often more implicitly. In that sense, the theme serves as a kind of magnet. For me, the magnet in Fidelio is ‘harmony’. 

When I started working on this production, I deliberately chose not to begin with the libretto and the spoken texts; instead, I listened intensively to the music and the voices. Beethoven’s music extends further than the actions. You can hear a different dimension, one that transcends the banality of a bourgeois play or a mere political allegory. There is a religious, metaphysical dimension. The music has phenomenal associative powers, which I soaked up. The contrast between light and dark, the victory over darkness by restoring harmony and beauty — these are the great strengths of Fidelio’s music. I’ve tried to capture and visualise this – but that doesn’t mean everything permanently takes on a weighty, ponderous tone. I aim to maintain the balance we have in life between serious matters and pleasure, between the light-hearted and the solemn. That equilibrium is incredibly important in the intensive creative process as well.” 

Fidelio is set in the present

“I’m creating a Fidelio for the present day. When Nabokov wrote Lolita, the book caused a huge scandal in America, but it no longer has that effect today. If I were to direct a Lolita now, I’d have to find a way to generate the same feelings, the same intention, the same conflict and the same catastrophe. That is also what I need to do to bring Fidelio up to date. When I first looked at the libretto and read the simple love story and the political intrigues, and saw how the good king helps restore order everywhere, I was struck on the one hand by the naivety and on the other by how the deeper, underlying message was obscured by the specifics of the story and the actions. That is why I’ve gone for an abstract interpretation of the original spoken text and action.

If you look at the state the world is in today, with its wars and injustice, you feel the harmony has been disturbed. That’s the key to what I want to say. How I do that is another story, but the great attractive force is that idea of a disturbance to the harmony. Of course, Fidelio is also about love, about Leonore, how loyal she is to her husband, freeing him from being held a political prisoner. 

From a letter by Beethoven, 1822

In the world of art, as in the whole of creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives.

This harmony is not just something in this world, it also operates at the cosmic level, and it applies to individual human lives. If the harmony is disturbed, people turn to weapons, deceive their loved ones, use violence against children and so on. That is why my production starts with a prologue: Leonore gives a talk at a scientific conference in which she discusses the influence of dark energy in the cosmos and how it can disrupt the harmony in the cosmos. Shortly afterwards, a chain of unusual events is set off, affecting the relationship between the lovers Leonore and Florestan.”

Pizarro, the personification of evil

“I once saw an interview with the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman when he was quite old, in which he talked about his demons and how they governed his life. Indeed, we all live with demons like this, personifications of evil forces. That fact is often reflected in his films. Take the famous scene with the chess game between the knight and Death in The Seventh Seal. That was a source of inspiration for me. 

I’m telling the story of Fidelio as if it were a story about me, how I’ve had to confront evil and fight against it. Evil determines who we are — it takes on various forms, constantly appearing in a different garb, with another language, a different gender. Ultimately, it deprives us of control. If I can see this in myself, I assume other people experience this too. I believe that harmony, and the love in which this harmony is achieved, can conquer evil. That is a belief that transcends the boundaries of religion: whether you are Catholic or Buddhist, it is a belief in harmony and love.

Storyboard voor Fidelio, door Andriy Zholdak
Storyboard for Fidelio, by Andriy Zholdak

Pizarro is the character who wants to disrupt the harmony and thwart love. In my interpretation, he isn’t someone external to ourselves but rather a part of who we are and how the world is constructed. Indeed, I have him say that in the opera: “Beethoven is dead. I am taking over and I shall sow evil and disrupt order. I am part of everyone, and everyone is a part of me.” He takes Florestan away from his beloved Leonore and — like a Mephisto — transports him to a Dantean world of fears, desires, nightmares, dreams, the past, pain and violence. I essentially already show what fate has in store for Florestan before we meet him in jail, as is the case in the original opera. I show the journey to the dungeon as the result of a kidnapping by the master of evil. 

The devil speaks his own language too. He has renounced human language and prefers to express himself in numbers — the language of machines, robots and a heartless world. He forces everyone in his power to adopt that language. This lets him magnify the distance between the lovers. This turns language into something divisive, rather than functioning as a means of communication.”

Leonore, c’est moi

“When I get asked who Leonore is, I have a simple answer, for which I quote Flaubert: ‘Madame Bovary, that’s me’. Leonore, that’s me. Pizarro is a kind of Lucifer, the fallen angel. He is the evil that wants to destroy the human system, and he also destroys the child in me. He destroys the Truth concealed in the child. 

But Leonore is a strong woman. She goes in search of her lover, determined to restore the state of harmony. She attempts to break into the mirror through which her loved one was spirited away. It all reminded me of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, and of course the strange world of Alice through the Looking Glass. Our culture has numerous stories of descending to the underworld or being transported to another plane. Leonore too descends towards the circles of the inferno, voluntarily entering the darkness to bring back her lover to the world of light. In this respect, my account is quite close to the meaning of the original text, the struggle between light and darkness. Searching the caverns of the human soul, overcoming your fears...”

Our mindsets have changed

“Modern-day audiences are very savvy. That’s why I want my production to give the audience something that is more than a mere illustration. The world I show on stage is populated with images, characters and movements that act as symbols and evoke associations in the audience. I draw on the wealth of sources in mythology, painting, the films of directors such as Tarkovsky, von Trier, Bergman and Cocteau, the world of art, literature, life and dreams.

Simon Machabeli, kostuumontwerp voor Florestan/Fidelio
Simon Machabeli, costume design for Florestan/Fidelio

What interests me in the work of other theatre-makers is how a stage director can tell a story about love, for example, or war using a distinctive voice. I see each performance as a book, an encyclopaedia with many layers that can be read in multiple ways. One person may merely consider the story or the aesthetic quality, while another will probe the deeper layers. Opera as an art form automatically encompasses that multiplicity of layers. 

Nowadays, we can’t simply put on the same operas that were produced in the past. It’s 2024; we are already a quarter of the way through the twenty-first century. Often, you see the major opera houses still applying the aesthetics of thirty years ago, or longer. Those productions are all perfectly professional with great sets and impressive lighting, but the times have changed. We are currently living in the age of the quantum and artificial intelligence — our mindsets have changed. Art needs to offer an answer to this. I’m hungry for what I don’t know — for me, that is art. And that hunger is my starting point.”

Fidelio will be performed from 5 to 29 June 2024 at Dutch National Opera & Ballet