Francesconi’s QUARTETT: Interview with Director John Fulljames

Francesconi’s QUARTETT: Interview with Director John Fulljames

After making its world premiere at Milano’s La Scala Theater in April 2011 (directed by La Fura dels Baus, conducted by Susanna Mällki), Luca Francesconi’s much acclaimed Quartett has been performed over 40 times in cities throughout Europe. 
Two performances of the opera are slated for May: one in Trento, Italy (May 5); and one at the Spoleto Festival USA (May 28), where the opera will be making its United States premiere. These performances will be directed by John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, London. Fulljames also directed the performance of Quartett at the Opéra de Rouen, France, on April 25 of this year. 
We had a chance to talk to the director. 

In June 2014, the Royal Opera House staged the premiere performance of Luca Francesconi’s Quartett in UK. It was an all-new production with respect to what was seen at La Scala, and you directed it. Yours is the first production of Quartett  after the world premiere production directed by La Fura dels Baus. What has staging Quartett meant for you? 
It was a real privilege to stage this opera.  Opera is an intrinsically multi-layered art-form – a great narrative art-form which in the hands of artists like Heiner Müller and Luca Francesconi is also a place for real reflection on the human condition across time and specifically politically today. One of the challenges, and joys, of this opera is that Heiner Müller takes Laclos’ C18th characters from ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ and places them in a cold war bunker at the end of time, and then Luca Francesconi takes that world and brings it totally up to date.  So we see the end of the ancient regime as a story which is played out again and again over centuries, only this time in the C21st, as we face an environmental crisis, our descent and decay feel more terminal and existential than ever before.

What sets your direction apart from the work done by La Fura dels Baus? The setting is surely different. 
It’s hard for me to describe my production in relationship to another production.  When I first encountered the opera I was struck by two things.  Firstly, the importance of role playing in the opera. The opera has a very clear narrative structured around a set of role-playing games which Valmont and Merteuil engage in; the games become darker and more dangerous until they culminate in the murder of, or suicide of, Valmont.  The challenge, and joy, for any director in this piece comes I think in clarifying and relishing the levels of role play as a baritone plays Valmont playing Merteuil, or the baritone plays Valmont playing Valmont. Making that all clear for an audience really releases the story.

Secondly, I was struck by how this opera operates on both the most vast possible canvas and also the most intimate.  On the one hand, with the pre-recorded orchestra we hear the sounds of the universe, the sounds of organic life continuing after the death of humanity.  On the other hand, within the bunker the audience is trapped with the most intimate vulnerabilities and fantasies of the last humans left alive. 

Because the large orchestra is pre-recorded and diffused electronically, it is now possible to treat the opera as a chamber opera. And so the audience can have a very intimate relationship with the singers and the live chamber orchestra.  This I find very thrilling
– this is an opera with the canvas of an epic score but also offering the proximity of chamber theatre.

Quartett sparked a heated debate in London, which overflowed into the social media. Certainly, this is an opera that does not leave audiences indifferent, both because of the themes explored and the explicit scenes. Did you expect a reaction like that?   
The critical reaction in London was certainly strong but although it is a long time ago so I am not sure it had much to do with the themes explored or the explicit content. Instead, I think it was a reaction above all to the intensity of the experience.  This is an opera which demands an extraordinary amount from its audience – both musically and dramatically as the world of it is so unremitting - but I think it us ultimately hugely rewarding.  

It is so important that opera is an ambitious art-form, pushing at the boundaries of what is possible musically and dramatically. It must let us see and hear in new ways. Luca does that in a truly inspiring way and so of course not everyone will agree about what works and what doesn’t.  But surely that is exactly what we want from our leading artists. It is a good thing that they provoke debate.

You also direct great operas from the past. How far do you think a director can go in terms of updating the original settings of those operas? There is much debate centered around this issue. How do you feel about it? 
The question for any director is always about finding the essence of the work and finding the best way for that essence to connect directly to an audience in this time and place. The best way to do that is always specific to circumstance.

Heiner Müller is a very interesting provocateur on this – as his reprocessing of old texts involves not just a relocation but also a structural reinvestigation.  He was making new theatre in pieces like ‘Quartett’ or  ‘Hamletmaschine’ rather than just re-staging old theatre.  

Perhaps opera’s challenge could be to do the same.

In the end the question is surely not “how far can you go?” but rather “how far do you need to go in order to dig down into the essence of a piece and release it for today’s audience?”

Performances of this production:

April 25, 27 – Rouen, Théâtre des Arts
Marquise de Merteuil Adrian Angelico
Vicomte de Valmont Robin Adams
Orchestre de l’Opéra de Rouen Normandie
Conductor, Patrick Davin
Director, John Fulljames

May 5, 7 – Trento, Teatro Sociale
Marquise de Merteuil  Angelica Voje
Vicomte de Valmont  Robin Adams
Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento
Conductor, Patrick Davin
Director, John Fulljames

May 28, 31 / June 3 – Spoleto Festival (Usa), Memminger Auditorium
Marquise de Merteuil   Adrian Angelico
Vicomte de Valmont  Christian Miedl
Festival Orchestra
Conductor, John Kennedy
Director, John Fulljames

Photo: Melrose as Vicomte de Valmont - Chavez as Marquise de Merteuil, (C) Cummiskey