A very modern tragedy
Director Olivia Fuchs’s revival of James MacMillan’s opera Inês de Castro brings a medieval tragedy into a modern day setting. By Mark Brown
The story of Inês de Castro, the noblewoman who was executed in 14th-century Portugal as part of a growing conflict between Portugal and Spain, holds a similar place in Portuguese society as does the story of Mary Queen of Scots here in Scotland. That it is to say, it is an iconic narrative, founded in real events, but around which many myths have been woven over hundreds of years.
Inês was born into a rich and powerful family in Galicia, in north-western Spain, of a Portuguese mother. She married Crown Prince Pedro of Portugal, contrary to the wishes of Pedro’s father, King Afonso IV.
Caught in the increasingly dangerous politics of the Iberian peninsula, perceived, through her connections to the Spanish court, as a potential threat to the Portuguese monarchy, Inês was executed, at the age of 29, in 1355.
Involving power, religion, political intrigue, terrible violence and, crucially, female martyrdom, Inês’s story, like that of Mary, has attracted the attentions of numerous artists over the centuries since her death. Most recently, the facts and the mythology of her death have been taken up in two interrelated dramatic works by contemporary Scottish artists.
Firstly, dramatist Jo Clifford penned a play, entitled simply Inês de Castro, which premiered at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1989. Then, in 1996, Scottish Opera presented at the Edinburgh International Festival a major opera by James MacMillan based upon Clifford’s play.
Now, almost 20 years later, MacMillan’s piece returns in a new Scottish Opera production created by acclaimed opera and theatre director Olivia Fuchs. As the director explains, her staging of the piece is a very different creature from that which took to the stage 19 years ago.
Fuchs has relocated the opera from medieval Portugal to a non-specific dictatorship in the 1970s. In the first half of that decade Spain and Portugal were both living under fascist regimes, and the countries of South America were dominated by far right military dictatorships.
Fuchs doesn’t mind if people assume that her staging of MacMillan’s opera is referencing the regime of Margaret Thatcher’s old chum Augusto Pinochet. “We’ve tried not to be completely specific about [the country]”, she says, “but there are definite references to Pinochet and Chile, which I’ve done quite a bit of research into.”
The Inês de Castro story is characterised by the violence of an avowedly Catholic Portuguese state for which gruesome forms of torture and murder are routine. Hence, Fuchs’s 20th-century setting is, “a society which is oppressed, and has torture as one of its means of oppression. It also uses religion, it’s steeped in Catholicism.”
This relocation of the opera in time and place carries profound implications for the director’s vision of the work on stage. Fuchs, through her collaboration with set and lighting designer Kai Fischer and costume designer Cordelia Chisholm, promises a very strong visual aesthetic.
The society depicted is, she explains, “homogenous” and “grey”. We can expect a visual representation of a society which is regimented, heavily militarised and in which uniformity and submission to the state are demanded.
In this sinisterly bleak world, “colour is very important”, the director continues. “Inês carries flowers, which are representative of life. She is also dressed in burnt orange. She sticks out, she’s the foreigner.”
If colour represents life, individuality and “otherness” in Fuchs’s staging, it also, increasingly, stands in for violence. “It’s very, very bloody, particularly in the second half. There’s lots of red”.
Which is not to say that her production is gory. Indeed, one of the attractions of opera for Fuchs, who began her career as a theatre director, was the fact that it is highly stylised and does not require naturalistic representation.
She has no interest, she explains, in a “naturalistic” depiction, either of violence in particular or the opera’s themes in general. The over-arching theme of death, for example, will be represented by means of the timeless, elemental metaphor of ash.
Likewise, the acts of violence are not to the fore. “We don’t show the torture too much”, says the director, “but it’s very much about a modern form of torture.”
Listening to Fuchs talk about her vision for the piece is like hearing a painter talk about the images which have informed her latest collection. She is inspired, in one element of the production, by the haunting photographs of bombed out houses during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and, in another, by the evocation of both hope and mourning inherent in burning candles.
For Fuchs, this version of Inês de Castro should blow away any idea of opera as a rarified art form for a particular section of society or people of a certain age. “Young people will love it”, she says.
The director is deeply impressed by both Clifford’s original play, which is, she comments, “fantastic” and “ritualistic”, and the major opera MacMillan has made of it. “Jimmy [MacMillan] has really written the chorus as a Greek chorus.
“It gives the piece huge scope, because, with the chorus, the opera represents a cross-section of the society.
“It also makes it very political. It’s a story about an individual in a society. With the chorus, you see the society as well.”
Inês de Castro plays Theatre Royal, Glasgow, January 22 and 24, and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, January 29 and 31. For details, visit: http://www.scottishopera.org.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 18, 2015
© Mark Brown