At the Festival Published on 25/06/2019
Mahagonny seems to crystalize the latent narrative trope found in many of the works directed by Ivo van Hove—i.e., the parable of “grandeur and decadence.” This recurring model is especially obvious when you consider Les Damnés—created at the Festival d’Avignon in 2016 and performed again at the Comédie-Française—which was based on Visconti’s film and tells the story of the splendor and decline of a family of German manufacturers mired in Nazism. The plot begins in 1933, in the same ideological and political context that had turned Brecht and Weill’s “culinary opera” into a scandal three years earlier.

Whether he is taking on Euripides (Electre/Oreste, 2019), Shakespeare (Roman Tragedies, revived in 2018), Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov, 2018) or Couperus (The Things That Pass, 2018; The Hidden Force, 2019), Ivo van Hove captures an especially brilliant instance of civilization at the moment it shines brightest and then falls into utter chaos. His line of attack, however, remains contemporary: while Brecht and Weill’s parable was aimed at the Weimar Republic, Ivo van Hove’s production also alludes to protests stoked by the financial crisis, the specious economic benefits from new technologies, and the increasingly tangible threat of ecological catastrophe.

Mahagonny and Les Damnés are, in their own way, rewritings of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which gave this parable its absolute form. Ivo van Hove directed Wagner’s work at Gand from 2006 to 2008, and that experience may have shaped his future stories. His idea was that, with Valhalla, Wotan wished to create a better society; but that, beginning with The Valkyrie, this dream began to fall apart. As the director put it, “Rioters roamed among the remains of their empire. Then, in The Twilight of the Gods, the Gibichungs tried to impose another model of social interaction akin to virtual reality.”

For Ivo van Hove, the conquest of power and the impossibility of retaining it are the driving forces behind the combination “grandeur and decadence.” Except that the nature of this combination has changed: today, the control of public opinion and economic flow has replaced politics. Thus, in the Ring, “gold was embodied by the digital highway, which contains all the world’s information.” And in Macbeth (revived in Lyon in 2018), “it is financial power that fuels the murderous couple’s ambition.” This production shares many similarities with that of Mahagonny: Macbeth has the characteristics of a “capitalist banker who has achieved what he wants” and must now be overturned. At the time, there were not yet the “yellow-vesters,” but there were “the pacifist protests of an outraged people”—i.e., the Occupy Wall Street movement—“who just want to think about what they’d like do with their futures.”

His intense interest in this parable may have secret roots. For Mahagonny, the director has said he took inspiration from documentaries that recount the chaotic film shoots of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982). In short, his work may be a representation of the artistic process itself, between, on the one hand, a desire for power and, on the other, a fragile vanity, one that, in the fable of Mahagonny, contemplates its own image in the mirror. Ivo van Hove has acknowledged that, since the death of his best friend when the director was only 16 years old, he has taken “great pleasure, which is in no way morbid, in directing physical degradation, agony and death” and concludes that, “because it’s live art, because it’s an art of the living, theater constantly confronts the representation of this boundary, which is its fundamental otherness.”

by Timothée Picard


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