Director Damiano Michieletto Invigorates Opera With Stagings That Astonish Some, Appall Others

This image shows director Damiano Michieletto at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma in Rome on Oct. 10, 2023. His latest production, Massenet's rarely performed "Don Quichotte" is currently at the Paris Opera. (Fabrizio Sansoni via AP)
This image shows director Damiano Michieletto at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma in Rome on Oct. 10, 2023. His latest production, Massenet's rarely performed "Don Quichotte" is currently at the Paris Opera. (Fabrizio Sansoni via AP)

PARIS (AP) — Damiano Michieletto sat in the last row of the Opéra Bastille's front section alongside his production colleagues, watching opening night of Massenet’s rarely performed “Don Quichotte.”

They bolted at the final note to get backstage for curtain calls and were met with cheers — not a given with European audiences alternately amazed, addled and appalled by reinvented works known as regietheater.

“When I walk onstage there’s a strange sadness in me because everything is finished,” Michieletto said. “I’m always relaxed about the audience reaction because if you did your best there’s nothing else you can do after that, so just accept what the people think. It’s natural and democratic.”

The 48-year-old Italian has been prominent on European stages for two decades, known for contemporary conceptions that on occasion cause controversy.

Michieletto’s version of the 114-year-old “Quichotte” portrayed the title character, based on Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote, as stricken with memory lapses, traipsing a 1960s pastel green room while popping pills and swigging amber-colored liquor.

“Don Quichotte is a middle-aged man who’s dealing with some — it’s sort of undefined. Is it substance abuse? Is it PTSD? Is it the early stages of dementia? Is it a trauma that keeps sort of digging up inside of him?” said bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, who sang the title character in the staging's May 10 premiere.

A series of gorgeous surreal hallucinations include projected video flashbacks, descending carousel horses and black flamenco dancers emerging from shadows and furniture as Quichotte recalled Dulcinea, a nightclub chanteuse with a retro microphone. The production runs through June 11.

“It’s a man who is obsessed with the composition of a book,” Michieletto said. “He’s a writer, and it’s a mix of reality with his dreams, with his fantasy and in the memory there are traumatic episodes.”

Singers learned the concept a few weeks before rehearsals.

“He’s always open for discussion. I think Damiano is fine with best idea wins,” Van Horn said. “Some directors don’t really care for your opinion, He does. He listens and he takes it.”

Baritone Étienne Dupuis, who sang Sancho Pança, suggested his character be added on stage to witness moments not contemplated in the original text. Michieletto agreed.

“He’s a very serious man, very driven by his vision,” Dupuis said. “He will take what you do and get inspired by it and then help you bring it to the next level.”

Michieletto gained attention with Jaromír Weinberger’s “Svanda the Bagpiper” at the 2003 Wexford Festival in Ireland and “La Gazza Ladra” at the 2007 Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Italy.

He has worked since 2007 with set designer Paolo Fantin, his former student at Venice’s Accademia di Belle Arti. They live in adjacent apartment buildings in Treviso.

“Sometimes we start from one concept about the character, sometimes, one concept about the space. Every time is different,” Fantin said.

Their partnership created Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” set in a hotel inspired by Sofia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation," Puccini’s “La Bohème” with a roadside food truck, Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Machera” as a modern political rally and Saint-Saëns’ “Samson et Dalila” in which the cast began in contemporary costumes and changed for the bacchanale into attire inspired by Luchino Visconti’s movie “La caduta degli dei (The Damned).”

Verdi’s “Aida” at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera last year included an antiwar movie during the Triumphal March, paraplegics as supernumeraries and Radamès’ head shaved on stage — inspired by Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

“The idea was to portray the story from the point of view of a soldier who actually is the winner and they celebrate the victory, but at the same time I wanted to show the other side of the victory,” Michieletto said. “Being a hero could also mean that you have paid a very high price, I wanted to show the nightmares that conflict and war brings the characters.”

Michieletto’s debut at London’s Royal Opera, Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” in 2015, was booed by an audience angered by his addition of a female actor stripped naked and raped. Michieletto was highlighting the abuse of women during wars.

“Opera, theater, art is point of view, and it is normal that maybe sometimes we have not the same point of view,” Fantin said. “In London it was a scandal, in Italy (Palermo’s Teatro Massimo) it was a success. It is not in every theater the same.”

Michieletto’s “Samson et Dalila” staging was scheduled for New York in 2018 but was scrapped when Met general manager Peter Gelb concluded it was “somewhat unrelieved in its bleakness.”

“I have been following his work with interest for more than 10 years, Gelb said. “I think he’s very talented and hopefully the right combination of opera and talent will come together for the Met at some point.”

Michieletto envisions Wagner, Monteverdi and Berg in his future. He will curate the 2025 summer festival at Rome’s Baths of Caracalla, including his own production of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.”

New productions next season include Handel’s “Messiah” with Berlin’s Komische Oper at Hangar 4 of Tempelhof Airport (opening Sept. 21), Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment)” at the Bavarian State Opera (Dec. 22) and Prokofiev’s “Betrothal in a Monastery” at Austria’s Theater an der Wien (March 26) followed by the world premiere of Francesco Filidei’s “Il Nome della Rosa” at La Scala (April 27).

“I feel it’s very important to dedicate energies, working with leading composers and writers to create the stories of today told with the music of today,” Michieletto said.