‘Tell me what tra­di­tional means’

He put Rhine­maid­ens in fat suits, breathed life into Tur­nage’s Anna Ni­cole – now he is di­rect­ing Covent Gar­den’s first new pro­duc­tion of La Bo­hème since 1974. Fiona Maddocks meets Richard Jones

The Guardian - Review - - Arts - La Bo­hème opens at the Royal Opera House, Lon­don WC2E, on Mon­day. roh.org.uk. The per­for­mance on 3 Oc­to­ber will be broad­cast live in cin­e­mas.

Pink floor­boards, yel­low chairs, green cup­boards and five dif­fer­ent sorts of joy­ously clash­ing wall­pa­per: this could be a Richard Jones stage set, es­pe­cially if you in­clude the gar­den gnome. We are, in fact, in the di­rec­tor’s south Lon­don house – though this meet­ing is quite a drama. Jones “never” does any in­ter­views and claims to have for­got­ten how they go.

“If this was for World of In­te­ri­ors I’d be OK,” he muses, soft spo­ken, wry and a lit­tle ner­vous. Why the re­sis­tance? “Bad ex­pe­ri­ences.” Why agree now? He evades my ques­tion, fo­cus­ing on the ar­rival of his cat. The an­swer – had he given one – might have been: “I guess it’s about time.”

His an­swer would not be: “Be­cause my new pro­duc­tion of La Bo­hème at the Royal Opera House, re­plac­ing John Co­p­ley’s adored 1974 ver­sion which ran for 41 years, is open­ing on Mon­day with a starry young cast con­ducted by An­to­nio Pap­pano.” True to form, Jones won’t re­veal any­thing about his new pro­duc­tion. He thinks di­rec­tors have noth­ing to say and the work should speak for it­self. He hates the idea of “wit­ness­ing process. Cam­eras in re­hearsal rooms? No-o-o.”

Born in Lon­don in 1953, Jones doesn’t speak much of Da­m­a­scene mo­ments and doesn’t tell anec­dotes. Did he see much opera as a boy? “A bit. I prob­a­bly went with my mum.” Af­ter com­pre­hen­sive school he stud­ied an­thro­pol­ogy at Hull Univer­sity where he did once spot, with­out quite know­ing who he was, its fa­mous poet-li­brar­ian Philip Larkin. “If it’s OK we won’t talk about ed­u­ca­tion.” It’s OK. We don’t.

Af­ter univer­sity, he put his en­er­gies into be­ing a punk. “Or rather, I had a boyfriend who was a punk. We watched the Sex Pis­tols and hung out in Covent Gar­den, which was a very dif­fer­ent place then, quite scuzzy, badly lit … ” A good mu­si­cian, he worked as a jazz pi­anist, play­ing in bars and for West End shows, which gave him valu­able in­sight into the me­chan­ics of the­atre. He per­formed, too – “I’ve never said this be­fore” – at the le­gendary Blitz club in Great Queen Street, cult home of Boy Ge­orge and the New Ro­man­tics c1980, so hip it once turned away Mick Jag­ger at the door.

It was “my own bo­hemian pe­riod. I was a bit aim­less. There was still agit prop in those days – the­atre as agent for so­cial change, a pretty ris­i­ble idea now. I loved the tough, cool pro­duc­tions of John Dex­ter, and clas­si­cal bal­let, too. Still do. Both showed you ex­actly where the eye should look – per­fect tu­to­ri­als for a would-be di­rec­tor.”

Af­ter ini­tial for­ays in rooms above pubs, Jones made a main­stream the­atre splash di­rect­ing Ostro­vsky’s Too Clever by Half at Lon­don’s Old Vic in 1988. At the same time, he turned to opera. His ver­sion of Prokofiev’s Love for Three Or­anges at Opera North and English Na­tional Opera the fol­low­ing year, in which scratch and sniff cards were handed to the au­di­ence, was deemed ir­rita- ting and in­trigu­ing. Here was some­thing novel, zany and out­ra­geous.

Then in the mid 90s came Wag­ner’s

Ring cy­cle at the Royal Opera House. Un­even but in­tel­li­gent, the pro­duc­tion also struck many as in­ept and pro­voked bil­ious head­lines. Jones is in two minds about it. “I’d love to have an­other go at The Ring. Nearly 25 years on, I can safely say as­pects of that pro­duc­tion were cat­a­strophic.” Mu­sic di­rec­tor Bernard Haitink was not sym­pa­thetic to Jones’s “naked” Rhine­maid­ens fat­tened up with La­tex body suits, or to Wotan car­ry­ing a one-way sign for a spear, or Brünnhilde wear­ing a brown pa­per bag over her head. The dif­fi­cul­ties were well recorded.

Yet Jones was never out of work, at home or abroad, di­rect­ing pro­duc­tions in Ger­many, on Broad­way (briefly, with Ti­tanic the mu­si­cal) and at Glyn­de­bourne. His style is un­mis­tak­able, whether in the hu­man zoo in Berg’s Lulu at ENO (2002), the in­flat­able hor­rors of Mark-An­thony Tur­nage’s Anna Ni­cole at the Royal Opera House (2011) or the ex­quis­ite, white-starched seren­ity of Suor An­gel­ica, part of Puc­cini’s

Il Trit­tico also at Covent Gar­den (2011).

“You liked Suor An­gel­ica? I’m glad,” he asks, sur­prised, as if no one else had. It was uni­ver­sally ac­claimed. “I was wor­ried about the nuns. That bit at the end when the madonna and an­gels come on… But it seemed to go OK. It’s all there in Puc­cini’s stage di­rec­tions. They are so de­tailed, as they are in Bo­hème, too. Tony Pap­pano is amaz­ing, very at­ten­tive to all that.”

He has col­lab­o­rated with Pap­pano many times, call­ing him “a fan­tas­tic col­league and very funny. It’s ter­ri­ble if a con­duc­tor doesn’t have a the­atre gene. A lot don’t.” He won’t say which, but points to Ed­ward Gard­ner and Vladimir Jurowski as among those who do have it.

Jones agrees that af­ter four decades he has es­tab­lished “quite a mo­not­o­nous method” of di­rect­ing: “Back­story, bi­og­ra­phy, where the ac­tion is, what the tem­per­a­ture was, what they’re try­ing to achieve in a scene. I like clar­ity of in­ten­tion. It’s not a crime to read Stanislavski. I try to be quite rig­or­ous. It’s hard. But these are top pro­fes­sion­als, a bril­liant team with none of that ego that can crip­ple things in re­hearsal. Three weeks in a pro­duc­tion room and then a tough birth … ”

And then there’s the pres­sure of re­plac­ing the Co­p­ley show, a hal­lowed Royal Opera rit­ual that en­joyed 26 out­ings and sev­eral hun­dred per­for­mances. “I can’t think about it. The other day I took a peek – on DVD – at the be­gin­ning of Act IV of the old pro­duc­tion. Then I pan­icked and turned it off. Not out of dis­re­spect ... I know it’s given peo­ple great joy.”

A mem­ber of the pub­lic asked Jones, per­haps hope­fully, the other day whether his Bo­hème would be tra­di­tional. “I wasn’t be­ing disin­gen­u­ous” – a favourite Jones word – “but said, ‘Please can you tell me what tra­di­tional means in this con­text?’ You have to try to do it for some­one who’s never seen the show. Even the per­form­ers come with an idea of how it should go, an imago, so they may re­sist what I sug­gest. We’re cur­rently hav­ing some dis­cus­sion over … the end­ing.” He skil­fully man­ages not to spill the beans. “It’s a lot eas­ier do­ing some­thing like Anna Ni­cole – a new piece, a blank page.”

He con­sid­ers La Bo­hème bul­let­proof, “like A Street­car Named De­sire. Some pieces just are.” He’s too canny to mean this in terms of his own pro­duc­tion. It’s a prac­ti­cal ob­ser­va­tion. Other great op­eras lack that in­de­struc­tible qual­ity. “There’s a lot of plate-spin­ning in, say, Don Gio­vanni, where you have to con­vince the au­di­ence they’re watch­ing a dy­namic show. It’s not dy­namic in the same way as La Bo­hème is.”

He has di­rected Puc­cini’s 1896 mas­ter­piece, based on Scènes de la Vie de Bo­hème by Henri Murger, once be­fore, in Bre­genz. That big out­doors rock’n’roll retelling of the story of the dy­ing Mimì and the poet Rodolfo “didn’t work so well”, he con­cedes. For the new ROH pro­duc­tion, he will re­hearse the first of three casts, then hand over to a team of staff di­rec­tors who will con­tinue it un­til Christ­mas. Mean­while, Jones will head to the Almeida the­atre to di­rect The Twi­light Zone , based on the early 1960s Amer­i­can sci-fi TV series “deal­ing with aliens, nu­clear war, anx­i­ety, all rather prophetic” – and all rather up Jones’s psy­chofan­tas­ti­cal street.

For an in­ter­view scep­tic, he has been gen­er­ous and oblig­ing. As we wind up, he bursts into a paean to

La Bo­hème. “It’s a fan­tas­tic play. It’s through-com­posed. The text is fault­less, it’s eco­nomic, propul­sive. It’s got re­ally in­ge­nious char­ac­ters. Ev­ery­one’s am­bigu­ous morally. Ev­ery­one’s good and bad. It’s al­most like Chekhov. It’s about the young, the vul­ner­a­ble. It’s about peo­ple fall­ing in love, squab­bling, part­ing, re­unit­ing. Then at the end some­thing dev­as­tat­ing hap­pens. That’s an amaz­ing the­atri­cal for­mula. It makes peo­ple’s hearts joy­ful, and it breaks their hearts. That’s what it’s there for.”

That’s quite a sell, and still his pro­duc­tion se­crets are safe. Our two-han­der drama over, Jones goes off to feed his tabby, quite pre­pared for what­ever sharper claws are out on Mon­day night.

‘I try to be rig­or­ous’ … Richard Jones; be­low, Eva-Maria West­broek in Anna Ni­cole

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