Opera director Elijah Moshinsky returns to Australia after 15 years to restage his monumental Don Carlos.

By Peter Craven.

Moshinsky’s Verdi deeds

Elijah Moshinsky
Elijah Moshinsky

I remember him aeons ago. It was that time of storms and drums and speeches. It was a few years before he went off on a scholarship to Oxford, where he wrote about Alexander Herzen for Sir Isaiah Berlin, that famous contraster of hedgehogs and foxes, that lover of Dickens and Verdi, and that assiduous promoter of brilliant young men. When I knew him, Elijah Moshinsky was teaching Italian Renaissance history with a kind of savagery and superciliousness that made you tremble for the actors he would work on.

Even then, Moshinsky was a man of the theatre. I saw him do a dazzling – dazzling at the level of conception, not performance – production of Genet’s The Maids. That production had by way of coda, a performance of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape by an “old” guy called Max Gillies.

Moshinsky did a Hamlet that was spectacularly iconoclastic. When Hamlet was taken onto the battlements to confront his father’s ghost in a great cloud of some aromatic weed, so pungent it might as well have been the marijuana it was clearly meant to signify, with chanting in a circle from the hangers-on, Horatio said, like a thing possessed, “I am thy father’s spirit.”

At play’s end, he kissed Hamlet perfunctorily on the cheek and said in tones of flat contempt, “Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” And a dark day’s night was brought to fulfilment by one of nature’s bastards.

Well, that was a long time ago and in the years since I exchanged a letter or two with Moshinsky during the dozen or so years I edited Scripsi at Melbourne University in the ’80s and early ’90s. I followed his career, of course: the celebrated productions of opera, some of them here with ravishing designs by Sidney Nolan; the best handful of the BBC Shakespeares in the 1980s; Shadowlands with Nigel Hawthorne, which went to Broadway; the BBC Ghosts with Judi Dench and the young Ken Branagh; the association with titans of the opera world, with Jon Vickers and Plácido Domingo, with Solti and Carlos Kleiber; the Chekhov with Alan Bates; the talk of a King Lear with one of the greatest English actors, Albert Finney.

Now the man I vividly glimpsed but scarcely knew half a century ago, the only man I have encountered of intellectual brilliance who was also manifestly a great man of the theatre, is back in his home town, Melbourne. The Jewish boy from Camberwell High is directing that work of black magnificence and sepulchral sonority, Don Carlos, arguably the greatest opera Verdi ever wrote, from the classic German play by Schiller.

The face has changed over the decades, it’s softer and jowlier, and the voice is a bit more rounded, flute-like as it always was, but less nasal. When you look at it – and more especially as you remember it a few hours later – it is unmistakably the smooth-skinned face of that older boy, stiletto-bright.

The conversation moves swiftly, almost like those ancient tutorials, because we have a lot to get through. Those ancient BBC Shakespeares of his were good, I say. I particularly admire the Coriolanus with Alan Howard, the lover in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Moshinsky says, “Yes, we had the idea of doing the verse without projecting, straight to microphone, so it wouldn’t come across as too big.” And this works well with Howard, a superb actor, who could turn Shakespeare into a rhetorical summit on stage, but the television medium gets the effect while bypassing the stage technique.

We move on to that late play Cymbeline, which has never quite been assimilated and which Moshinsky did with Helen Mirren as Imogen. “It’s one of Shakespeare’s most interesting and complex plays with its study of ‘inner corruption’ in the figure of Iachimo, a fascinating character who emerges wonderfully out of a trunk.” Moshinsky projected his Cymbeline in golds and browns, through a generalised image of the paintings of Rembrandt. This is a recurrent technique in his work, with Velázquez providing the visual idiom for his Don Carlos, in its detail effectively a new production.

Moshinsky’s Iachimo, that soft, insinuating, arguably redeemed retake of Iago, was Robert Lindsay, the man Katharine Hepburn was dazzled by, who TV watchers will know from My Family and Hornblower. He played Henry II – the Peter O’Toole role – in Moshinsky’s production of Jean Anouilh’s Becket, the play about the king and the turbulent priest, which Moshinsky did with Derek Jacobi in the Richard Burton role of the saint.

“Originally we were going to alternate the parts,” Moshinsky says, “but it all turned into such a tremendous battle of egos.” He thinks that Anouilh, who was such a dominant playwright of the postwar period, is a master of complexity and wit who has been badly treated by history. “Poor Bitos [with its French Revolution motif] suffered from Paris 1968.” But he does think the dialectical richness of Becket means “the roles undermine each other”.

It becomes apparent that he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by anything, including his own past statements. Didn’t he once say that it was interesting that some of the most highly regarded productions of opera – those of Visconti and Zeffirelli – antedated the cult of the director? Does this indicate scepticism about regietheater? No, he has no preference, no opinion about the different inflections of the director’s role. Inevitably, though, this leads into discussion of the fact that Don Carlos – this grandest of grand operas – was directed at Covent Garden by Visconti himself and with the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers in the title role. You get the feeling with Moshinsky that he’s very conscious of his gift as an interpreter but that his reverence is reserved for great performers. Perhaps it dimly relates to the fact that he played third flute for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra when he was a university student in order to make a living, much more classically the background of a conductor rather than a director.

He did a famous production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes with Jon Vickers at Covent Garden in 1975 that has become part of operatic legend. Michael Shmith once said of Vickers’ Grimes that it could scare the sharks out of the sea.

Moshinsky’s quietness takes on a rapt quality.

“He could see I was interested in the meaning of the piece, not just the staging,” he says. “Jon Vickers was a great tragedian, his Otello had an unbearable quality of suffering in the third act and so did his Tristan where I also directed him. Vickers had a vocal ability to build up emotion which was unique and which was comparable only to Callas. He could also convey suffering and aggression at the same time and it was a feat of acting, not just vocalising.

“He was a terribly, terribly serious person and, you know, he went at his roles in opera approaching the libretto first, not the music. He had an unbelievably powerful presence on stage. An absolutely electric capacity to inhabit character so that you believed in the blindness of his Samson, the suffering of his Tristan. Whatever it was.”

In a slightly different way, he talks about directing the great Welsh soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones as Isolde. “She didn’t want any flim-flam from you.”

He talks – again with reverence – about one of the greatest of all conductors, Carlos Kleiber, and the fact that he shunned publicity to the point where he didn’t even want his photo to be taken for the Royal Opera House program of the famous Otello he did with Domingo and Moshinsky – a zenith in opera history.

“And do you know,” Elijah adds, “he was quite amazing. He came to every rehearsal and the orchestra never even looked at Kleiber when he conducted.” Sir Georg Solti was another habitué of rehearsal and Moshinsky says he was always modest and considerate. When I suggest this was hardly what you would expect from an extroverted conductor, he says, “Oh, that was just his sense of glamour. He was a Hungarian and Hungarians love glamour.”

Moshinsky emphasises that these figures are simply people he has worked with; he’s not interested in their stardom. But you get the strongest sense from Moshinsky of the miracle involved in the making of theatre, the creation of opera, and the way he, as a novice, set about mastering it, for all the fine fury of his precocity in Melbourne. When he talks about Albert Finney you can hear in his voice the feeling of how the man learnt his craft from masters and the conviction that this is the only way.

“Albert Finney always said that he learnt everything about acting from understudying Olivier as Coriolanus. He said that no matter where you went with your voice, you could never be higher or louder than Olivier and you could never be as soft and sweet. He felt in his presence that the range of things – the spectrum of acting – was before you.”

Moshinsky himself was apprenticed to Sir Peter Hall, the man who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and went on to run the National Theatre after Olivier, and who also did a famous Hamlet with Albert Finney. The poet Peter Porter told me it was his favourite Hamlet and Moshinsky glows at the memory of Angela Lansbury as his queen: “Now there’s an actress!”

He also worked with Peter Brook on an experimental meta-version of The Tempest and was a master apprentice to the German director Götz Friedrich, who taught him the importance of dramaturgy.

So what is his conception of Don Carlos and has he gone back from the Verdi to Schiller?

“Oh, yes, all the time. And it’s fascinating to see where he follows Schiller and where he changes it. I think it’s a very good adaptation of a play, a very good opera version of a dramatic text. It doesn’t join up. It’s a bit like directing Middlemarch. Everything is left in total darkness. It’s like a lot of the great novels of the 19th century. The characters don’t actually change but we see them progressively in different lights.”

When I interviewed Peter Brook it was like talking to the Pope. “Well, he is a bit like a pope,” Moshinsky says. “I wish I was as bright and keen as Peter Brook is now at 90.”

Yes, but the director who seems to have been the greatest revelation to him as a master of the stage was Ingmar Bergman. In Sweden, Moshinsky asked the man famous for his string of cinematic masterpieces, from Wild Strawberries to Fanny and Alexander, the key to it all, and the great Swedish director said – and Moshinsky has been quoted before saying this because it was obviously a road to Damascus moment for him – “Everyone should know what they’re doing on stage. Everyone should know why they’re there.”

He says of the Bergman stagework he saw, using that famous ensemble of actors, the Max von Sydows and Bibi Anderssons and Liv Ullmanns: “They were the best-directed plays I’ve ever seen. There wasn’t a lot of movement. He didn’t do a lot of stuff. In The Wild Duck, the blind girl in the attic was brought to the front of the stage and there was no duck. In Hedda Gabler, Hedda was behind a screen and you could see what she was thinking.”

With Moshinsky there’s that dual sense of mystery, that nearly mediaeval sense of a craft that relates to something like a sacrament. He steps back from this for a moment to remember his early days in Melbourne, with art historian Patrick McCaughey, who went on to become head of the National Gallery of Victoria, and Peter Corrigan, the celebrated architect who has also done theatre designs, making theatre at Ormond College. Still, he relishes that line from Coriolanus: “There is a world elsewhere.”

But then there is a return to the sense of art and inspiration. “You know that design Corrigan did for the Jim Sharman Don Giovanni, with blue and white polka dots?” He’s referring to the famous chessboard set. “I thought he was a genius.”

Is it that belief in the figures on the cave wall, truer than life could ever be, that keeps Elijah Moshinsky going? It’s hard not to think so. He steps around ideas, almost with disdain, but there does seem to be a sense of the Ideal.

His Shakespeare couldn’t leave alone the embodied world of the great painters and his opera never forsakes the memory of Shakespeare. And in the midst of all the saturnine and sombre grandeur of his Don Carlos, there’s that stillness, that ability learnt from Bergman, to convey feeling through doing very little.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 18, 2015 as "Verdi deeds".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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