A new production of Rossini's Ermione was first presented at the Dallas Opera in 2003 then at New York City Opera this spring with elegant sets by John Conklin, sumptuous costumes by Peter J. Hall, and lighting designed by Duane Schuler. Based on Racine's play, Andromaque, the opera tells the story of unhappy lovers in the Greek court of King Pirro. “The production was meant to be a background for the presentation of a mostly forgotten work, and certainly not meant to be literal,” says Schuler. “The set and the lighting were meant to suggest the locations, not recreate them.”
The opera has a very beautiful score, and the intent of this production was to support the music and the singers as clearly and concisely as possible. “This also made the costumes very important since they were part of the foreground as opposed to being background,” points out Schuler. Hall's costumes ranged from monochrome robes for the chorus, to brightly colored robes with an Asian or Byzantine flavor for Ermione. At one point, she is in deep green with peacock blue silk on the insides of her sleeves; the blue matching the blue of Oreste's costume. When Oreste (who is in love with Ermione who in turn loves Pirro) goes off to assassinate Pirro, Ermione once again color-coordinates with Oreste, wearing a blood-red dress when he returns with a dagger dripping the red blood of the murdered king.
“One of the major issues in a piece like this with many locations, is to keep the arc of the evening in mind,” adds Schuler. “If there is a pause and a scene change, even a 30-second scene change, the rhythm of the evening can be seriously compromised.” To avoid many clumsy scene changes, Conklin designed a set with flying panels and rolling doors that close off sections of the stage and allow scene changes to take place behind them while the music continues. “This provides a framework that allows the evening to flow,” Schuler notes. “The scene changes happen during the music, the music does not have to wait for the scenery.”
The lighting relies heavily on cross light, with ETC Source Four's focused much like a ballet boom to etch the bodies and costumes and keep much of the light off of the red floor. Four systems of side light colors (R09, L201, L203, and L137) provided variations on the costumes. Schuler added fairly heavy back light; colors (HT079, Gam 315, L013) were used from above to add depth to the color of the costumes. “In some scenes, in order to keep the costumes as rich as possible, two followspots were used on the principals,” he adds. “One in a heavy color in the color of the costume, on the costume, and another in L203 on the face.”
In the last scene, Schuler added red back light on to the red square in the middle of the floor. “Until then it had obviously been red,” he says, “but when we added red back light it became RED…the perfect world for Oreste to tell Ermione he has just murdered the man she still loves.”
Many of the panels and doors on the set are edged with 4” bands of gold leaf. “Without light from the right angle on these bands, they had no real presence,” says Schuler. “In Dallas, it was fairly easy to hang lamps on the balcony rail and focus strips of light on these bands, making them look great. At the New York State Theatre there is no balcony rail, making this task very difficult. We had lamps in the orchestra pit, projection booth, box booms bridge, and curtain well — all to give some life to the gold bands. We succeeded, but it was not quite the same. There is no way to avoid the simple fact that angle of incidence equals angle of reflection, and for that reason alone…every theatre should have a balcony rail.”