Franco Zeffirelli's new staging of La Traviata is opera at its most opulent, a visually voluptuous production that nevertheless met with decidedly mixed reviews when it opened at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in November 1998. With direction and set design by Zeffirelli, costumes by Raimonda Gaetani (making her Met debut), and lighting by Duane Schuler, the impression this Traviata gives is one of heightened reality, with the period decor meant to look believable rather than stylized.
The action begins in a luxuriously appointed Paris living room, where our heroine Violetta hosts a late-night, after-theatre party amidst overstuffed sofas and tufted banquettes. Schuler, lighting his fifth version of La Traviata in 25 years, found himself facing a box set sealed on top with a domed ceiling. As a result, there is no overhead lighting at all. "We even had to remove the followspots from above the stage; there was just no room," he says. Instead, 5kW fresnels on booms provide crosslighting, which comes in through large upstage French doors. The only other light comes from ETC Source Fours and Strand Lekos in box boom and cove positions.
"The sets have so much texture in the fabrics and painting that they keep the lighting from looking too flat," says Schuler. "There are enough real pieces onstage that the scenery can take more frontlight than usual." Softened breakup patterns are also used to help keep the frontlight more interesting. To hint at the quality of gaslight that would have been used at the time (19th-century Paris), Schuler added Lee 179 chrome orange to the 5kW incandescent lamps. "There is no white light," he points out. "It's all on the slightly yellow edge of warm."
A huge central chandelier, decorative sconces, and other practicals make it look like the light really emanates from the stage. "They are crucial to making it look right," Schuler says. As the guests enter, the room brightens to a party atmosphere, with gold trim glittering on the woodwork and mirror frames. When Violetta takes center stage, the light cools down a little and focuses on her. "Some of the warmth drains away," says Schuler, who chose the cooler look to reflect an introspective moment ("Violetta is questioning what is happening to her," he notes).
With large mirrors on the walls, Schuler had to be careful not to bounce light right back into the audience, or to create a direct glare. "Even the footlights had to be limited," he says. The large central doors would also catch the upstage crosslight if they were not closed completely. "All of the glass and mirrors were treated to reduce the glare and to make it look like rippled old glass," Schuler says.
A side staircase and entrance hall provides deep spaces on the stage where MR16s are buried in the scenery to provide a sense of life as well as cast a shadow of the grand staircase. "We wanted those corners to look real as well," says the lighting designer, who spent one week at the Met last August, at which time much of the scenery was still being built and last-minute changes were being made. He returned in late October for rehearsals, which moved onstage in early November. "We had two hours to focus each day, and four hours of cueing with the singers onstage," he explains. "We were working over the top of the rehearsals." The sets were removed every day, in keeping with the Met's repertory schedule.
In the first scene of Act II, the action moves to Violetta's country house, where the afternoon sun streams into a highly realistic French provincial interior. "This set has another full ceiling, this time right down to the proscenium," says Schuler. "This forces you to be very honest. You can't force it, but have to take what is there and make it as real as possible." To accomplish the sense of daylight coming in through the large stage-right windows, he used three Arri units. The 2.5kW HMI studio unit was placed on a boom, the 4kW HMI studio unit hung on the extreme end of the third lighting bridge, and the 4kW theatre unit hung in a gallery position above the side stage. As the daylight changes to evening, the light deepens, with accents from firelight and candles. "The light is quite directional, with faux shadows to give it a natural look," says Schuler.
The HMIs are gelled with Lee 205 color correction to get as warm a look as possible. As the light progresses toward sunset, it fades to Mole Richardson 5kW incandescent fresnels on booms 14' from the stage floor. These have a warmer Lee 204 color, and are replaced as the light darkens with additional 5kWs positioned 10' from the floor with Lee 161 for a blue tint. Schuler also usedLee 201 and 205 above a frosted greenhouse roof. "It gives the sense that light could be coming from there," he says.
Additional instruments, including 4kW HMIs, come in through the window for additional light from side ladder positions. A standard quartz T3 ground row outside the windows lights a painted backdrop from below. Scoops and 2kW fresnels also light the backdrop with its rural scene of sky and some trees. "The sky follows the same progression of colors as the windows," notes Schuler, who added Lee 161 and GAM 841 to two Mole Richardson 10kW fresnels for an even deeper blue in the night sky.
The most over-the-top scenery appears in scene two of the second act, when the curtain rises to reveal the decor for a Spanish soiree. Three layers of bright red lace stretch across the full width of the stage. As the red flies out, gold lace takes its place as part of a set replete with a large staircase centerstage, hanging globes and chandeliers, and sconces. Multi-colored bulbs are placed in the chandeliers so they can change colors as desired. "If one is good, three is better," says Schuler, quoting Zeffirelli.
This is the one set that had some space overhead, so Schuler was able to use more backlight, which came in through the chandeliers. He also used some sidelight, once again being careful of reflections in the mirrors onstage, and some crosslight from two 19-degree ETC Source Fours with Lee 205, and two Mole Richardson 2kW fresnels with no color, hung on concealed booms and shot through slots behind the mirrors. The party color palette opens with Lee 205 as a wash from the first light bridge, and a warmer Lee 134 wash from the front of house, and moves to a cooler, whiter look for the gambling scene. Here Schuler used GAM 841 in PAR-64 striplights as backlight and Lee 161 in Source Fours hung on high side pipes for crosslight.
"There is so much color in the sets and costumes that we often opted to keep the light clear," says Schuler. "We didn't need another layer of color--that would have been too confusing." A very theatrical moment occurs at the end of the party, when all the light turns to blue. "Blue can be the absence of color as the warmth drains away," Schuler notes. The chandeliers, the sconces, the hanging globes, and even the backdrop at the top of the stairs turn blue, framing an emotional Violetta in the arch of the staircase. "This is the only act where you can see any theatrical cueing in the lights," says Schuler.
The darkness of the bedroom in Act III contrasts greatly with the party atmosphere in the last scene. The action has moved back to Paris, but Violetta has sold many of her possessions and the house has lost its luxurious furnishings. "This was the toughest one to light," says Schuler. "There was no place to get light into the set, except from the front." The set had windows that were shuttered on the outside with curtains and had a layer of lace on the inside. Even when the drapes are opened, the shutters are still in place, so that there was no way to get light to come in from the window and fall on the bed where Violetta is dying.
"This is a very delicate scene," notes Schuler. "It needs to be somber. Everything has been stripped down to the bare basics; there is no decoration." Once again, the only color in the lighting comes from the blues of Lee 201 and Lee 161 in Source Fours positioned in the boom boxes. As Violetta gets out of bed and runs down the staircase, the set moves with her as she descends into a stripped-down version of the Act I living room. The gilded furnishings are gone, the chandelier has been removed, and the room is practically empty.
What actually happens is that Act I is performed on the stage lifts in the up position and below the actual stage floor, which is 30' in the air at that point. During Act II, when the lifts are down again, a crew in the basement strips the Act I set to ready it for Act III. "They recover the walls, take down the chandelier, and remove most of the furniture and draperies," Schuler says. A 3'-square elevator built into theset lowers about 8' to take Violetta to where the audience first sees her on the moving set. The light is the same cool light as in the bedroom, to convey the same sense of emotion.
"The lighting is suggestive of the piece," says Schuler. "That's the way I like to work. It's a continuation of telling the story. You can also heighten things onstage. Reality isn't always as interesting."