The giant skeleton is gone! For 15 long months, an immense black skeleton loomed over the lakeside in Bregenz, Austria's westernmost city. This was the major set piece for the spectacular outdoor production of Verdi's Masked Ball, created for the annual Bregenzer Festspiele on Lake Constance.
Now it has been replaced by even more enormous stage structures. But not so frightening as the skeleton, whose deathly image was reproduced in media worldwide. These are a set of immense Parisian bistro chairs—their legs sunken into the depths of the lake. And three huge café tables, with a towering revolving souvenir postcard rack upstage. They form a symbolic scenic-environment for the new Bregenz production of Puccini's La Bohème.
The new set pieces and specially constructed outdoor stages, like Masked Ball and its skeleton—will also stay in place for another 15 months. Producing on the lake since 1946—in the desperate aftermath of World War II—the Bregenz Festival has made a specialty of handsome, splashy, spectacular stagings of such works as Porgy and Bess, Carmen, and The Flying Dutchman. Each is mounted on a purpose-built stage on pilings sunk into the lake bed.
Because each opera or musical must play two summers, the immense stage and sets must be able to withstand the hottest summers and the coldest winters. And each has to have some form of boat or ship to sail on the strip of lake that separates its stage from the 7,000 spectators in the open-air amphitheatre. Big fireworks displays at the close are a standard feature as well.
The huge chairs and bistro tables are the ingenious and amusing solution to the very challenging problems an opera like La Bohème presents directors and designers on outdoor stages that require unit sets and minimal set changes. Richard Jones and Antony McDonald—the same team that created the previous season's Masked Ball—were faced with similar problems, although Bohème's Paris is a long way off from Masked Ball's Stockholm.
Both operas have, essentially, one really big scene. The remainder of the scenes are played out in fairly intimate environments, often with very few characters. In fact, in Bohème, most of the action occurs in a freezing, cramped garret, occupied by four starving artist comrades of dubious talents and no achievements.
As this work is one of the most popular of all the operatic war horses in the standard repertoire, most of the world's great opera houses present it in enormous windowed-attics, as big as the Grand Central Station Concourse. Jones and McDonald wanted something far more spectacular and special than another monster garret, which wouldn't have weathered well anyway. So they opted for a symbolic and epic expansion of the Café Momus, which is Bohème's big scene. Using the idea of picture postcards, they also were able to suggest specific locales in this immense and colorful generalization of a Parisian restaurant.
Even though the opera is a prime example of verismo, neither of the partners wanted to recreate a realistic piece of Paris. Nor did they want to set it in the actual period of the novel and libretto: Paris in the 1820s. McDonald says, " The idea of Paris is important to us." Jones adds that it is "much more important now than in the time in which the plot is set."
"The costumes evoke a period between the 1960s and today," McDonald explains. But, important as Paris is as a magnet for young, eager, would-be artists, he notes, "Fundamentally, it could naturally also be New York, or London, or Berlin."
What was most important to the team, in exploring the characters and their motivations—which of course preceded designing sets and costumes—was the idea of the city. The city, whether it be Paris or London, is The Place To Be. McDonald notes that this idea of a great city where one can become part of a group—as well as enjoy oneself—is still culturally very formative in Western Europe. It's an almost mythic idea, " he says: the City as a place where one can lose himself in his fantasies. Both men observe that the young men are in fact very young, inexperienced, and may not have much talent. But that's not why they have come to the big city. "In no case did we want to simulate a city with a bunch of buildings on the lake stage," says McDonald. "So we had the idea to show a café that shows the openness and the presence of society. There are only three tables, with a city map on them."
"And postcard pictures of Paris, but gloomy, dismal," adds Jones. "Pictures like souvenirs," says McDonald. "A small place, but with great implications," notes Jones. "With that we wanted to show the society in which the characters move about: Café Momus is a place 'where one goes,' where one lets himself be seen and will be seen," explains McDonald. "It's a chic, smart, 'in' place," Jones concludes.
The main stage for their Bohème is an immense café table surface, gently raked toward the audience. It looks perfectly round, but Bregenz's technical director, Gerd Alfons, points out that it is elliptical. This not only provides a broader playing space along the lakeside, but it is pitched so that everyone has a clear view of the stage action. The rake is 9° and the stage measures 28m deep by 33m wide. Its surface is not only waterproof but also roughed so no one can slip on it.
Because the strongest and most durable materials for an outdoor setting—such as steel, brick, and concrete—would be too heavy, steel supports are usually clad in wood. The tables are a combination of wood and steel, with the main stage mounted on a concrete core and 22 pilings. The big table is flanked by two giant chairs, the seats of which form subsidiary stages. The top rail of each chair conceals spotlights, while the vertical elements contain speakers. This is also true of the other, smaller chairs at two subsidiary tables.
The major table surface is covered with an immense tourist map of Paris. The River Seine is illuminated. The map is repeated on the two smaller tabletops. Each is also raked at 9°. On the main stage three huge postcards are strewn around, with a huge pink pen nearby for writing greetings. This monster ballpoint is 7.5m long. In 30 seconds, it can rise hydraulically to a 45° angle—with seatbelt for the performer on it.
Centerstage is an immense trademark Ricard Anisette triangular yellow ashtray. This provides a concealed entrance to the stage. And slightly behind the ashtray is a giant champagne cork! The postcard lying flat upstage right can pivot slowly up to form the inside entrance wall of Café Momus. All three cards measure 7m x 5m.
The greeting card downstage from the Momus wall rises to form the entrance to the artists' garret. Toward the close of the opera, they exuberantly demonstrate their talents by covering it with sexually rude graffiti. The postcard downstage front and center can rise slightly on pistons to form a level acting stage. It can also be illuminated from inside, to highlight such scenes as Mimi's death.
The souvenir postcard image finds its most spectacular realization in the upstage revolving card rack. This is centered on a 27m pipe anchored in the concrete core of the stage. Powered by two motors, it rotates from one of its three rack-sections to the next in 120 seconds. The central axis supports three flanges along its length. This steel structure weighs 75 tons. It is very strong, but last summer Alfons was not yet certain if it would have to be demounted during the winter to protect it from the high winds between lake and alps.
Each of the card racks has six slots on each side for picture views of Paris. The cards—some of which can be illuminated from inside—are 17m wide by 6.5m high. Together they weigh some 15 tons and can be demounted for the winter—as they were put into the racks—by a crane.
For Christmas in Café Momus, the rack revolves to reveal a giant image of a sexy girl dressed as Santa Claus on the stage-right side. It takes all six cards to depict her in sections. On the stage-left side, six cards form a Christmas tree with colored balls that light up. When the principals are in the garret, the rack revolves to reveal a set of six cards on each side showing the mansard roofs of Paris. Some of the windows light up.
For the external scene at the Port d'Enfer, when Mimi goes in search of her ex-lover, the rack again revolves. The audience is now looking down on a 12–card sequence of dim, misty Paris apartment buildings, with snowy streets below.
Parisian operagoers have always loved their ballets. Even Wagner and Puccini had to bow to that. But the only logical opportunity for a big ballet or dance number in Bohème is at the Café Momus—hardly in the tiny, cold, shabby artists' garret. But Jones and McDonald have an immense stage to fill. And Bregenz audiences, like those at the Paris Opera of old, expect something resembling major choreography at some point in the performance.
Downstage scenes of four and five people only can become almost isolated, even desolate, in such a large and essentially open space. If nothing else is happening outside the garret's walls, so, instead of using a corps de ballet in a set number or two, the director/designer team elected to use a movement group. They don't exactly dance, but they don't just wander around the vast stage either.
No, they are kept constantly busy, moving some giant matches around the stage's perimeter. Appropriate to succeeding scenes, they rearrange the matchsticks to spell out such words as "Paris," "Momus," "Noel," "hiver," and "printemps." Later, they plant some big matches like posts into the stage. But they function like candles as each bursts into flame.
No Paris cafe or bistro has only one table and no more than two chairs. So Jones and McDonald have provided two more tables, with chairs to complement them. Each tabletop is playable. And they seem to recede in the distance. They are, respectively, 60% and 40% the size of the main stage. On the nearer of the two, a squadron of French chefs flamboyantly prepares flaming dishes for restaurant patrons.
This blazing spectacle almost takes the place of the traditional Bregenz fireworks display. But that, in fact, is instead suggested by explosions of red and green serpentine confetti. Sweeping it up keeps some of the movement people busy. The third—and smallest and highest—of the café tables has to be reached by ladders inside the chair leg. At the opening of the opera, a woman and man come onto this lofty surface, disrobe, and get into bed.
Because the entire production is so colorful and spectacular, many viewers may not even have noticed this sexy duo. But they were certainly doubles for Musetta and her despised lover, Alcindoro.
Later, in Café Momus, during their quarrel, she takes a hand mic and belts out her aria like Madonna on a world tour. At one point, Alcindoro mounts the immense pink ballpoint pen—with a sexy nude on its side. It rises in the air, leaving him stranded on what could be seen as his enormously inflated penis. Or ego.
The great ellipse also serves as an immense restaurant table, with the chorus and movement corps—in glittering sequined outfits—streaming around its balconied circumference. They pull red-cushioned bar stools from inside the drum to sit on as they eat plates of food prepared by the chefs. As for the traditional Bregenz Festival ship, Christmas at Momus is the hook. Glass cases of Christmas toys rotate around the circumference of the main stage. Then, from the stage-right side, a large paper cocked-hat boat sails into view. It seems to be piloted by a plush Easter Bunny. For the record, it measures 7.6m long x 3.5m wide, and 2.8m high.
Although this toy craft seems folded from an enlargement of an actual front page of Le Monde, it was watertight, weighing 1.8 tons. Alfons explains that it could carry five people and made its circuit on an underwater cable-system, somewhat like boat rides at Disneyland. Alfons adds that both the designs and the materials used at Bregenz for the outdoor productions have to meet challenges of "wind, weather, weight, and budget, " and adds that it took him only about 10 seconds to understand what Jones and McDonald intended with their astonishing set design for La Bohème. But, in constructing it, he and his team of 32, in addition to the the 30-plus firms that supplied materials, machines, or built-elements, had to keep the three W's and the budget constantly in mind.
Alfons is also watchful that machinery and structures can be reused or recycled in productions. Or reused elsewhere. Protecting the environment is a watchword in Bregenz.