One of the saddest stories to emerge from the 20th century was the destruction of the Romanov dynasty at the beginning of the Russian Revolution. Tsar Nicholas II was unable to cope with the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, market forces, urbanization, and the rise of democracy and socialism across Europe; in addition, he was privately haunted by his son's crippling hemophilia. The Tsarina, Alexandra, wracked with guilt over her son's illness, turned to the notorious monk Rasputin, who alone was able to ease the boy's pain, a decision that provoked a terrible scandal. Thus were two decent, unremarkable people caught in the gears of history, trapped in a story that led to the brutal eradication of their entire family.
This saga has been turned into an opera, Nicholas and Alexandra, which premiered in September at Los Angeles Opera. Critics were unimpressed with Deborah Drattell's score, which is rooted in the doom-laden tones of Russian liturgical music, but Anne Bogart's production featured a striking design, with scenery by Robert Israel, costumes by Catherine Zuber, and lighting by Christopher Akerlind.
Israel set the action in a low-rise hallway of one of the Tsar's palaces, a cold, vast space with greenish walls and many windows. When the action moved to other locations, two more walls were brought onstage and placed in different configurations. Because of the set's low height, most of Akerlind's lighting was exposed; the lighting in general was harsh and cold, emphasizing the dire situation in which the characters found themselves. At times, another area behind the rear wall of the set was illuminated, revealing a chorus of Russian peasants. Throughout, Zuber's costumes worked a narrow palette of grays, lavenders, roses, and reds, using slightly exaggerated silhouettes in the women's costumes to indicate the passage of time over nearly 20 years (she dressed most of the male characters in varying styles of military uniforms). The overall effect was elaborate yet dilapidated, suggesting the not-entirely-successful influence of Western Europe in Russian culture.
This was all to the good, because, in separate conversations, all three designers agree that Bogart wanted a production that was stripped of any gratuitous sentimentality. “She didn't want it to be the movie-of-the-week version of Nicholas and Alexandra,” says Zuber. “We wanted the theatricality of the piece to be right out there,” adds Israel. “I think Anne and Bob and I are all interested in breaking down the superficial artifice of the theatre,” says Akerlind. “We're interested in seeing the machinery, all the time. It somehow breaks down the idea that design is decoration and, hopefully, provokes a different kind of response.”
Bogart, Drattell, Israel, and Zuber made a pilgrimage to St. Petersburg and Moscow, to research the project. “Both cities are strange,” says Israel. “They're facades, and behind them it's very poor. The great Russian architecture is not in the palaces — at best, they're second-rate. The scale, the details, the ornamentation are all wrong. The good stuff is the indigenous architecture — the cathedrals, the churches. But [the Russians] were on the fringe of Western culture and, however much they wanted to be a part of it, they got the syncopation wrong.”
Thoughts such as these translated themselves into Israel's setting, which was formal and grand, in a European style, but was also forbidding, empty, lacking in a certain grace. In a way, it suggested that Nicholas and Alexandra were trapped in a metaphorical prison long before the Bolsheviks arrived. In Bogart's staging, the title characters could often been seen huddling together, often with their children, the family forming a tight little island in an unfriendly universe.
In discussing the lighting aesthetic of the production, Akerlind mentions “this kind of bombardment of Nicholas and Alexandra, which underscores the sense of inevitability in the story.” His concept of exposing the workings of the lighting extended to the obvious use of followspots on the leads. “I don't like it when you see designers trying to use them, but pretend that they aren't,” he says. “I love the idea of performance and performers. In our work together, Anne and I rely on them a lot.”
In addition to the followspots, Akerlind made heavy use of sidelighting to capture the characters. At certain times, he also poured harsh white light through the windows at the back of the set. To reveal the Russian peasants behind the set, he placed 300W A lamps between each window, with additional lighting from below, above, and from stage right, to create what he calls “a beautiful footlight effect.” He also used footlights in far downstage positions to create sinister, shadowy effects for certain moments. The third act began with rather violently executed cues that caused dramatic shifts in the onstage lighting. “Anne wanted, after the pause before Act III, to jolt us into a sense of concentration, of engagement,” he says.
Nicholas and Alexandra ran in rep with Hector Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust but, oddly enough, says Akerlind, “there is no real rep plot” at the LA Opera (the company performs at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion). “Al Miller is the production electrician and he had an assistant compile the two plots. We had very little conflict; I lit 95% of the opera with fixed units and Faust was largely lit [by Heinrich Brunke] with automated equipment.” He adds that some gear was rented but “between what the Chandler has and what the Opera has, it's well-equipped — even HMI units. It's the closest I've come in the US to what you find in a German opera house.” The equipment list for Nicholas and Alexandra consisted largely of ETC Source Four units, some PAR 64s, several HMIs, strip lights, Wybron scrollers, and ten Martin Mac 2000 units.
Despite the rather intellectual, highly theatrical approach taken by the other members of the creative team, Zuber sees it as “an opera about private moments.” A big challenge for her was the opera's time frame, which runs from 1894-1917, “a big period of change. When we first see Alexandria, she has a fuller skirt with puffier sleeves; by the time we get to 1915, it's a very different silhouette.” Nevertheless, she says, “You still want it to have a cohesion” to the production's overall look, so, to provide a sense of unity, “all the silhouettes define the waist and have very long lines and I did interesting things with the sleeves.”
Interestingly, Zuber says that, according to her research, “[The Romanovs] were very insular, a family that shunned a high-profile life. They were devoid of ostentation. What I put Alexandra in was more glamorous than what she actually wore.”
As for colors, Zuber says, “The piece was, in Anne's view, set in Alexandra's memory, which allows you the license to pull things in and out of focus. We started at the beginning [in a prologue set in 1918] with gray costumes and, as she remembered, colors started to come into it.” In the early scenes, Alexandra is dressed in lavenders and roses, with a frillier look-elaborately pleated sleeves, fuller skirts; in the later scenes, when she is largely confined to a wheelchair, she is dressed in gray, with a severe, almost military silhouette. For her costumes, the designer used taffeta, velvet, silk, and chiffon.
In one notable scene that dramatizes some of the rumors about Rasputin, he hosts an orgy of sorts, with a group of upper-class matrons, who were dressed in what look like flaming red peignoirs. Nevertheless, Zuber says, the outfits “as based on historical research. Evening cloths [in the teens] became very skimpy.” These costumes made use of velvet, chiffon, and satin, with “bits of fur and feathers and things like that.”
Speaking of the profusion of military styles on the male characters, she says, “In my research, it seemed that everyone had a uniform.” It suggests something about the imperial nature of Russian society, she adds: “Even if you never participated in military endeavors, it was very prestigious to wear a uniform of some kind.”
In Bogart's production, a third set of non-singing characters-they were, in fact, members of the director's SITI Company-constituted an onstage presence, filling out the various tableaux and moving set pieces on and off stage. Zuber dressed them in long, eggplant-colored coats, which tightly hugged their bodies, providing a rather severe line. “It was tricky, trying to conceive what their silhouette should be,” she says. “They weren't peasants or part of the military. They were their own entity. I tired to devise something that would move well and have and interesting silhouette-I felt that particular color would travel well through all the scenes.”
Zuber could be speaking for all the designers when she says, “The challenge was to keep it theatrical, yet not deviate too far from reality and confuse the story we were trying to tell.” Thanks to their work, the story of Nicholas and Alexandra emerged, in all its sorrow, into the cold light of day.