A stunning new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin marked the Metropolitan Opera debut for the creative troika of director Robert Carsen, set and costume designer Michael Levine, and lighting designer Jean Kalman. While the sets garnered praise for their abstract beauty, they met with criticism for the acoustical quality they offered. The critics felt that much of the singing was absorbed by the towering white box set with walls of rear-projection surfaces from Gerriets International. But for French lighting designer Jean Kalman, the white walls were the perfect canvas for a romantic journey back to 19th-century Russia.
The opera opens with a reflective moment behind a scrim. Onegin is alone onstage in a solitary armchair. Leaves fall and the past begins to envelop him. "This is the same image you see at the end," says Kalman, who used a beamlight above the chair to light the leaves as they fall. The curtain falls, then rises to reveal a stage covered in leaves, with tall trunks of birch trees and wicker furniture immediately situating the action in Russia. Here much of the light comes from behind the walls where Kalman has placed three rows of floodlights in banks of four colors he can mix. "I use quite a melange of colors," he says, citing Lee 204, 151, 120, 200, 213, and 214 as part of his palette. "There is no white," he emphasizes, pointing out that "the smallest difference in the color mix is of importance."
For Tatiana's bedroom scene, the leaves are pushed aside to leave a small white square with a bed and table in the center of the stage. The light on the square outlines the limits of the room. "I used beamlights and ellipsoidals for a bright accent," Kalman says. A pale sliver of moon painted on glass is rear-projected on the back wall with an ellipsoidal as well. The walls are night blue and gradually change to rose as the sun rises. The progression of color is a subtle shift from night to day.
Two ball scenes vary in color as they do in emotion. The first, a country party, has young women in bright pastel dresses dancing in a warm rosy glow. This changes to a cold gray as dawn comes early and announces a duel. The entire duel sequence is performed behind a sharkstooth scrim in the blue-gray of a cold rainy morning. A green added to the blue creates a strange yellow along the horizon as day breaks. Kalman added MR16s right behind the wall to indicate the sun. Having won the duel, Onegin changes clothing onstage, linking the acts together and omitting a traditional intermission at this point in the opera. He is now ready for a St. Petersburg ball with a colder, more formal look with a blue cast to the light. Here, the women, older and more mature, are in black gowns.
"I used a simple language and palette, mixing the same colors," says Kalman. "I wanted to stay within the same range of colors throughout the production. The white space comes alive with the light." Kalman, who has lit many operas and large-scale theatrical works such as Peter Brook's Mahabharata, recently shed light on an abandoned theatre on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Collaborating with British actress Fiona Shaw, he designed a lightscape for a 20-minute piece based on T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.
Worklights, bare lightbulbs, a followspot behind the last row of seats, a few ellipsoidals, and a few small cinema lights created an ambiance of abandonment and rediscovery. "I wanted to respect the quality of a theatre in ruin," Kalman says. "I used a natural, non-aggressive light with lots of shadow, as if the space begins to live when the actor arrives. You can really concentrate on her words." As in the final scene of Onegin, Kalman's light shelters one actor alone on stage. "Each is wrapped in light that is designed to be a part of the space," he says. "It's almost as if the light were there by hazard and not really designed."