It's going to be Halloween all year in Bregenz, Austria, thanks to the massive new outdoor opera production on the lake stage.
Looming high over the lake is an immense skeleton, his empty eye sockets gazing at the patterns of a dance, printed on the pages of a huge book. This grisly figure is the signature image of the unusual staging of Verdi's A Masked Ball, mounted by the British direction and design team of Richard Jones and Anthony McDonald.
Because Bregenz lake-stage opera and musical productions run for two summers, the sets must withstand the bitter winters on the Bodensee--the German name for Lake Constance--at the foot of the Arlberg Alps.
That means locals and morning commuters to Lindau, just across the Austrian border, will have to get used to seeing the skeleton. Fortunately, lake-stage operas have put Bregenz on Europe's cultural map and proved a tourist goldmine as well, so Mr. Skull & Bones may be seen as bread and butter. But then there's that towering guillotine rising out of the water as well. Not a cheery sight every day of the week. In performance, it rises suddenly out of the lake, pivoting from an underwater horizontal position to the vertical.
Jones and McDonald are famously unwilling to discuss the inspirations for their directorial or design decisions. They insist that they want to leave audiences--and critics--free to interpret what they see onstage in their own various ways.
Obviously, constantly stimulating each other's imaginations, they have their own ideas about the initial meaning of scenic environments, sets, props, and costumes. But they are delighted when viewers discover meanings and associations they hadn't even considered.
Both Jones and McDonald are fascinated with the dance, so one of the visual motifs is a dance pattern painted on the great open pages of the book/stage. In the time of King Gustav, new dances from Paris or London were sent all over Europe in this printed form.
Two things are standard in every Bregenz lake-stage production: fireworks and a ship or boat arriving on the water between the audience and the stage. The fireworks accent the festivities of the ball. The boat in Jones and McDonald's production is something else again (Jones staged Titanic on Broadway, so he knows about doomed ships!).
>From the stage-right side of the great open book comes an immense black coffin, floating on the water. When it reaches front and center, it opens and there is Ulrika, making prophecies to various members of the court, including the king.
When the team first saw the lake stage, they realized that the performers would look like Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels. That meant that small gestures or movements would visually be lost. But the solution was not just to make everything larger. Instead, they sought striking images which would convey something of the psychological forces at work in the libretto and score. The skeleton is one of these, as is the book whose pages are headed with the king's name and dates.
Another is an immense silver crown, with six points, which rises out of the book floor upstage right. When it is sunk in the stage, it seems only a ring on the surface. Rising hydraulically and made of polished chrome steel, it suggests not only the power of kingship but also the inaccessibility of the king behind its protecting walls. Confronted by scores of petitioners, the king can cross over its margins and descend by means of a portable staircase.
The stage floor can hold up to 130 performers in a group--even more if they are scattered about. Sections of its pages downstage serve as steps, and its top and bottom binding margins are also playable. A "book-flap" rises from the downstage pages; another stage element is an elliptical frame on the wall containing a crowned king's head--which could have been borrowed directly from a Max Beckmann painting.
The standing pages of the great book conceal loudspeakers and also provide backdrop, wind protection, and acoustic enhancement. Its summit is playable in the center, when the king's adoring page, Oskar, climbs up to aim a spotlight on the action.
The skeleton--which rises 24+m (approximately 79') from its pelvis at the waterline--can be climbed inside by lighting techies and on the outside, away from the audience, using the ribs. The right side of its skull, clearly seen only on one side of the amphitheatre, slides open to provide a major spotlight placement. The skeleton also conceals loudspeakers. Its core is a steel armature, covered with weatherproof modeling material.