For opera buffs, the main claim to fame of the Italian city of Modena is as the birthplace of tenor Luciano Pavarotti, but on September 18 and 20, its Teatro Comunale will host Mozart's Magic Flute, an event that has made headlines in Europe over the last few months, since its tour originally debuted at nearby Reggio Emilia's Teatro Valli. The opera, co-produced by Fondazione I. Teatri (Reggio Emilia), Teatro Comunale di Modena, and Teatro Comunale di Ferrara, in collaboration with the Baden Baden Festspielhaus, will be recorded in Modena for a Euroarts DVD and a CD (on Deutsche Grammophon) for release in 2006 to commemorate Mozart's 250th birthday. Following its Modena debut, the production proceeded to Ferrara and on to Baden Baden in Germany.

The opera debuted before an audience that included numerous personalities from the worlds of politics, entertainment, and commerce, with tickets selling at 170 euros, but it was, in fact, followed by an enthusiastic audience of almost 3,000, thanks to the installation of three large LED screens by Rome's In Video in two additional city theatres (the Ariosto and the Cavallerizza) and in Piazza San Propero, also crowded in spite of the rainy evening.

The turnout was justified — it was the first time conductor Claudio Abbado had been on the rostrum for an opera directed by his son Daniele, and the production, described as “playful, almost pop” by the critics, met with the unanimous favor of the audience and ended with a standing ovation for more than 15 minutes as the conductor called the orchestra on stage for its merited share of acclaim.

The hyper-realistic set was designed by Graziano Gregori and built at the workshops of Verona's Arena. The LD called in for the important event was Guido Levi, a veteran opera designer. Levi's designs have been seen by audiences at La Scala, La Fenice, and many other Italian opera shrines, as well as top festivals such as Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Macerata, and Pesaro. In 1998, he worked on Turandot staged in Beijing's Forbidden City, conducted by Zubin Mehta and directed by Zhang Yimou.

With Daniele Abbado, Levi has designed the lighting for Macbeth, Norma, Marin Faliero, Tannhausser, Wozzeck, Il Processo, Il Prigioniero, and Il Volo di notte. His designs since 2000 have included Le Nozze di Figaro, Attila, and Simon Boccanegra (the last of the three directed by Peter Stein and conducted by Abbado). He has also worked with directors such as Ronconi, Jonathan Miller, Herzhog, and Kokkos.

In spite of his impressive resumé, Levi still embarks on each new production with enthusiasm and energy and — although complaining that setup and rehearsal times continue to get shorter and shorter — was in at every rehearsal from first thing in the morning until late at night, finally opting for a rig that was an interesting combination of conventionals from the Valli's stock and various automated fixtures. He even took a Robe moving head unit out for a “test” run during the high-profile event.

Levi had been looking forward to working on the show. “I'd been offered the possibility of doing the Magic Flute in the past, but for various reasons, had never been able to do it,” he explains. “It really interested me, as I'd done numerous other works by Mozart. When the opportunity finally arose, it was with Claudio and Daniele Abbado, plus set designer Gregari, so I couldn't have asked for more. I also agreed to work on the Ferrara show immediately after, even if it meant an all-nighter for me, as Ferrara is slightly smaller than the Reggio Emilia venue, so the plot changed slightly. In Germany, it was the same as the first night and will also be unchanged at the Modena show. I'm really looking forward to that.”

Levi had seen other Magic Flute productions in the past but, as he says, this new production had little in common with what opera audiences had become accustomed to seeing and, therefore, his job was even more challenging. “While the productions I'd seen had a lot more painted scenery, representing the setting described by Mozart, apparently part of another world, this Flute is very essential, highlighting the plot, the personalities, the playful theatrical aspects and, of course, the music,” he says. “Although it's a very essential black set, there are 360 movements of scenery, so things happen fast, and the lighting changes constantly.”

Lighting played a fundamental role, but Levi stressed that the atmospheres created were also thanks to the singers' and director's ability to bring the stage to life. “The show came together with really close collaboration by all concerned,” he says. “I've worked so often with both Claudio and Daniele, and I am in on the entire production process, even before we start theatre rehearsals. They know I watch, listen, and then translate my impressions into lighting, so they normally give me carte blanche, but even I had some hesitation, particularly with the choice of colors, such as the strong, almost acidy yellow in the finale of the Queen of the Night's scene. I [spent] hours at rehearsals and in the set designer's workshop, experimenting with gels and color wheels, but I always try out the actual cues during the opera's ensemble parts, as the emotion of the singers and the orchestra is fundamental.”

With such a large number of pieces of scenery, there was very little space for the light rig, and, in fact, the crew had to move the light towers every time larger elements (such as a huge tiger's head, the Queen of the Night's “world,” and two enormous snakes) were bought on. Space was at a premium on the bridge too, so use of motorized fixtures was almost inevitable. “Automated fixtures are a godsend from a logistical point of view, as rehearsal time continues to get less and less, as is often the case with space available on stage, so they're the ideal choice for getting light where it's needed in a short time frame,” explains Levi.

As far as the choice of instruments was concerned, the Valli theatre only had conventionals, so all of the automated units were rented. “Personally, I find Martin's PAL 1200 MSR still the most efficient and valid,” says Levy. “I even prefer it to the Performance and Profile. If I have a small set with a lot of scenery movements, I choose these, even if they're rather large, as I find their lamp and framing system very efficient, and their light quality is good even when frosted. They're also very quiet and sensitive when moved. I hear several theatres — Bologna, Madrid, etc. — and rental firms had the intelligent idea of buying a lot of them when they heard they were going out of production.

“SGM's Giotto Spot 400 moving head units are also excellent instruments — compact and silent. Thanks to their excellent color rendering and light power, they are ideal for illuminating hard-to-reach areas on stage, bouncing their light off some white drapes flown behind set elements, to get some very nice soft colors. We also use them to light the only two painted elements — PVC backdrops representing fire and water — since, along with the other automated fixtures, they are able to illuminate them while avoiding other set elements in front of them, which would have caused shadows. They are also used to great effect in a scene with a bridge, on which three children of the Toelzer Knabenchor sing, where they give an almost impalpable light on the backdrop.”

Levi wasn't familiar with the Robe ColorSpot 1200E AT moving head fixtures used on the production until he used them at a special event staged in Rome's Fori Imperiali. “The event was indoors and out, but it wasn't theatre, so I asked if I could try them on the Magic Flute. They give a splendid, even light and a nice frost function.”

Levi also used Vario 2.5K PCs, by Spotlight of Milan, fitted with Compulite motorized yokes. “I've used them for years, and they're excellent, quiet, and precise instruments, with the advantage of having halogen lamps — an ideal combination with the colder light of the moving head fixtures.”

Levi maintains Italian theatre's tradition of craftsmanship by using some one-off lighting ideas in several key scenes, such as during the Queen of the Night, where her “world” (in fact a large fiberglass disc behind the pedestal on which she stood) is lit by a series of custom lamp holders mounted around it, with various gels to change effects. There were also two 20' high fiberglass monoliths lit from the inside with LED units built by a local artisan. However, these were not controlled by console operator Luca Antolini, who manned the show's two ADB desks (a Phoenix 10 XT and a Phoenix 2 XT, both with Isis Version 2.16 software) but directly by the onstage lighting crew.

Before leaving to start work on a “very interesting but demanding” Barber of Seville (directed by Ronconi at the Pesaro's Rossini Festival, with a set design by Gae Aulenti) then up north to Turin to work five more shows by Ronconi (to be staged during the Winter Olympics), Levi confirmed his intention to continue experimenting with new technology. “I hope to use LEDs on a production soon, as I recently ran an A/B comparison test with moving head units and found them very interesting,” he says. “I used them for downlight and sidelight, and they gave good results. If somebody comes up with the right type of motorized unit, I think it could be extremely interesting.”