This year, one of Giacomo Puccini's earliest, lesser-known operas, Edgar, was performed for the first time ever at the Puccini Festival, the annual summer event staged in the composer's home town of Torre del Lago. This year's festival was the 54th edition and celebrated the 150th anniversary of Puccini's birth in a stunning new open-air theatre standing on the shores of Lago Massaciuccoli, the lake the town is named for.

As well as its 3,370 seats colored in various eye-catching shades of blue to match the waters of the adjacent lake, the festival's venue now also features a 500-seat auditorium, make-up and costume departments, a carpentry workshop, three rehearsal rooms, a lighting/audio control room, and a spacious foyer. The first event after the official inauguration was a Puccini concert by the Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, conducted by Riccardo Chailly.

Edgar director Vivien Hewitt — a Belfast, Northern Ireland-born opera and theatre director, writer, and historian — has worked worldwide but has lived for many years in Italy and is a long-term Puccini Festival collaborator. She approached UK artist Roger Dean to design the sets and costumes for the opera, and the artist suggested his daughter Freyja work with him on the costumes. Made popular through the medium of album covers and posters, Dean's internationally recognized work, including posters, cards, top-selling books, and album covers, has sold in excess of 60 million copies worldwide, but the eclectic artist has also designed seating, a prototype house, software artwork, a holiday village, and a hotel.

Dean's evocative, visionary images are on the covers of albums by Osibisa, Yes, and Asia, whose Dragon album cover design was voted the second most successful album cover design of all time — after The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band — by readers of Rolling Stone. Although much less abstract than the sets Dean and his brother, Martyn, designed for groups such as Yes, the Dean touch was unmistakable on the Puccini Festival's Edgar. Throughout the year, while design work was carried out in London, the opera's music and libretto (by Ferdinando Fontana, from the dramatic poem “La Coupe et Les Lèvres,” by Alfred de Musset) were constantly listened to and referred to when choosing set and costume colors and qualities. Although the opera is set in Flanders, Dean's scenography recreated an almost fairytale world that fit perfectly into the natural setting of the lake. In Act 1, Edgar's rustic village is immersed in luxuriant greenery, while in Act 2, the lovers are in a “Garden of Delights,” over which were gothic clouds covered with shiny snake scales. In Act 3, Edgar, dressed as a mysterious monk, preaches from the peak of a suggestive Golgotha.

Director Hewitt notes that the material is from an illusory world that never existed, but one we might imagine could have — “one that is not real, but gives a strong sense of poetic truth,” she says. Dean adds that there were many sources of inspiration, “but the village — and other elements — brought to mind the world of Durer and Bruegel, and the Golgotha nodded at Böcklin's painting Isle of the Dead and Munch's Scream. Nature's forms are an inspiration to me, as they were for the artists of the Gothic world.” A wide variety of natural colors were also used in the eye-catching costumes by Freyja Dean, offering the young designer's highly original slant on period costumes.

Sound from the three-level orchestra pit was fed to two pairs of EAW JF50S loudspeaker systems flown at the side of the proscenium as monitors for the artists performing on stage, and these were the only form of sound reinforcement in the venue, thanks to eight special acoustic panels mounted on stage and designed by engineer Mario Cognini's acoustic engineering studio of Verona, as was the sound treatment in the pit itself, following acoustic measurements carried out with the Parma University's Acoustics Department.

Cognini, whose studio also specializes in architectural acoustics, environmental acoustics, industrial and civil acoustics, and noise, has an enviable portfolio of clients, ranging from courthouses to banks, and from Verona Arena and Rome Opera to the Council of Europe's MINOTEC program, which should lead to the drawing up of a draft charter for the protection and use of ancient performance venues. He is also lecturer in “Spaces for Staging Shows and Music” for a graduate course at Macerata University. He notes, “The acoustic studies carried out for the theatre were extremely complicated, due to the size of the venue, the variables taken into consideration, and the problems faced, that resulted in the adoption of technical solutions for improving the acoustics, such as the reflecting panels installed on either side of the stage, which are very innovative for this type of location.”

The acoustic problems tackled by Cognini and his staff included the very gradual slope of the seating, which meant that the rear seats were at a considerable distance from the stage; the total lack of side or rear walls (as well as a roof), which meant there was no “acoustic space” effect; and the fact that the spacious orchestra pit was too wide and deep for optimum (non-amplified) sound diffusion. It was decided to install curved panels on the top of the orchestra pit wall closer to the audience, to increase reflection into the “room,” and the three levels were introduced on the pit floor “to balance the sound of the orchestra,” as Cognini explains. “We put the instruments with an acoustically weaker sound on the higher levels to facilitate the direct diffusion of their sound towards the audience.”

As well as the stage (built in record time) and services, the Festival Foundation also decided to invest in a new in-house lighting control system and purchased a pair of ETC Congo jr consoles. Following the lighting for the opening concert, the ETC boards — one was on backup duty — were put through their paces for Edgar and the other operas on this year's program: Turandot, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly. A second high-profile concert was also hosted at the festival, featuring the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov.

In the venue's brand new control room, board operator Federico Canibus, at his first outing on an ETC desk, was enthusiastic. “After getting into the mentality of the desk's operation, I really enjoyed working on it and found it intuitive and easy to use,” he says. “It makes easy work of storing cues and presets for each show and ensures excellent editing facilities when I need to change the fade up or down, the presets of each individual conventional luminaire, or even providing the possibility of changing every single parameter of each automated unit.”

The rig for all four operas was designed by LD Valerio Alfieri who, as well as teaching a course in lighting at Venice Academy of Fine Arts, has a resumé that comprises work for Luca Ronconi, Franco Zeffirelli, and Robert Wilson. The fixtures, rented from Sound City of Ancona, included Robe ColorWash 1200s, Martin Professional MAC 2000 Wash and Performance units, ETC Source Four 750W ellipsoidals fitted with a combination of 19°, 26°, and 36° lenses, Robert Juliat D'Artagnan profiles, Spotlight Vario PCs, QuartzColor Pollux 5kW Fresnels with Compulite Whispers, and Spotlight Domino cycs. Along with the consoles, the Puccini Foundation invested in Strand Wallrack Digital Dimming systems installed by Italtecnica of Padua, as were the DMX and Ethernet networks.

Luca Bronzo, one of the theatre's two head electricians — the other is Fausto Perri — has worked as lighting designer, operator, and stage manager for past productions staged at Torre Del Lago and has also worked at the Festival for eight years. Also in charge of the management and purchase of lighting and electrical equipment at Parma's Teatro Due, Bronzo was pleased with the choice of the consoles, saying, “I wasn't familiar with them but have known Fulvio Cotogni, ETC's regional manager for the southern region, for some time, and, after having seen the desk at Rimini's SIB expo, I attended a course on the Congo in Rome and was loaned one to take home to study in detail. I found it a very immediate, intuitive system to use which really facilitates luminaire management and control, particularly automated fixtures' gobos, color, and all the other features. It also enables operators to have a constant clear view of the entire rig while they're working, which is extremely important.”

The 54th Annual Puccini Festival ran from June through August. For additional information, visit www.puccinifestival.it.