Is opera a total art? To mark the new production of Boris Godunov at the Opéra Bastille and to find out if that definition, which arose out of German romanticism, is still relevant today Alexandre Lacroix—writer and managing editor of Philosophie Magazine—set out to take stock of all the artistic professions and savoir-faire that come together to create an opera production—dramatist, director, scenographer, conductor, singers, musicians, costumiers, lighting engineers, etc…
In partnership with Philosophie Magazine.
Second encounter Paris: the ateliers of the Opéra Bastille, February 12, 2018
Do you know what is behind the stage of the Opéra Bastille? Some may be naive enough to assume that there is nothing other than a blank wall, when in fact the stage opens directly into the secret hangars of the Sbrodj atomic research centre. Do you recall the vast complex where, under the supervision of Professor Cuthbert Calculus, the craft that would take Tintin and Captain Haddock to the Moon was assembled? Well, the Opera’s ateliers and workshops which extend all the way along the Rue de Lyon to the Coulée Verte viaduct gardens, offer an exact replica in terms of ceiling height and Heath-Robinson-like equipment.
This particular morning, I have an appointment at "base control" with José Sciuto, a school of applied arts graduate and departmental deputy manager (artistic manager) along with Alexandre Gaillard, an engineer and another departmental deputy manager (construction). One is responsible for the design and the other for the rocket engines. But for now, the workshops have not yet kicked into high gear around the star ship Godunov: we are still at the end of the design phase. The director, Ivo Van Hove and his stage designer Jan Versweyveld have sent out a small photo of what they want. And here we are, gathered around it, a little circumspect, to say the least.
As much as Boris Godunov is an opera of vast tableaux in which bells ring out from Orthodox cathedrals, and where, either on horseback or on foot, one comes across palaces, and monasteries like Novodevichy nestled on the banks of the Moskva just outside the Russian capital; and as much as Pushkin’s eponymous play is a mix of orthodox pomp, imperial gold and Polish tundras, Ivo and Jan’s outline is minimalist. There is a red staircase in the centre, a panel covered in aluminium foil in the background, and two mirrored panels on either side. Above, a little to the left, hangs a bell.
“Oh, but we’re not looking at the right picture”, muses Alexandre Gaillard laconically. “In the latest version, the bell is gone.” It was the only ornamental component in the set. So why is it being eliminated? “Ivo Van Hove wanted a real church bell and preferably an old one made out of bronze alloy”, explains José. But we realised that it was impossible for practical reasons. We could have made a fake bell. Our workshops are accustomed to replicating materials and making them look like the originals or creating trompe-l’oeil effects. The audience would never have known the difference… But Ivo likes real materials and authentic objects. And so he decided that “rather than make do with a fake, better to have no bell at all!” This left the red central staircase which reminded me of the steps of the Cannes Film Festival. “And what will it be made out of ?” I dare to ask, a little disconcerted. José hands me a sample of the carpet. And the floor of the stage? “It’ll be covered in black parquet” says Alexandre.
The presence of the staircase in the centre of the model is not very difficult to interpret since the latter symbolises an access to power. Furthermore, in the opera libretto, the usurper, the imposter Dmitri is tormented by a dream in which he climbs to the top of a ladder and then turns around to see the Russian people at his feet pointing at him and mocking him… But can a staircase alone fill the space?
A degree of scepticism must have shown on my face because José proceeded to give me an explanation: “I know it looks extremely bare, but the performance will be rich, visually, given that the background panel is a gigantic LED screen on which videos are going to be shown. As for the lateral panels, they are mirrors which will reflect those images.” Alexandre then makes an additional revelation: “Technically, this set will be one of the most ambitious and most complex we have ever undertaken because the video screen in the background and the mirrors on the sides are so huge and none of them are resting on the floor or on posts. Inside these panels there are walkways, passages and stairs for the singers… The whole thing will weigh almost 20 tonnes, which is a first at the Opéra Bastille. Previously, we hung a 2.5-tonne cross for Tosca and a 7-tonne set component for Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron in 2015, which is our current our record. 20 tonnes, has never been done before. We won’t use the theatre’s lifting equipment, we’re going to attach everything to the structure of the building.”
The explanation seems surprising to me: “On the structure? Do you mean that there’s no coffering?”… “In the auditorium, there certainly is coffering as well as an elegant ceiling” replies Alexandre. “But not above the stage house. There, the structure is visible, and you can see all the way to the roof. That’s why we’re going to attach the set to the structure of the building.”
As such, their project is really no longer one of decoration, more an architectural exercise… which makes me think of the rules of “epic theatre” as expressed by Bertolt Brecht in his theoretical writings. Brecht’s obsession was to prevent the spectator from identifying with the action playing out on stage. There was no question of keeping the audience in the realms of illusion or of leading them along an imaginary journey that pandered to their senses. According to Brecht, for the spectator’s critical mind and philosophical sagacity to be constantly stimulated, it is preferable never to show a set (exit the bell!) and opt instead for bare spaces to the point of even replacing table and chairs with panels bearing the words “table” and “chairs”. Brecht also liked to highlight the artificial character of a performance by making all the theatre machinery and equipment visible—and for his production of The Damned, Ivo Van Hove projected images filmed in the wings of the theatre on a vast on-stage screen, thus pushing the detachment to the maximum. Will he do it again?
“It’s fairly protestant as an aesthetic, don’t you think?” The people I’ve discussed it with confirm that this minimalism really does come from Germany and Northern Europe, whereas Italian directors remain attached to ornate, classical sets. A few examples of religious monuments come to mind: the Frauenkirche in Dresden and Berne’s St. Vincent Munster Kirche. Those two Lutheran churches,are the exact opposite of, let’s say, the Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome or the Basilica Santa Croce in Florence. The interior spaces of the first two are bare. There are no representations of the Virgin, the angels, or the saints. There are no sculptures; no exuberance—except for a smattering of stucco here and there, but this is more an integral part of the architecture than ornamentation in the true sense of the term. As for the Italian structures, they have opulent naves in which the eye strays between representations of faces and complexions, the intricate woodwork, the multicoloured marble and the stained-glass… Austerity on the one hand, and unbridled luxury on the other. José Sciuto agrees: “At the opera, there is a traditional element that we call a frieze: these are the elements that hang just above the stage to conceal the spotlights and the rigging. Usually, these friezes are simple panels made of cardboard. But Ivo and Jan sent us their recommendations: they wanted a succession of white beams. here again, there was to be no trompe-l’œil, no illusion, just authentic architecture.”
But in the secularized and disenchanted Europe of today, could art in general and opera in particular assume the place once occupied by religion and the sacred? Could the performing arts be the secret refuge of the liturgies of old? Could the Italian productions, which modernists dismiss as backward-looking, be bound to the flamboyant excesses of Catholicism, whilst German, Swiss or Flemish productions resonate with a protestant asceticism—with France occupying a middle ground between these two ethical and metaphysical poles?
I come back to the sets: A staircase that rises to connect the stage (the ground below) to a sort of glass palace suspended in the heavens (the sky, the apogee). This set does not just offer a metaphor for power. It is more profound. It is an architectural meditation on predestination and grace. Either you are damned. Or you are chosen. Will you be granted permission to climb up to the last step? And what price will you have to pay to do so? The terms are only known by God.
In the end, they did well to eliminate the bell. It would have bordered on tastelessness, a little like the big bells that resound in the heavens at the end of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. A catholic can only be half-virtuous, but no protestant can enjoy such a privilege.