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Backstage

Don Giovanni’s skyscrapers

A production remembered — By Max-Olivier Ducout

Max-Olivier Ducout, head of the Scenery Workshops

“There’s little doubt that one of the reasons why this [2006] production of Don Giovanni made such an impact was the staging, which was entrusted to the Austrian director Michael Haneke. His main characteristic of course is that he comes from the world of cinema: Don Giovanni—together with Cosi fan tutte [performed in Madrid then Brussels]—are his only excursions into the realms of opera to date. For the stage design, we worked with Christoph Kanter, his long-time collaborator: he created the sets for Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Funny Games, The Pianist and The White Ribbon.

When we met in the workshops, he brought us a virtual 3D model. I remember it because, although that was already common practice in cinema, it was still fairly new to the theatre. I myself have worked in both fields and I must say that at the opera, I have a preference for physical models with volume: we need to have a concrete object in our hands to understand and appreciate the distances, the spaces, the volumes, and the backgrounds on stage.

But let’s get to the skyscraper. That part of the scenography operates according to the well-known principle of a background: it is the backdrop for the set which, for example, can represent a bucolic landscape or the rooftops of Paris. It can be a painted canvas, a bas-relief or, as with cinema, a model. The effect may be reinforced by a picture window which clearly separates the background from the rest of the space, which is the case here. The background has to respect the rules of perspective set by the distance from the lens. It is this principle which is recreated here except that the eye of the spectator substitutes for the camera.

Through the lit windows of the towers at night, we can see the interiors of the offices. We could have painted those “static scenes” on a tulle but Christoph Kanter wanted to use real pictures. So he went to La Défense one night to photograph the office buildings and he brought us a whole set of random pictures. We then enlarged the transparencies, fixed them to the buildings and lit them from inside.

Don Giovanni (Peter Mattei) on the edge of the precipice opposite Leporello (Luca Pisaroni)
Don Giovanni (Peter Mattei) on the edge of the precipice opposite Leporello (Luca Pisaroni) © Christian Leiber/OnP

This desire for reality comes out in other aspects of the set, notably in the choice of materials: Christoph Kanter wanted real stained-wood veneer and not painted plywood. It’s a source of considerable debate among scenographers: should we use the real material or a trompe-l’œil on stage? It seems to me that there is less of a risk in wanting to use real materials: clearly, the danger with theatre sets is that you end up making something that looks like a “theatre set”. But other considerations come into pla : on the one hand, it may be that the real material can’t be used because of its weight (concrete), its fragility (glass) or because of regulations (sand); and on the other, the audience at the opera is seated thirty metres from the stage so real marble can look fake while an imitation may seem more authentic than the real thing. That’s why the “sample phase” when we present the materials to the scenographer is so important. So real or imitation? I’d be wary of formulating a general rule.

But let’s get back to our skyscrapers: in his production, Michael Haneke imagined Giovanni as the CEO of the company in which the drama unfurls. As a result, he wanted his office to be located at the very top of the tower to signify the power that the job title conferred upon him. In order to create an impression of height, the buildings needed to appear to descend below the stage in such a way that the audience would never see the lower floors, even if they were seated in the second balcony. That is why we placed the towers on horizontal mirrors, to create the impression of an abyss. The only thing we had to do then was make a trapdoor close enough to the edge of the ledge not to be visible, so that the body of the reprobate could disappear when the employees fling him off the tower into the void.”

Interviewed by Simon Hatab

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