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Portfolio│Amphitheatre of the Underworld

Machinery in the entrails of L’Orfeo — By Erwan Allainmat

The artists of the Paris Opera’s Academy will be performing at the Bastille Amphithéâtre until May 21 in a new production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. The work, regarded as the first opera in the history of music, recounts the mythical story of the poet Orpheus and his quest to rescue his wife Eurydice from the Underworld: “I will go in confidence to the deepest abysses, and having softened the heart of the King of Shades, I will bring her back to see the stars once more!” (Orpheus, act II). Director Julie Berès has risen to the challenge of bringing such a world to life at the Bastille Amphithéâtre in a scenography that brings all its sense to the hemicycle. The master of these confines– stage hand technician Erwan Allainmat (not Hades!) – explains to us how the Dantean sets work.
Stage machinery is all the machines and equipment used to change sets and produce stage effects. As stage hand technicians, we carry out all the operations and oversee the special effects. It’s the first time that we’ve followed the creation of so ambitious an opera at the Amphitheatre. Even so, my colleague Cédric and I had to work fast to put together the set for L’Orfeo and we began assembling it two weeks before the première.
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The decor consists of a surface which covers the entire stage: in the centre, there’s a sloping structure, the edges of which are covered with fake grass which stretches all the way down to the feet of the audience. To make it seem even more like the mythical garden, trees "grow" both on stage and around the auditorium.

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The central structure is comprised of different interlocking panels, each one built around an iron frame. The set engineer’s design office designed the structure so that it could rise during the second half of the show. In effect, when Eurydice goes back into the Underworld, a motor under the stage increases the slope’s gradient and turns it into a genuine hill which swallows up the soloist. We reinforce the structure’s overall stability with large stays that need to be silently and rapidly positioned under the stage. To enable ourselves and the singers to move around, we built a network of hidden gangways.

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Once the sets are in place, we gradually familiarise ourselves with the production. During rehearsals, we make it possible for the artists to work in conditions as close as possible to those of the premiere. We adapt to the wishes of the director and the conductor and do our best to reconcile their input with the technical constraints imposed upon us.

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Our greatest challenge is Eurydice's disappearance into the Underworld. The effect is possible thanks to a mobile floor that we call a “trap”. It’s a system which practically every theatre has and which enables actors and sets to appear and disappear. However, we needed to design one specially for the occasion. At the given moment in the performance, the soloist positions herself on the “trap”, we remove the safety catches holding it in place and support it on both sides with our shoulders. Thanks to a counterweight, we are able to guide the soloist's descent.

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Our movements need to be executed in perfect time with the music. The beauty of the effect—and above all, the safety of soloist Laure Poissonnier who sings the role of Eurydice—depend on it. In the end, all these manoeuvres make up a sort of score which unfurls in tandem with that used by the musicians and singers. To ensure that we respect it, we stay in contact with Jean-Louis, the stage manager via headphones throughout the performance. He in turn leads the technicians like an orchestra conductor.

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During the greater part of the performance, we move about out of sight inside the hill. However, in the third part of the performance, Jean-Marc the props man and myself are obliged to carry out a set change on stage in view of the audience. In our jargon, that’s called a "feu"( spotlight), because, for once, we are under the spotlights. In this type of procedure, so as to go unnoticed, we are generally dressed from head to toe in black but in L’Orfeo we are fully integrated into the staging. Wearing costumes and decked out in masks, we suddenly appear from the depths and frolic with the nymphs!

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What I like about the Amphitheatre, is working in a theatre built on a human scale. It reintroduces a degree of versatility into the stagehand's job and underscores the importance of teamwork. We need to find practical solutions and oversee safety in close collaboration with all the technical and artistic staff and build a relationship based on trust with the soloists.

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Under Stéphane Lissner’s directorship, the management has decided to expand the programming at the Amphithéâtre and give it a greater role, which is an opportunity for us. It’s a transitional season in which we are increasingly being called upon to work in the space, first with another of the Academy’s productions Vol retour in December. After 11 years at the Paris Opera, I know the set assembly areas—which are located 6 levels and 40 metres under the stage—as well as the entire backstage area like the back of my hand. It’s a delight to discover the technical potential of a new performance space which I hope will become a “4th theatre” in its own right.


Interviewed by Milena Mc Closkey

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