Malgorzata Szczęśniak has been Krzysztof Warlikowski’s scenographer for three decades and her aesthetic universe is indissociable from the director’s theatrical vision. Graduating from the Art School in Kraków in 1972, she spent the next four years studying philosophy and clinical psychology at the University of Jagielloński. She was awarded a diploma in scenography from the Art School in Kraków in 1984. Here she talks about her work, particularly Don Carlos, the fifth Paris Opera production featuring the Warlikowski- Szczęśniak tandem.
The quest for pure space…
There exists a certain decorative tradition at the opera. Very often, the spatial work consists in making scenic illustrations, creating tableaux that exalt the beauty of the music. My scenographies, on the contrary, are anti-decorative. By decorative, I mean anything added to create a “beautiful” space: flowers, carpets, sculptures…
I am constantly in search of pure space.
For the staging of my ideas, I always think in terms of architecture. That’s why my scenography in Iphigénie en Tauride1- our first production at the Paris opera – was so detested! Instead of Ancient Greece with its Doric columns, the audience found itself face to face with its own reflection in a mirror occupying an entire wall! The purity of the space comes from the materials used: wood, metal, glass, ceramic, concrete… They all structure the space in an organic way, clarifying and purifying it by their radicality. This approach might seem simple, almost naïve. But each substance has intrinsic qualities of great aesthetic beauty.
The substance of theatre
The choice of materials is always justified by the drama. In Bluebeard’s Castle2, the gloomy, damp walls of the castle were represented by a structure composed of glass panels. Something cold emanated from that substance: thick and completely opaque, it was almost cruel.
The Austerity of El Escorial
The heavy, severe atmosphere of this 15th century Spanish palace is striking. Walls, parquet floors and ceilings, everything is very sombre, in a wide range of browns, burnished gold and dark wood.
The obscure interior of El Escorial is all the more fascinating in that it contrasts violently with the dazzling brightness of the Mediterranean sun and its white light. Of course, the oriental sensuality of Moorish Andalusian palaces with their mashrabiyas – the Nasrides Palace of the Alhambra in Granada – played with these effects of light, but the Reconquista, a century later, imposed strict Catholicism even on the architecture of its interiors.
The austerity of this palace also resonates with the vision of a monarchy marked by the asceticism of the Counter-Reformation. One has only to observe the shadowy tints of the paintings of Zurbarán or the controlled severity of Velazquez's court portraits to appreciate this.
The religious-historical context and the multiple power stakes make Don Carlos a very complicated opera. However, there are only five main characters in this grand opera! Don Carlo, Philip II, Elisabeth of Valois, Princess Eboli and the Marquis of Posa!
Space in Don Carlos is characterised by a distinct opposition between the official life of the court and the secret inner life of the characters. The idea for the scenography came to me at El Escorial – a real labyrinth! And at the Santa Cruz Museum in Toledo. There, I discovered a huge nave, almost bizarre in its dimensions, and a multitude of doors leading to little rooms that, in my imagination, were filled with secrets…
I created an open space, a vast reception hall, with high walls covered with wooden panels and a parquet floor. To this I added “boxes” which arrive on the stage in accordance with the dramatic situation – fencing halls, a private cinema, a prison cell. These closed, almost claustrophobic spaces are a reflection of the inner psyche of the characters.
Advancing with masked countenance…
Secrets abound in Don Carlos. Don Carlos suppresses his anger towards his father who has married the woman he himself loves; Elisabeth hides her love for Don Carlos; Princess Eboli is the king’s mistress but is secretly in love with Don Carlos. All those tortuous loves, those suffocating ties, imprison these unhappy beings in the name of royal dignity.
Masks play an essential role in our production. In the first act, in a space filled with greenery at the entrance to the Convent of Saint Just, Princess Eboli sings the Song of the Veil. To accommodate this aria of oriental inspiration, with the burning question of the veiling of women, I created a closed, interior space – a fencing hall – in which women disguised with masks wield foils with artistry and brio.
The characters also hide behind the mashrabiya. The Monk, a solitary figure prowling around the tomb of Charles Quint in the crypt, is always masked: his enigmatic presence is visible only through the oriental latticework.
In our eyes, the Inquisitor, the most powerful man in the opera, is not blind. Concealing his looks and his emotions behind dark glasses and wearing an undistinguished costume, he advances with masked countenance, almost invisible, spying on every one.
Don Carlos, a Melancholy Hamlet
In our interpretation, Don Carlos is a Shakespearean character, a sort of melancholy Hamlet, and the world is perceived from his point of view. For this subjective view, I created an intimate space at the front of the stage. In my scenography for Król Roger5, the forestage area was the theatre of the king’s past visions, flashbacks being the modus operandi for the whole opera. We didn’t go as far in Don Carlos, that relationship with the past was not our objective.
With a narrow strip bordering the orchestral pit, a clear cold line and a grey concrete-like floor, I imagined Don Carlos’s space in terms of the walled-up dungeon of his consciousness. Don Carlos is a prisoner of destiny at every level: through his love for Elisabeth, his submission to his father and his loyalty to the Marquis.
The tableau in the Forest of Fontainebleau at the beginning of the opera is a scene that is not included in the Italian version of Don Carlo. The Infante arrives in France incognito to meet his promised bride. Charmed by her beauty, he reveals his true identity. But their love will be short-lived: his father has changed his mind: it is he who will marry Elisabeth. This cut scene that we find in the French version needed to be restored to the act that follows for dramatic reasons: why does Don Carlos suddenly become a tragic figure? We needed to complexify his character.
This first tableau becomes, then, Don Carlos’ most intimate scene. Situated forestage, he ponders his impossible love for Elisabeth. In desperation, he slashes his wrists. Unconscious, he relives their first meeting in a flashback.
From the very beginning of the opera, Don Carlos is a lost man. We do not know what will become of him at the end of the drama. We encounter the work with questions but we have no answers. We do not know the destinies of the characters.
I love contradictions in art!
In spite of the religious splendours of the Counter-Reformation, there is an almost ‘protestant’ rigour in Spanish art. This contradiction can be seen in our choice of costumes and movements.
We avoided spectacular dimensions in the crowd processions in Act II. The chorus, composed of the people, monks and envoys, is installed in a monumental wooden amphitheatre and acts as an observer as it does in protestant theatre. In this fixed framework, emotions are more exalted.
The idea of a large space in the guise of a reception hall is interesting because it permits us to play with the solitude of the characters: in such a vast, bare space, the presence of a solitary being kneeling and praying becomes very powerful!
Throughout the opera, there are six extras, servants dressed in period costumes, who take charge of the entire organisation of the rituals and ceremonies. The Asian origin of these figures is a sidelong reference to immigrant workers from the Middle East.
Fashion in the fifties
In addition to the minimalism of the actors’ movements, there is the sobriety of the costumes. With the exception of some embroidery on the royal train, I drew inspiration from the fashions of the fifties, particularly the rigorous aesthetic of Christian Dior. As a result, my costumes are very structured and not, I suspect, very comfortable!
Post-war fashion reminds me of the costumes in Spanish art, notably the rigid dresses in the court portraits of Velasquez. There is also a painting by Goya which inspired me, a portrait of the Duchess of Alba in a black dress. Indeed, that dress also inspired the designer Balenciaga! In my own way, I transposed that aspect of Iberian dress into a more contemporary aesthetic.
Listen to Don Carlos's playlist
1 Iphigénie en Tauride by W. Christobald Gluck. Directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski ; scénography by Malgorzata Szczęśniak ; lighting design by Felice Ross ; video footage by Denis Guéguin ; Paris, Paris Opera, June 2006
2 Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók. Directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski; scénography by Malgorzata Szczęśniak; lighting design by Felice Ross; video design by Denis Guéguin; choreography by Claude Bardouil; Paris Opera, November 2016
3 The Macropoulos Case by Leoš Janáček. Directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski; scenography by Malgorzata Szczęśniak; lighting design by Felice Ross; video design by Denis Guéguin. Paris Opera, April 2007
4 Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy. Directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski; scenography by Malgorzata Szczęśniak; lighting design by Felice Ross; video design by Denis Guéguin; choreography by Claude Bardouil. Ruhrtriennale, Bochum, Jahrhunderthalle, August 2017.
5 Król Roger by Karol Szymanowski. Directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski; scénography by Malgorzata Szczęśniak; lighting design by Felice Ross; video design by Denis Guéguin; Paris, Paris Opera, June 2009