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The mirrored rose of Der Rosenkavalier

A production remembered — By Arnaud Regnault

The narrative connections in Der Rosenkavalier converge during the central scene of the ceremony of the rose. Count Octavian, the Marschallin's young paramour, presents the silver rose to Sophie on behalf of Baron Ochs as a token of betrothal, as tradition demands. The two young people strike up a conversation: “One would say it was a heavenly rose, not like the ones in our gardens, but rather, a sacred rose from Heaven. Don’t you think so?” (Sophie, Act II). A Symbol of 18th century refinement, a declaration of love, the silver rose is emblematic of this opera, and more especially, of Herbert Wernicke's production playing at the Opéra Bastille from May 9 until May 31, 2016. Throughout the performances, Arnaud Regnault, who heads the team from the props department, is responsible for ensuring that the ceremony runs smoothly. He shares his memories of the production's production back in 1997 and reveals – côté jardin – the secrets of the rose.

On stage, anything that is not voluminous enough to be considered a “set” is a “prop”. Everything that the audience sees inside an apartment, a room, in a forest or on a street is handled by the props department. Anything that has to do with special effects—flames, smoke, etc. is also considered as a prop. The props department plays a very important role at the opera. It has approximately thirty full-time employees who are regularly supplemented by temporary theatre hands when the workload is too great.

And that, incidentally, is how my career began. Herbert Wernicke’s 1997 production of Der Rosenkavalier was one of the first productions I ever worked on. When you’re a temporary theatre hand you don’t always get to see every little detail that goes into the making of a production. You’re thrown into the maelstrom to do a specific task. And yet, that particular production had a big impact on me. The staggering number of mobile mirrors, which one moment reflected the audience to transform them into voyeurs, while the next, like some magic lantern, mirrored pieces of the 18th century décor, revealed a director with a command of every aspect that theatre had to offer. It was a production crafted by a master.

In 2006, I was hired full time in the Props Department at Bastille. As a result, I worked on the revival of this production as head of the team. My tasks and assignments have changed. Now, I need to have a overall view of the production. I supervise the temporary stage hands and I’m responsible for the long-term management of the props. Even so, the connection with the stage remains just as essential. At each performance, the management of the props is split between two team managers, one stationed stage right, and the other, stage left. I’m the “rightie”! We divide the work between us in such a way that allows us to pay as much attention as possible to each object. I know every prop in a production down to the smallest detail, irrespective of whether it be an object as emblematic as the silver rose or a little vase that no one notices.

Octavian (Susan Graham) remettant la rose d’argent à Sophie (Barbara Bonney). Opéra de Paris, 1997
Octavian (Susan Graham) remettant la rose d’argent à Sophie (Barbara Bonney). Opéra de Paris, 1997 © Eric Mahoudeau / OnP

Almost twenty years have passed since my first encounter with Rosenkavalier. In a certain way, I also experience the sense of nostalgia that the work exudes. For me, this production is like an old lover: I have an acute sense of the time that has passed since then. In the past twenty years the profession has evolved considerably: it’s now more open to women, which I find wonderful. Indeed, on that subject, my team is made up of an equal number of men and women. But above all, to the trained eye, this production is very characteristic of the 1990s. At the time, it used practically all the technical means available to the theatre. However, over the last twenty years, the possibilities in terms of stage effects have grown exponentially. At Bastille, the directors keep coming up with challenges for us, each one more outlandish than the previous one, because they know we’re able to do the impossible. Our speciality at the Opera is to juggle between revivals of old productions and the creation of new, innovative ones.

It’s rare for an accessory to be so important that it actually features in the title of an opera. The rose which, according to custom, Octavian presents to Sophie during Act II to mark her engagement to baron Ochs, was made here in these very workshops. It was the then chief of the Props workshops, Francis Bécaud who crafted it in accordance with Herbert Wernicke’s highly precise sketches. He wanted the rose to be like a mirror, so that it could reflect the dazzling interplay of lights and fill the entire space. It is a little larger than life: its base consists of an iron frame covered with tailor-made mirrored squares. Each petal of the rose was sculpted separately using the same principle and then pieced together with very strong glue. For us props people, the rose has all the requisites of the perfect prop: it’s robust, it gives the illusion of being real and it respects the constraints of the performer. Each prop from a production is referenced and stored and ultimately becomes part of a repository of objects which can potentially be reused in other productions. We made a special box lined with red velvet to store the rose which has now become part of the theatre’s heritage, and it will live forever despite the death of the man who created it.


Interviewed by Milena Mc Closkey

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