Clocks constitute a scenographic common denominator between Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Their role in Laurent Pelly's two productions go beyond mere utilitarian function in that they are rarely used as a means to track time… Concepcion, clockmaker Torquemada's unfaithful wife, uses the clocks as closets for her lovers. In Gianni Schicchi, they symbolise the passage of time and an opportune moment—that of falsifying the testament of Buoso Donati to reunite two young lovers. Gilles Figue, performance manager of the Paris Opera’s props department, looks back on some of the department’s creations as he passes on the baton to Samantha Claverie.
L’Heure espagnole was the first production I was responsible for at the Opera. The pre-assembly and assembly of the production was carried out at the Berthier workshopsbefore the definitive version was created in Japan during a Paris Opera tour there. The number of props and accessories is enormous: we list over 350 references, not counting the prop doubles. These range from small watches and pairs of shoes, to a refrigerator and even the front of a Fiat. For the most part, the props were purchased in the boutiques around Abbesses, in second-hand shops or at the online mart Le Bon Coin. Others were modified or made in the studios and workshops of the Palais Garnier following the instructions of the set designers. For example, two grandfather clocks were built with double compartments to enable the singers to hide inside so that they could disappear and appear at will throughout the plot. Other items participate in the action, including a cuckoo in a clock and the wheels of a bicycle which turn thanks to a mechanism operated by stagehands behind the wall. I really appreciated the fact that the singers embraced the sets to the extent that they did by playing with the props. It must be said that it’s a real jumble of clutter, you’d think you were at a flea market! The set for L’Heure espagnole is more intimist and it makes me think more of a set for a play than an opera. The artists are at the edge of the stage about five or six metres from the orchestra pit. It’s quite impressive to see all those accessories hanging on wallpaper-covered walls or lying on the floor. The props literally create the set in L’Heure espagnole. Conversely, in Gianni Schicchi, the set is more airy, there’s a lot more space between the audience and the back of the stage.
With L’Heure espagnole, respecting the production deadline was our first challenge. In fact, we completed the job the day before the crates were sent off in containers. The set change from L’Heure espagnole to Gianni Schicchi was another seemingly impossible challenge for us since everything had to be disassembled and assembled by hand. To save time, the clocks and the smaller pieces of furniture for Gianni Schicchi were pre-installed behind the sets for L’Heure espagnole and at the end of that performance the wall rose up into the flies. We had to be certain that everything was flat enough to ensure that the props attached to the wall—and that included some forty clocks—didn’t catch on anything. We then assembled the set pieces into blocks and they in turn were pieced together. Everything on the floor, such as the staircase, the refrigerator and the front of the Fiat, etc… had to be placed on rollers. Once the set for L’Heure espagnole was removed, we had to bring on stage some twenty pieces, including wardrobes, armoires, a bed, and chairs etc. to prepare the set for Gianni Schicchi. It was a challenge to pull off, an extremely rewarding experience but ultimately, a wonderful adventure. Today, Samantha Claverie is responsible for the revival of these two productions at the Opéra Bastille. Since they’ve travelled quite a bit—to Tokyo, London, and Milan—we had to repair or replace certain items. “We also added our own touch by creating a clockwork skeleton that springs into life during the performance.”
Interviewed by Anna Schauder
Your reading: The props for L’Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi