dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Epic opera comes to Birmingham
Welsh National Opera presents the first of its Verdi triple bill in Birmingham this month. La forza del destino, performed at Birmingham Hippodrome on March 6, will be followed by Un ballo in maschera in 2019 and Les Vêpres siciliennes in 2020.
Co-productions with German opera house Oper der Stadt Bonn, the ambitious series is directed by WNO artistic director David Pountney and aims to bring some of Verdi's epic operas to the stage.
David says: "Performing Verdi, and performing Verdi pieces with very large choruses, is very strongly rooted in the tradition of WNO. Verdi's late middle pieces, La forza del destino, Un ballo in maschera and Les Vêpres siciliennes, are where Verdi is experimenting - they are transitioning between those relatively simple pieces Traviata, Rigoletto and Trovatore to pieces which are much more complex and ambitious in terms of their content. When you think of Forza for example, it's a very complex piece to pull off. The structure of the piece is like War and Peace or Dr Zhivago or one of those epic novels where there's an individual life going on with a love affair or something similar and these characters are torn apart then smashed together again by vast trans-continental disturbances like war or revolution."
Welsh National Opera performs La forza del destino
To reflect the monumental scope of Forza, Ballo and Vêpres, David wanted a new kind of staging which would be a part of the work, facilitating its story-telling.
He says: "I thought that, just as one thinks of a Shakespeare stage, it would be possible to create an environment which could be adapted to these three pieces. This is partly because Verdi is interested in bold, epic, dramatic strokes rather than naturalism and so a similarly bold, epic, abstract structure would be the right kind of framework for these operas."
David turned to Raimund Bauer, who had designed productions of William Tell and Moses in Egypt for WNO in autumn 2014. "Raimund came up with structural ideas of how to create spaces through the Verdi Machine," says David. "These Verdi pieces are very much about inhabiting different spaces and so the manipulation of space is very important. And it was also very important that the sets are used differently across the three operas so each has its own identity."
Raimund was quick to rise to the challenge of David's idea and says: "The first time I talked to David, about three years ago, we tried to figure out what connects the three Verdi pieces and then how we could connect them through a set. It was very clear right from the beginning that we didn't want a stable set, we wanted a morphing system – and that is when we invented the Verdi Machine. We decided we needed a Verdi Machine at the very first meeting but at that point I hadn't decided how it would work, just that it needed to be some kind of machinery. It should work like a machine because this set is not just decoration – it has a role to play in showing the inner situation and it should support the stories. These pieces are about war, passion, church, destruction – all these powerful moments."
The resulting Verdi Machine is made up of three interlocking panels which can be turned, lowered and re-shaped so that it drives the production rather than simply being a backdrop.
And Raimund adds: "Normally a set shows first act first scene, second act first scene etc but in these operas we use it like a part of the story," Raimund says. "We can shrink the space, we can open the space, we can fold the space, we can show very dark background and very light background, the very walls are hiding secrets which can then be opened. They are three huge frames and in one opera they are connected, then in the next they are not connected and then there are single walls which can be connected."
As well as linking the trilogy, the set also needs to ensure each work is distinctive. "They are three different operas with three different stories so I also had to decide three different looks for the operas," explains Raimund. "And so we really change the Verdi Machine for each opera. The skeleton is the same and the structure is similar but the look changes for each opera. So it will look like three different operas – the audience shouldn't feel it's the same set. But when you have seen all three operas you should feel there's the same way to tell the story."
The sets for all three operas were designed at the same time to make sure the Verdi Machine worked throughout the trilogy. Created in Bonn, it was shipped to Cardiff before Christmas where it was assembled with the help of two of the German team.
But Raimund says the biggest challenge was not distance between the companies but the fact the Verdi Machine needs to fit into so many theatres of different sizes and dimensions. "It is difficult to design a space which then needs to fit all these different spaces. It was a real challenge doing this set, not just because we were doing three operas in one set but also because for WNO's tour it needs to work in seven different theatres. Each of the operas has a lot of very large chorus so there is a lot to manage. There is never an empty space on the stage, the space is always defined by the Verdi Machine. There is always direction and a dynamic structure, so the machine is moving all the time."
La forza del destino plays Birmingham Hippodrome on March 6 as part of the Rabble Rousers season which also features Mozart's Don Giovanni on March 7 and Puccini's Tosca on March 8. For tickets and more information see www.birminghamhippodrome.com and 0844 338 5000.