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Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Opera - Scenography in Barcelona/Cologne Walküre

In my earlier post on Opera-seats and productions, I discussed the importance of storytelling—and elaborated that any opera production will tell some kind of story: what counts is whether the story makes sense. The set design contributes much to the story. The scenography by Patrick Kinmonth for Robert Carsen’s 2014 production of Die Walküre at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, taken over from their production in Cologne, Germany, is an example of aspects that do not work fully.

When the curtain rises on the first Act of Die Walküre, we expect to see the inside of Hunding’s place.  What we do see is a set in grey which consists of a range of crates, wooden or metal and other boxes loosely arranged like a square around a real burning log fire.  The various boxes and crates will be used in the course of the Act to serve as seats for various characters.  To the right of this arrangement is what looks like and turns out in the end to be, a tree trunk lying on the ground. It is not in the soil, and that means dead, with a piece of cloth placed over one end of it which is where Sieglinde will be revealing Wotan’s sword in due course.

When the curtain rises the scene is not empty as expected but a number of characters, men in various kinds of combat gear, clearly soldiers, come on and add to the fortification of this area by piling up further crates on top of the ones that exist already.  In the background one soldier climbs up on one of the rostra at the back.  When all the other soldiers have left the scene, this soldier comes forward and is revealed as Siegmund who now starts the opera with his first line indicating that he is exhausted, that no matter where he is, this is where he has to take a rest.  When Sieglinde joins him shortly afterwards in the room, assuming that it is her husband who has come back home, she is revealed to be wearing the same kind of combat gear of grey khaki trousers, shirt and jacket. 
Act 1 Scene 1, Walküre Barcelona

Their interaction when they see each other first, until after the point when Hunding returns, is well guided by the director, independent of the setting and of the costumes.  The way they look at each other, the way they are drawn to each other right from the beginning, the way each one fights this attraction for different reasons, Siegmund because he is used to bringing bad luck to people and doesn’t want to bring bad luck to this woman whom he feels attracted to, and Sieglinde because she was married against her will to a horrible man, Hunding, who has treated her very badly as will be revealed later.  She is torn between loyalty to the institution of marriage if not to that particular husband and her feelings for a man who is not her husband.

All these nuances are brought out very carefully and consistently and also in line with the music that accompanies the words of the libretto.  When Hunding does arrive he does not arrive on his own but with a number of his soldiers whose leader he clearly is.  They come armed with guns and point them at the assumed intruder, but after Hunding has assessed the situation, realising that Siegmund is without a weapon he makes them drop their weapons and sends them away within a short period of time.  It becomes very clear straight away that he is a nasty piece of work, from the way he deals with his soldiers, the way he deals with Siegmund and the way he deals with his wife.

The entire rest of the scene takes place in this arrangement of crates and boxes in which Siegmund tries to find suitable weapons:  he is told by Hunding that Hunding was one of those who tried to follow and kill Siegmund and that while he is safe for the night, because of the hospitality that he had offered, but the next day, Hunding will fight Siegmund, so Siegmund needs a weapon.  He looks through the boxes and creates, finds a crate full of weapons but Hunding comes back and locks it.    The relationship between Hunding and Sieglinde also becomes clearer in the course of their interaction.  Hunding grows suspicious and when he requests Sieglinde to prepare for the night and to join him in bed he hits her full blast into the face so that she collapses with a loud cry. There is an interesting reaction from Siegmund: he rises instinctively,  storms towards the couple but stops himself at the last moment because Hunding has a weapon and he doesn’t.

The light for this scene comes throughout and predominately from the right hand side of stage, and gets brighter when Spring is announced through cold, clear moon light. When Sieglinde shows Siegmund the sword that Wotan had placed in the tree trunk, she lifts the coat from it but already that movement moves the sword out of the trunk a little bit. This is a let-down of the props design here. When Siegmund pulls the sword out of the tree trunk—which allegedly many strong men have tried and not been able to—it is just too easy for him to do this and the sword is also ridiculously short and flimsy: unnecessarily disappointing.

In the interaction between characters there are nice nuances, for example, Siegmund quite naturally adds a log to the log fire when the fire goes down.  When Hunding comes home he is about to do the same probably following common practice and is surprised when he finds a log has been added to the fire already and just puts the additional log that he wanted to put on the fire next to the fire with a bit of a grumpy gesture.   

Act II, Walküre, Barcelona
The first part of the second act is supposed to be set, according to the libretto, in a wild mountain scape.  In this production it is set in a huge living room that fills the entire vast stage. At first it is filled with soldiers who then leave with only two or three armed guards at each end.  In the middle is a huge table but not of conventional normal table size but as a kind of table that is meant for an arrangement around or in between armchairs and sofas and indeed there are sofas, huge large long white, possibly leather but arranged in such a way that only the arm rests face the audience.  On the table is a large heavy plate made of silvery material full of apples, maybe eight or nine of them.  Behind this there is a fire place on one side and some other pieces of furniture here and there.  But because the depth of the stage is so vast, the singers cannot make use of the depth because of the acoustics of the stage which would swallow their voices if sang too far back.  So only when they are not singing can they use the areas of the stage that are further back; for their singing they would be near the arm rests of the sofas that are closest to the audience and that end of the table.  The blocking of this scene is characterised predominately by its predictability.  It is predictable that the depth of the stage is there but will not be used much or would be used in such a way that one of the characters is towards the front singing and another is character is doing something at the back of the stage but there is no logic in that arrangement.    It is then also predictable that Wotan in his several long monologues (where he provides Brünnhilde with the background to everything that is happening now in historical terms), he will be standing towards the front of the stage and is probably going to shift between these three, one sofa left, the table in the middle and the sofa on the right and that is exactly what happens.  It is similarly predictable that because there are characters who are very highly agitated and angry it is only a question of when one of them, and most likely Wotan, will pick up the tray of apples and throw the apples all over the place.  That does happen. Unfortunately, the weight of the tray and the apples together is such that it does not look spontaneous at all when he picks up this heavy plate and throws the apples: nobody would be doing that even if they are very angry and upset. It is a good idea but it doesn’t work.

Act II, Scene 3, Walküre Barcelona
In this production, the scene shifts in so far as the curtain falls during the exchange between Wotan and Brünnhilde, not the front curtain but the curtain slightly further back so that the stage hands can change the set behind that curtain while Wotan and Brünnhilde carry on their scene in front of that curtain.  When the curtain opens we see a wintry landscape, snow that has been falling already for most of the scene of Act 1 in the background is now covering the whole stage but not loose, rather a solid layer of material that looks like snow from the outside.  On the right hand side of the stage we can see an old jeep, derelict, broken down, not fit for purpose anymore, but it provides an interesting prop or piece of design because it allows Siegmund to place Sieglinde in it to rest and to move in around it in his exchange with Brünnhilde when she comes initially to tell him that he is to die but later on takes his side and promises to fight for him in his struggle with Hunding against Wotan’s wishes.

The interaction between Siegmund and Sieglinde in this part of the scene is conventional and predictable through the possibilities offered by the jeep. 
Act 2, Walküre, Barcelona
Siegmund can climb up, climb down, Sieglinde can do the same so there is some variety in what they can do.  There is more imaginative blocking in the interaction between Brünnhilde and Siegmund in so far that the performers manage to express especially Siegmund’s attitude and position , such as Siegmund’s certainty, security and determination when he tells Brünnhilde that he will not be following her to Valhalla because Sieglinde is not joining him there.

At the end of the second act is the fight scene between Hunding and Siegmund with Hunding armed with his gun, Siegmund with a sword when Wotan smashes the sword, Hunding first knocks Siegmund out with his gun and when Siegmund has fallen he stabs him with gun’s bayonet.

The third act takes place on the same kind of snowy ground but through the lighting effect it is now dark, dirty and is covered with the dead bodies of soldiers.  The Valkyries appear and one after the other most of the soldiers are raised back to after- life by the Valkyries and led off stage either to the right or to the left depending on which party they have been fighting for, because they have to be separated at first until their human life, their human emotions have settled down so that they would not be fighting each other anymore. They are being led as brave soldiers to live in Valhalla in their after-lives as heroes.  Some of these dead soldiers remain lying on the ground for the rest of the scene.

The rest of the interaction between Wotan and Brünnhilde takes place in this environment and they need to try and find spaces where they don’t step on these dead soldiers so that makes it a bit awkward and there is a lot of stumbling around as a result and that doesn’t help.  Brünnhilde has been wearing a fire-red dress for most of the time, now she seems to be feeling cold suddenly in that scene and takes up the coat of one of the dead soldiers to warm herself with it.

Final scene, Walküre, Barcelona
To represent to the ring of fire that Wotan creates around Brünnhilde at the end of the opera, he places a lighter with lit fire in front of her and the back droplifts up and behind that a line of fire, clearly gas fire from some device on the ground, emits a line of flame which is not too high so it is a very down-to-earth, low-key kind of effect.

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