Saturday, December 11, 2010

The World Is A Stage

Opera stages either come flat or raked. When an opera stage is raked, that means that the stage is angled towards the auditorium. This is so that theatre patrons, especially those sitting in the orchestra level, are able to see all the action happening on stage. (Well, that one advantage of sitting way up in the "god seats!")

To compare, VO's last opera, Lillian Alling, was performed on a flat stage while Lucia di Lammermoor is set on a raked stage. Actually, it takes the raked stage one step further into what VO's Director of Production, Terry Harper, calls a curved deck piece.

It's a simple set but it takes up a lot of space; most of which is the downstage part. To construct the set, it takes about 9 hours and a crew of 16. Surprisingly, the easiest part to put together is the curve, whereas the most difficult would be the top of the castle.

Lucia di Lammermoor blueprint details the sharp curve of the stage

Of course with a curve this extreme, I couldn't help but ask my friend who is a professional skateboarder if he would want to skate the Lucia set. And indeed he would! But of course, we didn't let that happen. (it was just a hypothetical question)

The set was designed by Gerard Howland for San Francisco Opera's 1999 production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Unfortunately, the set was heavily criticized when it premiered.

San Francisco Opera revived a 1994 production by Gerard Howland, a sad mistake of design then, no better now, and best trashed before used again. Its sole distinguishing element is a heavily skewed view of the castle seen from the perspective of someone lying on the ground in a courtyard and looking up, suggesting that the castle is an uncomfortably confined space, in which, of course, our heroine is trapped. Not a very profound point for such an aggressively vertiginous visual assault. - Culture Vulture

Gerard Howland’s production, in which Swenson appeared when it was new a few years ago, is a one-gimmick concept, that of a "worm’s eye view" of the courtyard with stone walls in sharp perspective ringing a rectangle of sky. - Concerto Net

The set provides one initial visual jolt, as the audience realizes that it's looking straight up the walls of a medieval Scottish fortress. After that, though, it's three hours of characters walking perpendicular to the backdrop, as if in an unintentional parody of M.C. Escher. - SF Gate

In all likelihood, Howland's productions are destined for the scrap heap, when new General Director Pamela Rosenberg arrives in mid-2001. The "Lucia" is the one with the unit set which represents a worm's eye view of a castle courtyard; the Ashtons apparently live in a Scottish bunker. - SF Gate

It could very well have not been appreciated in its time. The consensus amongst the opera patrons and reviewers who attended Lucia this past week was that they loved the set.

The set by Gerard Howling and lighting by David Fraser were exceptional. Reading like an MC Escher painting, a style called impossible reality, the set at first glance seemed gorgeous and functional but on closer examination, it changes the audience’s perspective, leaving the performers treading across a stage that in reality is the floor but should really be a wall. The audience’s perspective would be that of lying down on a floor looking up at a ceiling. This is crazy stuff but serves the purpose brilliantly in a story whose main character goes mad. - Vancouver Observer

The eye-catching set by Gerard Harland was a view of the castle from the perspective of someone looking straight up from the ground. Omnipresent and demanding it enveloped the Lammermoor family. A lowering forest from the same perspective continued the dark and brooding theme. - Review Vancouver

The opera unfolded gently, ominously, on a set that resembled something from an M.?C. Escher print—the view is of a castle’s four walls as seen directly from the ground, as if from a grave, with the action taking place, surreally, on one of the walls. A few minimal furnishings and some evocative projections were all that was needed to create a moody, darkly brooding atmosphere. - The Georgia Straight

Like what happens when making movies, sometimes the city that it's being shot in becomes another character. In my opinion, Howland's set is just as important as all the other characters it houses. I loved the forced perspective of this set, whereby your eyes are drawn to the "tops of the castle" and in the opening, videos such as ominous dark skies and silverly moonlight are projected.

Photo credit: Ken Friedman

This is where Lucia, bloodied and with knife in hand, lingers prior to coming down to be amongst all the reception guests. In those few moments, one wonders if she would really jump from the castle roofs, having gone completely mad.

Photo credit: Tim Matheson

And lastly while watching it in the dark of the theatre, I was reminded of the 2004 movie, Alien vs. Predator. Although hardly set in the lowlands of Scotland, AVP takes place 2000 ft below ground on Bouvetøya Island in the Antarctic ocean. Like Howland's set, the movie features stone pyramid structures and chambers, the lighting is dark and ominous and there's only one opening where the nightsky could be seen. In this case a long tunnel that takes the remaining survivors back up to the surface. An inspiration perhaps?

It may just have been me that saw that, although when I told a fellow opera-goer afterwards of my thoughts, he was then able to see it too.

Yes I know. The cheese stands alone.

~ Ling Chan

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