How to Get Ahead in Opera

19 April 2011

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Opera – no one can really argue that it is an understated art form and the sets upon which operas are staged have long been renowned for their extravagance.  Yet as backdrops go, this outdoes most for the sheer ambition of its scale. It is situated on the shores of Lake Constance near the Austrian town of Bregenz and is part of this year’s eponymous opera festival there.

The opera to be performed on this magnificent set is Andrea Chénier.  This is a verismo opera  by Umberto Giordano, set to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica. It tells the story of the last four years in the life of the French poet, André Chénier (1762-1794), who was executed by Robespierre during the French Revolution.

If the set seems somehow familiar then you have probably seen the painting upon which the design is based.  The Death of Marat (detail left) is a 1793 painting by Jacques-Louis David, and as such is one of the most famous images of the French Revolution. It shows the assassination of radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat, killed in his bathtub on the 13th of July 1793 by Charlotte Corday, a revolutionary figure from an unimportant noble family. Corday believed that Marat was propagating a civil war through his writing.  She famously claimed I killed one man to save 100,000.

Marat’s death was swift and pitiless.  The process of setting a giant version of his head in to place has taken somewhat longer to commit than the murder. Yet Marat will soon be at home in an altogether different bathtub to the one in which he expired.

The designers had kept the set undisclosed.  However, once it arrived in Bregenz it was not long before the secret was out. It is rather difficult to hide a fifteen meter high head, with a diameter of twelve after all. The picture above is the head in a shipyard on the shores of the lake.  Later it would be taken by ship to the floating stage.

The construction began just over a month ago. To begin with nothing is recognizable. However, Rome was not built in a day and weighing in at over 60 tonnes the head could not be transported singly on to its home on the stage.

The torso of a giant human shape is already discernible, but the head is still missing. The performance begins on July 2nd this summer. The sheer cost of this set must have been enormous which is something of an irony.  When the Bregenz Opera Festival began over seventy years ago it was put on the shores of Lake Constance because the town, it seems, could not afford to build an opera house.

By the middle of March the head was taking shape.  This part of the set was transported to the stage but strong winds made its placement impossible for over a week.

Finally, the head is in place.  It is a triumph for all those involved in the production but particularly for set designer David Fielding. For a limited period of time Marat will have a new home on Lake Constance.  We hope to bring you pictures of the performances where he will be seen in all his glory. If you have the urge to visit the festival, please take a look at their website.



Kuriositas would like to thank Flickr users Kecko, Hanes Frick and Grange Park Opera (See the Grange Park Opera website here) for their kind permission to share their wonderful pictures with you. Please click on the links to visit their photostreams.

Death of Marat - Image Credit Wikimedia



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