Head and hands above the rest
This summer’s Bregenz Festival featured Giuseppe Verdi’s eerily beautiful opera “Rigoletto” on the floating stage. The set concept by director and designer Philipp Stölzl – consisting of disembodied parts of a giant marionette – impressively reflects the fate of the eponymous character. The technically elaborate, moving stage set drew the audience into a world of circus mayhem.
“Rigoletto” is widely considered to be the first of Verdi’s hattrick of masterpieces, completed with “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata”, and the piece which earned him world-wide fame. The opera is admired all over the world for its chilling dramatic effects and catchy tunes. It had been a long time coming, then, but for the 73rd edition of the festival, “Rigoletto” finally made it to the floating stage at Bregenz. Philip Stölzl not only directed but also designed the set, together with Heike Vollmer, and created the lighting scenes, assisted by Georg Veit. The result is a spectacular all-round artwork.
A stage in motion
From the pre-planning to making the last-minute corrections and adjustments to the new stage set took a total of three years; construction took ten months. 46 technical companies from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, as well as twelve festival technicians, including a crane driver, were involved in building the stage set for “Rigoletto”.
The head of the clown, offering space for up to 13 performers at once, measures some 13.5 metres from the lower jaw to the top of the skull, where a hatch is installed for the actors to climb out, and is around 11.3 metres wide. On its own, the head weighs some 35 tons; with its supporting structure, around 140 tons. This contains five loudspeakers. The lamination is made of polystyrene, exterior plaster and several layers of paint, and supported by a steel and wood construction. The head is surrounded by fluttering, illuminated flags made of outdoor signage material. The removable nose is made of glass-reinforced plastic. The chin and lips are also removable and made of steel and GRP topped with textured plaster and paint. The eye sockets are 2.7 metres in diameter and contain eyes of steel and polystyrene, coated with epoxy resin. A 34-metre-long rocker supports and moves the head. The rocker is mounted on a standard turntable, has a pivot range of 94 degrees and weighs some 100 tons. Electro-mechanical drives move the eyes, open and close the lids and turn the head.
The left hand, named “Lindau”, of steel, wood, polystyrene and exterior plaster, measures some 11.5 metres from the cuff to the tip of the outstretched middle finger when the hand is pointing upright. The aluminium fingers are moved by hydraulic swivel drives and equipped with six joints to essentially imitate the movements of a human hand. Suspension points allow stunts to be performed on it. The right hand, known as “Bregenz”, measures around six metres from the cuff to the index finger and contains two integrated loudspeakers. A captive balloon filled with helium is positioned above it. The balloon’s tether is built into this hand. The balloon is moved up and down by means of three manually controlled winches to which the tethers are attached that keep the balloon in position. The balloon is 13 metres in diameter. The upper chamber is filled with 1300 cubic metres of helium and the lower chamber with air. The outer shell consists of printed synthetic, helium-balloon material. The balloon has been certified with the European aviation authority and given its own number: OE-RIG, denoting Austria (Oesterreich) and Rigoletto. A professional balloonist is always on hand to decide whether the weather conditions permit its use.
Most of the action takes place on the 338 m²-large collar. This is made of steel and wood, covered with cross laminated timber boards and triple plywood boards, topped with textured plaster. It stands on a total of 31 piles and has a fixed part and three movable elements, which glide along a steel construction mounted on stilts. The collar is moved by hoists; the parts run on rollers on a track system that works like an elevator podium. Diagonal movements are performed by tilts in the track system. Each collar part is moved by one electric winch, with ropes wound around several drums. To separate the collar parts, electromechanical drives move the swinging bridge, and collar parts along with it. The cuffs are made of steel, concrete elements and wood and painted in bright stripes.
Light and sound: Tradition meets innovation
The sound and light technology is installed on three towers, built out of crane parts. For the sound towers, pedestals from the festival’s production of “Carmen” were used, while the lighting tower pedestal, consisting of four piles and a compensation structure, was purpose-built. This tower stands on a 12 x 12 metre steel beam cross on 24 wooden piles. Divers were needed to assemble the crane cross. More than 300 different spotlights, 60 of which are moving lights, with a total wattage of 500,000, were installed to create the lighting scenes. A specially designed multi-colored LED spotlight illuminates the captive balloon from within. To convey a nostalgic circus atmosphere, Stölzl and Veit drew inspiration from conventional light design, using devices such as followspots.
For this production, the Bregenz Festival used more complex control technology than ever before. The performance is divided into individual movements, or cues, each one of which was assigned a special command. Every movement was programmed according to an animated film Stölzl made in advance, and double-checked for safety regarding angles, loads and speeds. Everyone involved is assigned precise positions that they must keep to during the performance. While these positions were planned, marked and checked for safety in the film, the trickiest phase was putting it all into operation in May. Emergency-stop tests needed to be done and two technical inspections passed before a single performer was allowed on the stage. Two out of the five operators steer the movements at two control panels; one operator is responsible for all the movements of the head and collar and another controls the “Lindau” hand. Nine surveillance cameras provide the operators with images from angles they would otherwise not be able to see. In addition, eight people are standing at the ready to press the emergency stop-button if necessary.
All the technical effort, involving the participation of so many crews of technicians and engineers, was well worth it. The production conjures wonderful images which are both stunningly monumental and reminiscent of an intimate chamber play.
On 23 July 2020, “Rigoletto” will start a new run at Bregenz. In the season after that, in 2021, Giacomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” will be presented on the floating stage, featuring spectacular lighting innovations.