To hell in white

This year’s 100th edition of the Salzburg Festival presented a celebrated production of Don Giovanni, directed and with stage sets by Romeo Castellucci. Salzburg’s technical director Andreas Zechner talked to BTR about working with the award-winning stage all-rounder, known for his magical and mythical productions.

Bühnentechnische Rundschau

The auditorium of the big festival hall lies in black darkness. Just one vague shimmer of light casts an ethereal glow on the huge stage area, half-covered by a veil across the proscenium arch. We can make out the sacred white realm of a church; the first chords of Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture sound from the orchestra pit. Then, in the first seven or eight minutes, pews are pushed out, the image of Christ is taken down from the central apsis and all the religious paraphernalia removed. An empty space is left.

A goat appears and crosses the room – a stunningly primal image! Gradually, the now deconsecrated architecture becomes charged with new meaning and, when Don Giovanni makes his appearance in Romeo Castellucci’s production of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s dramma giocosa, the fateful game begins.

In the next four hours, we witness Don Giovanni careering towards his inevitable downfall. Nothing seems too heavy or aggressive for the director to use as emphasis. A car falls with a loud bang from above stage, then a wheelchair, and later an entire grand piano. A black catafalque stands for death and doom; a tree and numerous apples are reminders of the lost paradise. Symbols and devices from ancient times to the present, quotes from the history of art or the office, and animals, real animals, now such an integral feature of Castellucci’s cast of characters, form tableaux vivants.

More than a libertine and a serial seducer, Don Giovanni is a dynamic force, causing confusion and uproar where-ever he goes. A silent chorus of 150 women creates a staggeringly sublime moment in the second act. The room seems to be in soft focus, the church walls have disappeared behind light veil drapes and all the contours are blurred. “Castellucci develops his artistic ideas and stage compositions, based on the music, very much in terms of images,” says Andreas Zechner, the festival’s technical director. “That is certainly a challenge for us working with him. Because his rich imagery verges on an art installation.”

Falling objects and 150 women

The first act makes high demands on the technology, featuring numerous elements that come out, fall, or plummet out of the flies. “Luckily the car has always survived,” Zechner laughs. “We’ve only prepped one and just hope that it will fall how it is supposed to every night.” To cushion the landing, the 550 kg-heavy car is fitted underneath with a cluster of cardboard boxes sandwiched between two twin wall sheets. The quality cardboard in the sandwich, crumpling on impact, largely absorbs the force of the car plunging 12 metres on to the stage.

But for the falling grand piano, several models were made. It smashes to pieces, calling to mind an art installation by the artist Rebecca Horn. Castellucci likes to quote from art history, confirms Zechner. The blurring, with outlines softened by means of a veil across the proscenium arch (36 x 10 metres of white cotton wig tulle), creates images reminiscent of works by the German painter Gerhard Richter. Castellucci also achieves a blurred effect by hanging a foil over the walls of the entire space, 14m + 28m + 14 metres for the sides and 13 metres high.

The basic white space with its reduced architecture consisting of a round arch, pilasters, and alcoves has 12-metre-high walls. Because of the 10-metre maximum vertical clearance, they are in two parts. The lower segments are made of steel and wood. The height is made up using attachments that are put up and taken down each time. Castellucci wanted to use as much of the stage as possible and stretch the space to its limits. With an inner width of 28 metres and side walls 15 metres long, “we are talking about a really monumental space,” says Zechner. The entire depth of the stage was used, right up to the rock face (of the Mönchsberg, ed.). “During the set rehearsal we asked if he couldn’t move forward just one metre for the technology. But it was really important to him to be able to use the full dimensions of the main festival theatre.”

In the second act, Don Giovanni is encircled by 150 female choir singers, extras, and women of all ages from Salzburg and the surrounding area. The spatial architecture is shrouded in the folds of a white curtain (Mona von Tüchler polyester taffeta), which flutters aesthetically in the breeze, obscures characters and makes them disappear, and adds life to the performance. Backstage, an array of costume pieces is laid out for the women – two sets of wigs, dresses for several changes in various shades of the same colours – so that they can quickly grab what they need. Because it all needs to go incredibly fast. The women’s entrances and exits are choreographed and rehearsed so that their changes go off without hitch.

In the end there is the ‘white trip to hell’. Everything is dissolved in white, above all Don Giovanni. He rolls around stark naked in white paint on the floor. It is finger paint, applied to the stage in the black; the floor is covered in white laminate.

“The main festival theatre is a great theatre, but it is incredibly intensively used,” says Zechner in conclusion. “We normally have two major productions per year, this year three, plus philharmonic concerts, concert performances of operas and the indoor version of Jedermann in case of bad weather. That means that even Don Giovanni needs to be done in two hours – there’s just no scope for things going wrong!”

BTR 5 2021
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 160
von Irmgard Berner

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