[This is a revised article by Suzanne Vanstone (our senior communications manager, editorial) that appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of our magazine Prelude]
In 2007 the COC’s production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk received great critical acclaim and late General Director Richard Bradshaw won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Musical Direction. The production featured the dynamic team of Paul Curran (director), Kevin Knight (set and costume designer) and David Martin Jacques (lighting designer). They return for the COC’s production of Puccini’s Tosca. Knight was very proud of the work they had done on Lady Macbeth and says, “I think it was one of those occasions in life when all the planets just lined up – it was a great piece and such a great cast.
“It was a great privilege to be asked by a company like [the COC] to design a Tosca for them and I wanted to try and give them something that wouldn’t last just one season. Paul and I both wanted to make it as sumptuous, beautiful and intelligent as possible.”
Early on, Paul and Kevin discussed an interesting aspect – the opera is set in June. In production photographs that Knight had seen, the clothes that people were wearing didn’t completely tell the truth in terms of the climate outside the church. “I started to become interested in the idea that churches are incredibly cool, dark, sacred places, but then I loved the idea that the people who were entering were escaping from the heat and that the clothes and the fashion would be one of extreme temperature outside. That gave us this balance of having the cool, greyness of the inside of the church contrasted against the wonderful sepia, beige, creamy, peachy tones of the clothes that people are wearing.”
"That was the starting point. Then there were some logistical problems that dealt with trying to create the best space to deal with the action of the first act: Cavaradossi’s relationship to what he is painting; Tosca’s relationship to the statue of the Madonna; and then the final religious procession with its ceremony and ritual. Knight says, “We solved it, as usual with Paul, in a slightly cinematic way. We have side sections of the church that are downstage and then as you move through Act I they open up and reveal a much larger space for the ‘Te Deum’ which is then filled with the colour of the procession and the lovely blood-red of the cardinal’s clothes.
“We had quite a strong colour scheme in mind and the rest of the design followed on quite easily. It was a completely different type of challenge to work on Lady Macbeth because that opera was like looking down the opposite end of the telescope. Anything was really possible and a lot of the work that you did had to clarify the environment. Whereas with Tosca, it tells you what it wants to be. It is so geographically specific that I personally found it very hard to move beyond that.”
When Knight first started to conceptualize the production he toyed with the idea of abstracting the locations completely. “Paul does laugh sometimes because I punish myself so hard. I am relatively new to opera so I’m always discovering the medium. Paul comes to my studio and I’ve got all this abstract scaffolding and craziness going on that has little to do with how you should stage the opera. He’s so supportive and will always run with any idea. A conversation with him is about what is possible with the piece without ever feeling constrained by his knowledge and innate sense of music and theatre. It’s a great partnership because we both enjoy the experience of ‘what if’ as a creative tool. We’re both gifted in different ways and complement each other completely – it’s a perfect marriage. Of course in the end I stopped trying to reinvent the wheel and trusted Puccini – always a good starting point!”
Eventually the idea and lines of the set became about the architecture of a church and evolved into quite a monumental structure with oversize columns, large double-doors and a real sense of space and grandeur. “It shouldn’t be apologetic,” claims Knight. “There should be great drama in it. For instance, at the end when Tosca leaps to her death – I looked at some productions where I thought, yes you have a solution, but is it the most dramatic one? I played around with the idea that she always seems to jump from upstage and I suddenly thought maybe we should try and invert that slightly and get the ending further downstage. We tried various ways and the solution is incredibly simple, but it was a long journey to get to that simplicity. I think we quite successfully brought all of the requisites of the end together into one place.
“And then, like always with opera, the challenge is that the second act is incredibly domestic in some ways. You have to go from something enormous and epic then bring a curtain in and then 20 minutes later take the curtain out and you’ve got to be in a more domestic space. Although it is a very grand domestic space, nonetheless the second act to me is like a play. In fact, most of the opera is like a play. I think some designers become attracted to the spectacle of this piece, but in the equation of things it is actually only a tiny percentage of your evening with Tosca. One becomes seduced by the epic quality. If you ask people to remember Tosca they remember the pageantry of it and the ritualistic side of it, but they don’t remember the intimacy and the sexual tension.”
In the second act the action moves downstage. Scarpia’s apartment is simple, but very classical. It has lovely mahogany furniture, beautiful curtains, large paintings and magnificent windows that open so that the singers could wander out and evoke the sense of being outside which further aids the drama. Knight says that so often in this act the audience is focused on the candlesticks or the knife or the cross. “But that’s not what should happen,” he says. “When I have students and they do that, I always say to them ‘You’re telling me from the design what the scene is going to become – at the moment it’s a beautiful warm evening and he’s a very wealthy, powerful man – he doesn’t even know she is going to turn up at the door.’ It’s like the actor who is playing Hamlet walking out and instantly being mad. If you are mad at the beginning you’ve got nowhere to go to. It’s exactly the same principles that apply to design – design mustn’t tell you what the scene is ultimately going to become, it can only give you the space for it to develop into the drama. If the curtain went out and there was an aggressive, claustrophobic space where you think a murder could take place then you have nowhere to journey toward – you’re just counting the minutes.
“This auditorium is a really great space to focus people’s attention on small detail, which I think we did very successfully in Lady Macbeth. The closer the audience can be to the action, to Tosca’s suicide, to Scarpia’s murder, the better. It is quite a challenging and revealing space to be in for the performers because they have to work hard to give us a performance that we can believe in. We should see their thought processes that lead to the drama that is unfolding in front of our eyes.”
All photos from the COC's 2012 production of Tosca. Photos © Michael Cooper 2012.
Posted by Suzanne Vanstone / in Tosca / comments (2) / permalink
Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001