Friday, September 9, 2011

Production Notebook: Designing Trovatore

It was a Verdi family tradition to plant a tree for each new opera the master composed. Il Trovatore is the central opera of three which helped define his career and solidify his reputation as the leading Italian opera composer of the 19th century. Rigoletto and La Traviata surround Il Trovatore and appeared in relatively quick succession between 1851 and 1853. The trees Verdi planted for this operatic triumvirate were a sycamore, an oak and a weeping willow. Our director of operations, Jenny Preece-Thompson won yesterday's office opera quiz by matching the tree to the opera. The weeping willow fits the beloved heroine of La Traviata. Connecting Rigoletto's stubbornness to the sycamore left the solid, enduring oak for Trovatore.

I just returned from a meeting with our designer, Jimmy Ray Ward who (along with his wife, Laurie) has designed the set for our upcoming production of Il Trovatore. Jimmy and I met at the beginning of the summer to discuss my concept for this oak of an opera. Verdi's music for Trovatore is as passionate and engaging as any of his two dozen-plus operas. The four principal characters are archetypes with 3D music to match. Their passions are mythic as Greek tragedy and their humanity as universal as Shakespearean drama (even if the melodramatic strangeness of their actions obscures some of those parallels).

Though I did not have the oak in mind, I did want a set which reflected the boldness of the fundamental passions of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, sacrifice and revenge. I was drawn by the parallels and the ambiguous tensions between the different "worlds" of the drama. A castle with a dungeon resembles the convent, a soldier camp could also be the gypsy camp. Seen from a distance, a sword stuck in the ground may look like a cross in a cemetery.

So Jimmy Ray and Laurie designed the set accordingly and we discussed their sketches. Now their designs are being built by Joey Neighbors and Rob Bessolo (our technical director and the production manager at "our" theatre in the Jefferson Center). Here's an example of one of the "worlds" Jimmy and Laurie designed:

We met today to discuss the colors the set will be painted, the textures which will help define the surfaces and bring our imagined dramatic worlds to apparent life. The oak-like stature of the opera is reflected in the height of the flats which form the walls. The parallels, mirror-images, tensions & reversals of the story are reflected in the design. This melodramatic story is a prototype for today's action movies, love triangles & / or revenge dramas. Trovatore features separated-at-birth brothers who are now adult mortal enemies in love with the same woman who is herself torn between love and duty. And we haven't mentioned the mad gypsy mother at the heart of the story, whose revelation at the opera's climax prefigures the "shocking ending" we love in our mysteries, thrillers & dramas (no matter how predictable or familiar they may be). Here is the sketch for the setting of that fateful final scene:

As work on the opening production of our 2011-2012 season, "Troubadours & Gypsies" progresses, I will return with more "behind the scenes" reports. Il Trovatore runs for two performances Oct 14 & 16. Visit for tickets.

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