1 February 2017 at 2.55pm | Comment on this article
‘The starting point goes back to when I was about five, when I was playing with toy theatres as a child’, says designer and director Charles Edwards. He’s talking about the spectacular set for David McVicar’s 2010 production of Adriana Lecouvreur for The Royal Opera. Cilea’s opera is based on the real life and death of French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur, and its first act takes place at the Comédie Française theatre in Paris. In his designs, Edwards responded with suitable theatricality – although there’s a twist in the tale.
‘I spend half my time seeing the world 25 times smaller than it really is, pushing little people round on a toy stage’, says Edwards. ‘There’s something about the fascination of altering and modifying a little model: the control it gives you, the little world you can escape into. I think David asked me to do this piece because he knew I had this obsession with an escape world. It’s an appropriate metaphor for Adriana herself: she has a problem distinguishing between reality on the one hand and on the other this little world of escape that she creates.’
It’s a delicate balance between real and artificial, as Edwards explains. ‘For this show, I wanted to create the world of the model theatre. But it was important for me that the theatre had a credibility, because while it has to have this aspect of a toy there should be a certain ambiguity about it that allows it to be real – otherwise real people wandering around on too cartoon-like a set becomes implausible. It was quite hard to find exactly the kind of theatre that would have been partly toy-like and partly real.’
His main real-world model was the Margravial Opera House, a famous Baroque theatre in Bayreuth, designed in the 1740s by Italian designer Giuseppe Galli Bibiena. ‘A lot of Bibiena’s skill lay in the fact that he combined trompe l’oeil – painted sculpture – and three-dimensional imagery, genuine sculpture’, says Edwards. Real and make-believe come together, as they do to some extent in every theatrical setting.
The result is a real working theatre – ‘all the machinery functions in the way Baroque machinery did’. But Edwards’s theatre is much more than a working model. ‘We felt it was more important to create a psychological space around the idea of this theatre. So it’s a toy that can become a theatre, can become a formal opera house as it does in Act III when all this stage machinery comes to life – but it can also have a personality of its own.’
Edwards sets the scene. As the curtain rises, ‘the first thing you see is the wings. You’re backstage and the show is full of the bustle and activity of a theatre just before a performance. Then during the first act the set turns, and you can see through the wings on to the stage. That’s the view Michonnet has of Adriana. He’s in love with her, but he might as well be in another world. I find there’s something quite extraordinary about standing in the wings in a performance: you’re very close to the performer, but completely cut off. It’s extremely disorienting.’
Adriana’s theatre is ‘a cage, and an illusion – especially when it’s full of scenery – a way of escaping into a dream world’. But finally in Act IV it becomes ‘a kind of carcass of a theatre, the ripped-out guts of a building. There is something tragic about a theatre at the end of its life, and this resonates with Adriana. She’s decided she’s got to the end of her life and she gives up the stage. There’s a real link between the personality of the set and the personality of the leading lady’.
Thus Edwards’s theatre is not only a beautiful, meticulously researched working model, but a space that tracks the life and thoughts of its star. What better setting could there be for an opera that McVicar describes as being about ‘performance – the art of make-believe, the art of play-acting and the blurring of lines between fantasy and reality’.
Adriana Lecouvreur runs 7 February–2 March 2017. Tickets are still available.
The production is a co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Vienna State Opera, San Francisco Opera and Opéra National de Paris, and is given with generous philanthropic support from The Friends of Covent Garden.