See, hear

Time was when the design of an opera counted for more than the music. In 1711, Handel’s brilliant score wasn’t the original selling-point for his Crusader-drama Rinaldo (300 years on, a highlight of Glyndebourne this summer); cascades and fountains, fireworks and thunder were what drew the crowd. But now composers, singers and conductors top the bill, with the designer’s name sitting humbly below the director’s. Yet the design of an opera colours every bar and it can enormously magnify the force of the music. It deserves far more attention than it usually gets.

When Covent Garden kicks off its autumn season next week, design will for once be the focus, since each work in Richard Jones’s production of Il Trittico, Puccini’s portmanteau opera, will be designed by a different hand. Audiences have already seen John Macfarlane’s comically dowdy sets for Gianni Schicchi but those by Ultz for Il tabarro and by Miriam Buether for Suor Angelica will be new.

There’s no reason to suppose that these shows will be anything less than visually excellent, but design can break a show as well as make it. By setting The Magic Flute beside a motorway, for example, Peter Sellars gave Mozart’s spell no chance to work. And when Tobias Hoheisel presented Gluck’s Trojan-war epic Iphigénie en Tauride as a cavalcade of black-robed figures in a charcoal box, many in the audience felt cheated. For directors and designers, the stage is a blank canvas on which they can put anything they choose; to opt for drabness seems perverse.

“A physical colour is a physical thrill,” says David Hockney, perhaps the most famous of all opera designers today, and all his work proclaims this. The Matisse-like greens and purples of his sets for Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges in 1981 glowed magically, while his Queen of the Night set for Mozart’s Flute – for which he drew inspiration from the scene’s majestic treatment by the 19th-century architect-designer Karl Friedrich Schinkel – has a preternatural radiance. His cross-hatched, Hogarth-inspired sets for The Rake’s Progress – premiered at Glyndebourne in 1975, and triumphantly brought back last year – reflect the joyful realisation that the stage could be drawn as well as painted; other designers have since tried to tackle this work, but it’s doubtful if any will equal Hockney’s lovely congruence between sound and image.

Today’s designers may not trump Schinkel and his German colleagues in boldness but they are much more inventive in how they handle props and “found” space. David Fielding’s floating lakeside set for André Chénier at Bregenz this summer consisted of a 24-metre-high sculpture of the dying Marat. Conversely, 30 bamboo rods were all the scenery Peter Brook allowed himself for his charmingly reduced touring Flute.

The British designer Isabella Bywater – whose first ambition was, like Schinkel, to be an architect – took a similarly pared-down approach for her recent staging of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Mariinsky in St Petersburg. Faced with a concert hall auditorium, she created an illusory stage-space with an installation consisting largely of mirrors.

Bywater, who did her apprenticeship with Maria Bjornson and the great Ralph Koltai, divides designers into two camps: “illustrators” and “artists”, with the late Bjornson – best known as designer of the Lloyd Webber Phantom of the Opera – an example of the former, and the prolifically original Koltai an example of the latter; Bywater deftly puts herself midway on the spectrum in between. But her basic credo is shared by many designers: “For me, music is the beginning and end of the process. What you see affects how you hear.”

Peter Brook’s bamboo rod design for Mozart’s ‘A Magic Flute’

Yet for all the music’s importance, theatre is where many of the best opera designers now come from. Opera costs too much and evolves too slowly for risky experiment; theatre is where visual ideas can come thick and fast, as witness Koltai’s 30 productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and his dozens for theatres elsewhere.

Robert Jones – with RSC hits, Broadway transfers of Stoppard and Frayn, and West End productions of The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music to his credit – has taken the Koltai route. “I approach an opera as I do a play,” he says. “My aim is simply to tell the story, to show who the characters are and where they live.”

Perhaps his biggest hit to date has been the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare in 2005. For this, he and director David McVicar – the two regularly work together – evoked the charm of Drottningholm, that perfectly preserved 18th-century opera house outside Stockholm that has become a symbol for the baroque: they echoed its flats, swagging and hand-cranked wooden waves at the back of the stage, but they also tricked out Handel’s opera with choreographed numbers like a Broadway musical – an aspect they plan to expand on when they restage this production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2013.

As that date suggests, good designers have little space in their diaries. The original plan for the Covent Garden Trittico had been for Macfarlane to design all three works but, in the event, he was too busy: as a result we will get three different takes on Puccini.

The soft-spoken Ultz, who is officiating for Il tabarro (The Cloak), combines a career in opera design with a parallel career in theatre, and makes an interesting comparison between the two: “In the theatre, you draw on the energy the actors have created in previous scenes to shape the one you are doing. But in opera it’s a pre-determined energy, from the moment the conductor lifts his baton.”

His work with Trittico director Richard Jones began with intensive listening to recordings of the score, during which Jones would doodle his ideas. Ultz digs out a rough sketch on a piece of paper: “This was Richard’s first drawing for Tabarro – a row of quayside buildings full of windows curving away, with the barge in the foreground. And this has more or less become our staging.” They’ve also taken their cue from Puccini’s scored-in sounds of the city, to create what Ultz calls “a stark, sooty look, where high emotions will seem in place”.

To create the world of Suor Angelica, the tear-jerker that follows, Buether had a very different challenge. Her wittily in-your-face designs for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole this year involved re-cladding the interior of the Royal Opera House as a shrine to the self-destroying protagonist: she likes to envelop her audience in her dramatic world. This time she and Jones have decided to transpose Puccini’s little tragedy from a 17th-century Italian convent to a 20th-century children’s hospital. “It will be just as claustrophobic,” Buether says cheerfully.

As for the comic Gianni Schicchi – seen in a double bill with Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole in 2007 – Macfarlane’s original, mercifully discarded, vision was much darker: its drop-curtain was a cluster of monstrous house-flies, suggesting that the room in which the miser had died was already disgustingly foetid. It now depicts a giant fork digging into a mountain of pasta.

“For me the jumping-off question is what period you are going to set things in,” says Macfarlane, one of the most “painterly” designers in the business. “And I could never believe this opera was set in the period of Dante. I see it as we set it, with a dysfunctional Italian family in the mid-20th century, at a moment of crisis. If you were setting it in England, you’d have a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit on the front curtain, because that’s what English people do in a crisis. In Italy they eat.”

He personally painted the entire front-cloth, and, armed with smaller brushes, is about to dive into his other life as a painter tout court to prepare his next one-man show. Then he will return to designing Maria Stuarda for the Met in New York: “A huge red hammer-beamed room for Whitehall, with all the costumes white; then getting darker, and the stage smaller and more enclosed, so finally all that’s left is the scaffold and the block.” I can see it already.

‘Il Trittico’ opens at the Royal Opera House on September 12,

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