by Almas SadiqueApr 05, 2023
The tonality of simple narratives can easily be enounced and intensified when accompanied with interesting visuals and stimulating aural compositions. They not only enhance the renderings of tales and fables, but also serve as more equanimous and democratic modes of disseminating information and ideas. It is for the same reason that comic books and graphic novels manage to amass a larger readership than traditional novels. Films make it to the screens of more homes than the books they are based on, and audio-visual performances and concerts garner larger crowds than talks and panels delineating, perhaps, similar discussions. Moving past details and specifics, the visually and aurally rich format of theatre and opera manages to engage not only our minds but also stimulate our emotions. Shakespearean plays and Dickensian tales, while classics in their own right, engage the audience better through retellings in film, theatre, and opera. Following tread to this communal wont, renowned 18th century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi wrote Rigoletto, an opera based on Victor Hugo’s Le roi s'amuse. Both, Hugo's play and later, Verdi’s musical rendition, were widely criticised and censored due to the story's criticism of the monarchy, at the time.
Almost three centuries since Verdi first presented Rigoletto at Teatro La Fenice in Venice, the opera from the Romantic period continues to remain relevant, both for its artistic treatment and the emphasis laid on the chaos and anarchy writ through tyrannical structures. It recently opened at Theater Basel in Basel, Switzerland, on January 21, 2023. Directed by Vincent Huguet, the set design for the currently running show is created by French interior designer and product designer, Pierre Yovanovitch, and will remain installed throughout the duration of the show, until June 21, 2023.
Yovanovitch, whose work revolves around experiments in the realm of residential design and furniture design, is an opera enthusiast. With this project, the designer realised his lifelong dream of working on the stage design for an opera. "Opera allows me to be excessive, to dream and to feel strong emotions. It was nice to work on a design which emphasised the dramatic nature of the play, whereas in my job as an architect, I try to create calm environments in which one feels at peace,” the interior designer shared.
Yovanovitch created the minimalist design for the opera with a focus on Rigoletto's bathetic ending and the layered story about the Duke of Mantua, the court jester Rigoletto, and his daughter Gilda. The sinuous-shaped movable backdrops, illuminated in different colours—reflect themes of power, naivety, vengeance, and regret, as well as shifting moods of the characters and scenes—through the duration of the opera, serving as dynamic settings for the discursive storyline and fluctuating emotions.
“I created a moving set that could gradually take shape as Rigoletto’s curse evolves. I conceived it as a stripped-down set so that the characters' souls, in disinheritance, can take up as much place as they need. The décor also symbolises the passage of time, quickly, and above all what we have done with our lives and what it has done with us,” shared the French designer.
Unlike the Renaissance motifs and ornamentation popular in indoor spaces during the 18th century, when the play and opera were originally written, Yovanovitch’s set design features bold colours and minimal forms. When asked how the designer reinterpreted a minimalist design from Rigoletto's 18th century maximalist scenery, he shared, “It wasn’t so much about reflecting the Opera’s original era as much as it was about designing for the storyline. I wanted the stage to be quite minimal but also functional to support the unfolding narrative as much as possible. Every aspect, from the moving stage walls, to the chandelier which functions as a prop, to the lighting was created to emphasise the dramatic elements of the storyline.” The opera, directed by Vincent Huguet, is also a departure from Verdi’s version, in that it has more ordered sequences, which adeptly fit with the accompanying tunes and songs.
The bright red, blue, and white colours used on the curved walls frame the myriad emotions of the various characters throughout the play, and the curvy configurations suffuse a softness to the space, which can be overpowered by the emotions exhibited by the characters. The winding staircase, vibrant hues and architectural angles, apart from lending an optimal backdrop for the opera, also reference Yovanovitch’s characteristic style. Delineating the process of building the set, the designer explained, “Everything was designed custom for this production and not necessarily intended to be used after the show. The walls and staircase were built using traditional staging materials and the bed, sofa and chandelier are a mix of wood, upholstery, metal and lighting elements. While we designed all aspects of the set, we worked with the theatre to construct everything using materials they typically incorporate for their stage design.”
The stage is made up of a series of layered, curved walls that gradually move to separate or bring together characters as the story progresses. It manages to provide space for the isolation that Gilda feels, the vengeance that washes Rigoletto and the unwarranted despotism projected by the Duke. The portions of the stage, separated from each other with opaque screens, yet visible to the audience, all at once, manage to communicate the ambivalence of Rigoletto. As the story progresses, the curved walls gradually move inwards, to build a tighter circle that metaphorises the lack of control felt by Rigoletto, when he ends up losing his own daughter due to a plan schemed by him. “The interplay between the characters together inspired the design. Their relationship and the resulting drama is what the stage was designed to accentuate,” Yovanovitch shared with STIR.