Claus Guth’s new production of La Bohème premiered on December 1 at the Opéra national de Paris – Opéra Bastille.
Far from any cliché, Claus Guth has set his La Bohéme in the future. He introduced a parallel plot whereby four friends travelling in space make an emergency landing on a planet due to a failure of their spaceship. They know they will not survive. Hunger, cold, and lack of oxygen will kill them so they begin having hallucinations. They escape into an alternative reality by beaming themselves in the past, there where it was warm and colourful. The threat of death makes their happy memories materialise in front of them, only to then suddenly disappear again.
When set designer Etienne Pluss came into the project, Guth had already developed this base idea of flashbacks. “Generally I work very closely with the director, for every project we discuss and read for a long time and we develop concepts together,” Pluss tells Scenography Today. “In this case, I came later into the production so a concept was already there and we only had a month to work on it. I questioned myself about it. I took it, I liked it, and I made it my own.”
For Pluss, the idealisation of a cliché Paris does not belong to us anymore. “I have seen so many productions of La Bohème and I have loved them but I have always had the feeling of being seeing the typical costumes and the traditional cliché of Paris, of Montmartre. It was often extremely dusty.”
He saw in Guth’s concept an interesting way of telling the story in a different way and to go deeper into it. “I found confirmation first of all in the music. There are a certain transparency and some really generous, spacious moments in the music,” he says. “Also, the presence of Mimì is very unreal and the life that this group of young people lives is out of society. They also speak a lot of what they do not have.”
Pluss also found that a concept based on flashbacks well supports a spectator’s predisposition, “an opera spectator pays to see a show which is set in an idealised past and from there he sources love, emotions, life, everything these young people represent with their bohemian life,” he says.
The hardest task for Etienne Pluss was creating the intimacy required by La Bohème in the capacious Opéra Bastille. “I think the biggest challenge for every set designer working on La Bohéme, whether set in a spaceship or in an atelier in Montmartre, is to create an intimate atmosphere in such a big space. Think of the scene of Mimì and Rodolfo in the first act, it is something so fragile, so small that you need a small space for it. At the Bastille, where the auditorium and the proscenium arch are so big, we needed to create a strong picture adequate to their dimensions and at the same time obtain an intimate atmosphere where one could concentrate. We had to create a form that is big and small at the same time.”
Technically, the whole spaceship is a structure made of a single piece. Its ceiling is a 6.5 m deep overhang—reaching around 8.0 m with the window’s depth—held by a structure behind it. Having a single structure and nothing hanging at the grid allows changing the scene in a few seconds by taking the whole construction to the side-stage.
“I was surprised by the decision of making it this way,” Pluss tells Scenography Today, “but at the Opéra Bastille, they’re used to build this way for their system of repertoire. It is impressive to have a 19.0 m wide roof held from behind at 7.8 m height by a huge construction. It is quite amazing.”
The structure also integrates more than 200 lighting elements made by cutting light canals out of the surfaces with plexiglass in front, all built from the back side. “I don’t know how many kilometres of LEDs, lights, and cables there are built-in,” he says. “That was a marvellous work the electricians at the Bastille did working day and night at the scene.”
A great bit of fun for Pluss was designing the details of the spaceship, “working on a space station was a big chance for me. This is something you rather do in cinema than in opera. It was a lot of fun and an incredible work of detail. We did not just put in place decorative technical systems; the space station is a prolongation of human, there are invented systems of air and gas filtration, elements of motorization to which we had to give a logic.
It might seem absurd because we are not in cinema and we are not building an actual spaceship, but these invented elements had to seem to be functional to humans in space. It was a lot of fun working to make all those details,” Pluss concludes.
La Bohème will be on stage at the Opéra national de Paris – Opéra Bastille (www.operadeparis.fr) until December 31.
The costumes are designed by Eva Dessecker, lighting design is by Fabrice Kebour and videos by Arian Andiel.