This co-production of Madrid’s Teatro Real and the Frankfurt Opera combines the dramatic oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) by Arthur Honegger and the cantata La damoiselle élue (The Blessed Damozel) by Claude Debussy.
The two works are presented without pause, with dramaturgy and staging by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus, in a unique setting designed by Alfons Flores, with costumes by Lluc Castells, lighting by Joachim Klein and Urs Shönebaum and video by Franc Aleu.
The staging represents a world devastated by the same dehumanized hordes that ravaged Europe in the fifteenth century under Joan of Arc, in the twentieth century under Claudel and Honegger, and beyond us in the twenty-first century. A universe of manipulative beasts and gregarious mobs from which only death, spirituality, and faith can free us.
In the upper half of the stage, Alfons Flores created an immaterial and transcendent plane where the virgin and the saints dwell. The heavenly realm where the blessed damsel awaits her lover, who still lives in the real world, to join her in the eternity of love after death. This intangible universe of peace and serenity is the same one that awaits Joan of Arc beyond the pyre and the exterminating fire, uniting the two protagonists like the diptych of an altarpiece.
To know more about the production’s sets, Scenography Today interviewed Alfons Flores in his studio in Barcelona on the occasion of the Frankfurt premiere.
(read the edited full interview further below)
Alfons Flores enthusiastically showed many preparatory sketches, variations, and digital 3D models, of which he is a great fan, and explained his creative process in this two-works project.
- A show combining two different scenic works poses the issue of whether and how to combine them. “Lowering the curtain and then rising it again was not what we wanted,” Alfons Flores said.
- The seamless flow between Debussy’s cantata and Honegger’s oratorio results from a creative process that blends the heavenly components of the two. “The blessed damsel dwells in the sky,” Flores said. “Joan of Arc, on the contrary, is in the earthy world of her trial. Nonetheless, Joan’s aspirations are in the sky which is also her defence witness.”
- A design premise was the idea of a bottom-down sight from the sky to earth. “The glass floor had to be invisible, with not much metal, or it would have looked industrial. It had to have a magic feel.”
- “We started from the idea of this semi-invisible glass floor and a vertical line that is the stake and the transit from heaven to earth. With this idea, we got the scenography.”
GIULIANO PICCHI: Alfons, how was this staging conceived?
ALFONS FLORES: Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher is a very short piece, about fifty minutes. Therefore, the producers asked Àlex Ollé to combine it with another work. Àlex chose La Damoiselle élue by intuition. In this cantata, there is only one singer and a narrator while the chorus is out of sight. Therefore, instead of presenting two separate works divided by a curtain down, we thought we would realize a single project in two parts, somehow linked together. We had had a similar experience with Il prigioniero and Erwartung at the Opéra de Lyon, and we were very satisfied with the result.
GIULIANO PICCHI: What was the creative process?
ALFONS FLORES: We started with La Damoiselle. She is a woman who’s in the sky. She is dead, and the narrators tell her story. So, we had to represent the sky in some form.
We then got into Joan. Joan is in the earthly world, the world of trial, but she is always looking at heaven. Heaven is her defence witness as she justifies her actions as consequences of what she heard and saw in her visions. So, we thought we clearly had to represent heaven and earth, both things. Moreover, from the sky, we can see the earth. There is a concept of top-down view, which became a design premise. Although I express this in a conceptual way now, it was rather an instinctive idea back then. It originated from a first sketch I made during a meeting. “That’s the sky,” we said.
GIULIANO PICCHI: What came next?
ALFONS FLORES: Well, how do you represent the sky? There is no floor in the sky, so I thought of glass. When the characters walk through the sky, the public will feel that the characters are walking on something immaterial, as glass is invisible. But a glass floor needs a metal structure, and this would have been counterproductive as it would have looked industrial and wouldn’t have worked in this case. Therefore, I had to think of something else, a glass structure without metallic parts, hanging magically. That was the process.
GIULIANO PICCHI: What about the vertical element connecting the two realms?
ALFONS FLORES: We needed a path from heaven to earth, and we thought this would also be Joan’s stake. Joan stands on an elevator attached to a tower, through which she can circulate from top to bottom. This also served us for La damoiselle élue in which the character, in the beginning, levitates along this line.
Basically, we started from the idea of this semi-invisible glass floor and a vertical line that is the stake and the transit from heaven to earth. With this idea, we got the scenography.
GIULIANO PICCHI: About the lower half of the sage. How did you conceive it?
ALFONS FLORES: Thinking of Joan’s world was the next step. Alex had read Umberto Eco and about his idea that we are somehow going back to the Middle Ages. Class differences have increased instead of diminishing. More and more people are poor. He thought this would be a perfect way to adapt Joan’s idea to our days, when there are wholly corrupted and impoverished people while other kinds of spiritual individuals are like in the clouds. Let’s say that this dichotomy worked very well for us.
GIULIANO PICCHI: How did you vehiculate this in the sets?
ALFONS FLORES: Well, what you see on stage is the world after an apocalypse. The world has gone from bad to worse into destruction. There have been wars, and people are left with nothing. People have become bestialized. This idea of animalization is already in the text, so we exaggerated it a lot and dressed the characters as animals, almost naked, in the end walking barefoot. The judge is a pig, the scribe is a donkey, and the jurors are lambs. As for the idea of the apocalyptic world, Àlex said that he clearly wanted a destroyed world. He thought of using the Eiffel Tower, but we then ruled out this idea because I saw that it was utterly impossible to put it on a stage on a natural scale. We also wanted to put that euro symbol, which is in Frankfurt, but that was too symbolic. So, it seemed a good idea to use the destroyed cars and the recycled iron parts because that’s what you see in cities after bombings.
GIULIANO PICCHI: What about the stage floor?
ALFONS FLORES: In the beginning, it had to be very real, very much of soil, in line with the iron elements. But then, also due to production requisites, I opted for something simpler. I thought of garbage bags, those wrinkled black ones. The theater, of course, has not used garbage bags since they are flammable; they looked for a similar plastic instead. I am pleased about the solution, as it was something unplanned. A very simple floor that worked out very well.
GIULIANO PICCHI: Are there any visual references that influenced this design?
ALFONS FLORES: Well, it is curious how you often do your sketches by intuition, and they end up working well. For example, I showed my sketches to my daughter, who later sent me a picture of a painting by El Greco, The Burial of Count Orgaz. I like that painting, but I had not thought about it when sketching the sets. Looking at it, you will see that it also depicts the sky and the earth. A straight, imaginary line created by the azure clouds and the people in black separates the two realms in the composition. I was astonished. This has served us a little later to visually formalize light and the two worlds. We said, “the above world is golden.” The idea of an above world in gold was there before thinking of El Greco, but the painting reaffirmed in me that what we were doing made sense, also from the iconographic viewpoint. After all, despite being a wholly modern and abstract project—a transparent platform, and that’s it—visually, you could reconvert it into something we all know, something belonging to our visual culture.
GIULIANO PICCHI: Any other influence?
ALFONS FLORES: Well, I saw a recent movie, the Stations of the cross [directed by Dietrich Brüggemann, 2014], that I recommend to you. It is about a girl in a very religious setting in Germany who sacrifices herself for her brother. She thinks that if she dies, God will grant salvation to her brother, who is autistic.
The brother doesn’t speak much, but suddenly when he sees his loving and caring sister suffering, I guess he feels pain, and he tries to speak with elementary sounds. The sister interprets these as a sign that her sacrifice will save her brother. I think this is terrible, but this film has helped me understand the religious concept of sacrifice, that of Joan, who ends up sacrificing herself for her counterparts. You know, all intuitions come from everything you have in your head.
GIULIANO PICCHI: What were the challenges you faced with this project?
ALFONS FLORES: Well, a significant challenge for me was that each spectator would see what they would like to see in the sets. You know, I do not care that the audience sees the sky and the earth. Those are just concepts that help me produce the show. Instead, I am very proud of my work when people see in it, what they want to see through the lens of their thoughts, frustrations, and desires, and they interpret it based on their experience. Theatre is made to communicate, after all, so this has been a challenge for me. Still, I think I achieved it very well.
GIULIANO PICCHI: How about technical challenges?
ALFONS FLORES: Of course, the main challenge was presenting a glass floor, which I had never done before. And actually, it is not made of glass but Poly(methyl methacrylate). We were not sure the theatre would want to realize this, but I insisted with Àlex that we should present it. Had they refused, we would have added some metal structure and made thinner glass. But in my head, this had to be made with cables, and I had to look for a glass thick enough to withstand the weight of seven or eight people.
So, with an engineer, I took care of the calculations and proposed a 4 cm thick glass, which was accepted and worked precisely as I wanted. So, the main challenge was to get the producing theater, which is also a repertoire theater, [Oper Frankfurt] to be able to do this.
Also, all the cars on stage moved by the technicians, and nothing ever failed. It was a combination of great efforts. You see, sometimes in theatres, especially for safety reasons, they prefer the most straightforward solution. My challenge was convincing all of my ideas and bringing them on board. In this case, everybody was enthusiastic. What would one want more?