For Andreas Homoki’s production of Simon Boccanegra, set in the 1900-20s, Christian Schmidt conceived a versatile scenic space configured by a system of walls and doors on a revolving stage. The articulated sets embody in a symbolic architecture the temporal fragmentation and political uncertainty characterising the opera.
“The opera ‘Simon Boccanegra’ is characterised by the presence of time layers,” says Schmidt. “This is quite clear from the prologue, about 20 years before the actual plot when Simon’s political success as new Doge of Genoa meets personal misfortune with the death of his lover and his daughter going missing.”
Likewise, the fate of the child will gradually become clear with time, like a puzzle. At the same time, uncertain political conditions are intertwined with personal relations and feelings, as “jealousy and hatred coming from the past destroy personal ties and lead to the catastrophe of Simon’s poisoning and death,” Schmidt observes.
“The spatial setting in Simon Boccanegra is peculiar in that almost every scene takes place in or in front of quite similar palaces. Therefore, I invented a labyrinthic configuration of spaces, consisting of walls and nine identical, large double doors,” says Schmidt.
Because of their features, the doors can belong to both an interior and an exterior space, and the difference between indoor and outdoor situations is quite blurred. Doors and walls have the same paint finish, which intensifies the effect and “creates an unreal atmosphere very suitable for this musical ‘game of memories'”.
A variable space
Having arranged the sets on a revolving stage, it is possible to change the scene frequently. By adding wall-elements, the large seven-doors chamber quickly narrows down to the death chamber in the Fiesco Palace or Amelia’s monastery refuge. Likewise, by adding furniture and exchanging the regular doors for terrace glass doors, this suddenly appears as the council chamber or the private living area within the Doge’s Palace.
The boat “refers to Simon’s biographical origin as a former seafarer, and on the other hand, it marks the tragic loss and vain search for the child. In a surreal way, it lies aground inside the palace, whereby at the beginning and end of the opera it appears as a relict frame”.
Due to safety regulations, the choir could not perform on stage. Like the orchestra, it performed live from the nearby rehearsal room and was broadcast into the opera house.
“A group of extras plays the erratic element of the ‘people’ on stage. Since the choral singing originates off-stage, the scenery could also change within the large scenes,” Schmidt says. “Andreas Homoki used this very often to put the focus on the inner world of the title character.
A filmic experience
Because of the revolving stage transformations, “the perception is often that of a filmic cross-fade,” Schmidt says. “This produces a realistic narrative style that is very likely to counteract the static monumentality of Verdi’s opera”.
Simon Boccanegra is produced by Opernhaus Zürich and is currently broadcast on Arte.tv.