Rafael R. Villalobos‘ production of Tosca premiered on June 11 at La Monnaie, Brussels, marking the Spanish director’s debut on the Belgian stage. Scenography Today was in conversation with the set designer, Emanuele Sinisi, to learn more about his design, the contribution of visual artist Santiago Ydáñez, and references to Pier Paolo Pasolini and Caravaggio.
In the staging’s conception, “director Villalobos addressed immediately the dynamic within the triad of society-religion-power, and that of Tosca and faith,” says Sinisi. ” In the famous ‘avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma’, we recognised the ‘fear of God’ emanating from the Catholic doctrine and often used as an instrument of moral blackmail for political ends. Faced with this, the figure of Tosca appears disillusioned but at the same time a character constantly striving for a true faith.”
In the search for more dramaturgical stratifications, Villalobos introduced a character external to the story: Pier Paolo Pasolini. “Pasolini’s relationship with Rome is very original,” Sinisi says. “A lucid and courageous poet, who in his own personal story investigated and brought out the deepest contradictions of the society of his time, to the point of becoming a threat to the strong powers.”
Pasolini’s film Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom became both the conceptual and visual reference for the creative team. The film allowed them to reflect on the very fragile boundaries of power and sadism and to take every opportunity to portray a truly ambiguous and disturbing Scarpia. “From a visual point of view, the film is of disarming beauty and balance. Only this aesthetic rigour allows us to unfold such a crude and absurd story.”
The reference to the movie is apparent with the entrance of naked children bearing white lilies and with the table, set in the middle of the large room where the narration takes place and on which Scarpia will dine. “Thanks to the immense talent of the carpenters and sculptors of the La Monnaie workshops we could reproduce an exact replica of the table from the movie set,” he says.
Santiago Ydáñez’s paintings and Caravaggio
The production features paintings by Spanish visual artist Santiago Ydáñez, whose contribution came almost spontaneously, as the designer explained. “In his paintings, the way flesh, martyrdom, religion and faith are treated is unique, often with a clear will to document the actual fact but always with aesthetic rigor, in the choice of subjects and their framing, all portrayed with incredible brushstroke energy. Perfect ingredients for Tosca.”
Ydáñez is also the author of the reinterpreted Judith and Holofernes by Caravaggio, which was reproduced on the large muslin curtain that drops as the second act concludes – with a tragic ‘Kabuki’ effect. “Only beauty can become a vehicle for the darkest and most inexpressible things that reside in humans,” says Sinisi. “In a close three-way dialogue, we come to identify Caravaggio as another protagonist in Tosca. Another artist strongly bound to Rome, in tension towards faith, making reality and its ideal representation coincide, without ever sacrificing aesthetic rigor. Judith and Holofernes proved vital to the dramaturgical understanding of this Tosca: the courage of a woman in the face of power, and once again the strength of beauty in expressing the unspeakable.”
The layout and the architectural references
Sinisi has lived in Rome for ten years, to study and work, and considers himself steeped in the city. From the early design stages, he had the distinct sensation of being using a sculptural and architectural repertoire that had settled in him over his time spent there, from Bramante and Bernini, to the classical architecture and the Italian Rationalism of the EUR district. “My goal in conceiving the stage layout was to restore intrinsic monumentality in its absolute value,” he says.
The choice of a central plan for the layout, was as a direct result of the compression and synthesis of various eras’ styles. “Circles and arches are so recurrent, and embedded in the history of Rome,” says Sinisi, “that I decided to take the risk of being cliché. In fact, I realized that giving them up would have been a subversive whim just for the sake of it.” The use of fornices also proves to be a winning choice for the inclusion of Ydáñez’s works which, in the second act, occlude four openings in the walls, reminiscent of powerful altarpieces.
The plan consists in two adjacent annuli, on which two walls each stand. In total, four walls allow for clockwise and counterclockwise movements at adjustable speeds, offering various options for configuration and interactions of the singers with the structures. In the center, a portion of the revolving stage carries props, singers, and actors. “It is well known,” says Sinisi, “that the use of revolving stages in theater gives a cinematic slant to the show. Thus, in an already structurally cinematic work such as Tosca, this technical solution combined with four movable walls was necessary.”
The dominant white color of the design is also a reference to the eternal city and its white travertine, “the stone preferred by Roman architects,” says Sinisi. “But above all, it contrasts starkly to the theatrical black box enclosing it, sucking everything on stage, subject to the centrifugal forces of the revolving architecture. White is light, towards which Tosca tends to lean.”
The overall design highlights the alternation of solids and voids, inherent in arched structures. “In the case of Tosca, I wanted to take this to the extreme, stripping the innermost curved walls leaving only an iron trace, contrasting strongly to the outermost walls. These seem to retain mass and strength, but as soon as they move forward towards the viewer, it is realized that they are empty and precarious. That for me is a visual translation of the apparent moral, and doctrinal integrity of evangelical memory, the “whitewashed sepulchres,” which in fact hide corruption and vice.”
Tosca will be on stage at La Monnaie, Brussels, until July 2 and streamed online starting September 2021 on the opera house’s channels.