This new production of Teatro La Fenice, Venice, brings to the stage Britten‘s first large-scale opera, directed by Paul Curran with sets and costumes designed by Gary McCann and lighting by Fabio Barettin.
Scenographic fragments of a plywood box gradually uncouple sketching ambiences as the narrative progresses.
Britten’s opera premiered in 1945 and tells the story of the fisherman Peter Grimes who lives in The Borough, a coastal village in the English county of Suffolk.
A tragic character, Grimes aspires to improvement but stays brutish and is often scapegoated by the gossipy folks.
He loses his life at sea in the villager’s indifference. Even though he is involved in the deaths of two apprentice boys, the opera never reveals whether he is a murderer, an abusive guardian, or simply the victim of his obsession with money.
Britten’s music conjures a complex vision of both Nature’s majesty and harsh human relations with luscious orchestral music, powerful choruses, and beautiful solo arias.
Scenography today has spoken to set designer Gary McCann about his staging.
“Designing Peter Grimes was an unexpectedly challenging experience,” says McCann. “What looks like a straightforward story on the page translates into a much more complex and multi-layered stage performance.”
In every opera’s design process McCann goes through, there is always a specific set of questions that he asks himself. How to tell the story in scenographic/spatial terms. How to depict the world the characters inhabit. How to encapsulate the music in imagery. “In my view, there’s something self-consciously theatrical about the piece which has to be acknowledged in the design,” McCann says.
In Peter Grimes, the design process itself was one of constant simplification and refinement. A process further accelerated by evolving budgetary discussions. “Step by step, all unnecessary elements were stripped away until the director Paul Curran and I arrived at something very pure and minimal,” McCann says.
The opera takes place in what appears to be a simple plywood box roughly painted with brush marks. The inspiration was an oil sketch by John Constable – Rainstorm over the sea – which was painted in Gary McCann’s hometown, Brighton.
The plywood box has lines scored in the surface. “These lines—fault lines if you will—allow the scenographic fragments to uncouple,” McCann says.
Using these elements, different locations are loosely sketched, such as the interior of the local pub, the Quayside, Grimes’s hut on top of a cliff, and the schoolroom which functions like a court.
This spatial deconstruction progresses as the story gets told, so the sets become ever more angular and fragmented as the narrative’s intensity develops.
The main moving wall unit is used as a projection surface at certain points, while at waist height, the set features a continuous LED strip built into an angled fascia. “This allows us to conjure up the endless horizon of the sea, which is omnipresent in the opera.”
→ Peter Grimes premiered in June at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy.