We’ve seen a fair number of fancy opera stage sets in our day, but nothing as astounding as the one mounted for the Bregenz Opera Festival’s production of André Chénier: a giant floating head and torso that could have been plucked from Salvador Dalí’s unconscious.
The opera by Umberto Giordano, set to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica, is loosely based on the life and death of the 18th-century French poet Andre Chenier, who was guillotined for “crimes against the state” during the Revolution. But the set, oddly enough, is modeled on the visage of another radical poet, Jean-Paul Marat, as depicted in Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat.” (In that painting, you might remember, Marat’s corpse lies in a bath holding a note that, translated from French, reads, “I am just too unhappy to deserve your kindness.” Sigh.) For André Chénier, David Fielding, under the artistic direction of David Pountney, transformed the poet’s head and torso into an elaborate set piece: The neck hinges open to reveal a stage of books and a series of zigzagging stairways descend from Chénier’s (Marat’s) left eye. An open book to stage right of the figure functions as a secondary stage, and mobile pieces, including a floating platform, rise in and out of the water over the course of the opera.
The set is not only a visual feast, it’s a feat of engineering. The waterproof structure is built directly into Lake Constance, mounted onto a concrete core anchored into the base of the lake. A wooden framework supports the accessory structures of the stage.