Here on the shore of Lake Constance (Bodensee) at Bregenz, Austria, is the open-air opera venue where the Bregenz Festival is held every summer. On the grandstand there are 6800 seats for us spectators, surrounded by over 600 loudspeakers that are part of a sophisticated sound system called “BOA — Bregenz Open Acoustics”.
Out on the lake, separated from the first row of spectators by a narrow strip of water, is the opera stage, which is completely rebuilt every two years for the new production that runs for the next two summers. In 2005 and 2006, the stage designed by Paul Steinburg looked like cross between a medieval castle and a huge modern oil refinery. This was the setting for Robert Carsen’s production of the opera Il trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).
Like a castle in the fifteenth century, an oil refinery in the twenty-first is the key to wealth, domination and destruction — that’s why they wanted the stage to look like both. The set designer, Paul Steinberg, was quoted as saying that Verdi’s Troubadour is a story of power, riches and revenge. To transport this story into the twenty-first century they chose “the thing that best symbolizes ruthless striving for power” in our time, namely oil. He said that the refinery represents “a fortress of present-day industrial society, and its most valuable resource.”
Stage director Robert Carsen added: “The petrochemical industry stands darkly as the destructive symbol of our times: it slowly burns itself out while the greed it fuels provides us with a constant reason for war. Like some monster of Greek mythology, it completes its poisonous cycle of destruction by ensuring that those who survive the wars will be killed by other means: pollution, global warming, economical and political disaster…”
Photography of any sort is always prohibited during any indoor opera performance, not only for copyright reasons as they sometimes say, but also because in the silence of an indoor opera house it would be highly disturbing to the rest of the audience, just as bad as people coughing or rustling with candy wrappers.
Here in Bregenz, though, in the huge open-air festival grounds on the lake shore, they just say no flash photos and no videos. This is why I have been able to include some photos (non-flash and non-video!) of actual scenes of the opera, which I took on two different nights from completely different angles.
Since the stage is completely surrounded by water, there is always the possibility that one of the hundreds of people involved in the production might fall in.
Of course they all have to know how to swim. I don’t know if there is actually a swimming test, but in 2002 I was told that one of the singers had to take swimming lessons before she was allowed to set foot on the stage.
As a precaution, though, at least two trained and fully equipped divers are posted on the shore throughout each performance. Because I was sitting in the corner seat in the first row in the lower left hand corner one night, I was able to get these pictures of one of the divers getting herself and her equipment into place for the evening.
On August 6, 2013, a performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute was interrupted for half an hour when a boat carrying the Queen of the Night, Monostatos and Sarastro overturned and they were all dumped into the water. The two divers on duty immediately swam to their rescue, which was very necessary because of the costumes they were wearing. As the Queen of the Night tweeted a few minutes later: “It was definitely one of the most terrifying moments of my life…. We are all glad it didn’t end worse!!…. Two rescue swimmers dragged me to the rescue boat — I couldn’t move my legs with the three skirts… my wet costume kept dragging me down. … Actually COULDN’T swim with three skirts, two layers of bodice, two mic units and a heavy horned helmet on!!” After half an hour they all went on with the show. (I wasn’t there but I know Alfred Reiter, the singer of Sarastro, who is an ensemble member at the Frankfurt Opera.)
In the first scene of Verdi’s Il trovatore, Count Luna’s military commander Ferrando (Markus Marquardt) tries to keep his troops awake through the night by telling them about the awful things that happened here in the castle fifteen years earlier. A gypsy women was accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Her daughter, Azucena, took revenge by stealing a baby and throwing it into the flames.
This is a dark and spooky piece of music, to set the tone for the rest of the opera. Ferrando keeps hesitating at dramatic points in the story, and the chorus comes in urging him to continue.
As I explained above, I was not doing anything illegal by taking these photographs. All they said was no flash and no videos, and I complied with that. And I did not use any fancy equipment, just a small and unobtrusive Canon PowerShot A70 camera.
In the second scene Leonora (Tatjana Serjan) tells Ines (Katharina Peetz) that she is in love with a mysterious troubadour who comes to serenade her at night. This turns out to be Manrico, a gypsy who is one of Count Luna’s enemies in the civil war.
Count Luna is also in love with Leonora. At the end of Act 1 he and Manrico run off to fight a duel. Later we learn that Manrico won the fight and was about to kill Luna, when a mysterious inner voice told him not to. The two fight again in a battle, and Manrico is badly wounded.
At the beginning the second act a 48 meter long fence rises out of the ground, to separate the castle/refinery from the “beach” in the foreground.
Originally the stage set designer, Paul Steinberg, wanted to make a beautiful beach here, with sand and palm trees, but the stage director Robert Carsen overruled that idea, saying that a beach near a refinery was bound to be filthy and polluted.
However, it only looks like that. There isn’t really any oil here, because they of course didn’t want to pollute the real Lake Constance. They used 300 metal drums to build this “beach” and have another 150 loose ones that are floating around in the water, but they aren’t really oil drums, they are just painted to look that way.
The two gypsy piers are extended from the grandstand across to the stage, and soon dozens of gypsies (played by supernumeraries aka extra players) cross and gather on the beach. Flames come out of several of the oil drums — an eerie nighttime scene that perfectly matches Verdi’s music.
At the beginning of the second act the gypsies sing their famous anvil chorus. In the Bregenz production they don’t beat on their anvils but on the fence that keeps them out of the castle/refinery, the seat of wealth and power. (I took this photo on my second night, from my category V seat in the upper right-hand corner of the grandstand.)
As in all the choral scenes at Bregenz, the people in the on-stage chorus are trained singers and are really singing Verdi’s music, but their voices aren’t being amplified. What we hear over the BOA (Bregenz Open Acoustics) sound system are the voices of the Moscow Chamber Chorus and the Bregenz Festival Chorus, who are singing simultaneously down in the indoor festival hall under the grandstand, which is also where the orchestra is playing.
After gazing into the flames of the campfire, Azucena starts telling her fellow gypsies how awful it was fifteen years before when her mother was burned at the stake. To revenge her mother, she grabbed for the baby she had stolen and threw it into the flames — only to realize that she had grabbed the wrong one, and thrown her own baby into the fire.
Manrico is astounded to hear this. “Non son tuo figlio?” he asks. Am I not your son?
Azucena immediately takes it all back, saying of course you’re my son, I was only hallucinating. And goes on to tell, in a fantastic piece of music, how she found him near death on the battlefield and nursed him back to life.
Just then Manrico learns that Leonora thinks he is dead and in despair is about to take vows as a nun. He immediately rallies his men and runs off to prevent this, despite Azucena’s pleas to wait until his battle wounds are healed.
In the second scene of the second act, Count Luna arrives (by boat, in this production) at the convent where he intends to abduct Leonora to prevent her from becoming a nun. His old friend and military commander Ferrando is with him.
Count Luna sings of how he loves Leonora and how not even God will be able to snatch her from him — Non può rapirti a me!
After this the nuns file in to begin the ceremony, Leonora starts to take her vows, Luna interrupts and tries to abduct her. But then Manrico’s men erupt onto the scene, some of them even rappelling down using ropes from the bridge at the top of the castle/refinery.
Ferrando advises Count Luna not to fight because they are completely outnumbered. So it is Manrico who takes Leonora away, even stealing Luna’s boat to do so.
At the top of this dark photo (above) there is a square which you might or might not recognize as a video screen. This is one of two screens that show live images of the conductor and the musicians (all wearing blue shirts or blouses) of the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra throughout the performance. This is especially nice in the many parts of this opera in which one of the orchestra musicians has a beautiful solo passage, so you can see them as they play.
In the first scene of Act 3 Azucena is captured by Count Luna’s forces and brought as a prisoner to his castle.
In the second scene, shown above, the stage has suddenly turned blue to hint that this is a different castle now, the fortress where Manrico is under siege. Leonora is with him, and they want to get married in the castle chapel.
Just as they are about to get married, Manrico (Zwetan Michailov) learns that his mother is a prisoner in Count Luna’s castle. Only now does Leonora (Tatjana Serjan) realize that the gypsy woman is Manrico’s mother.
He again rallies his troops and storms off to save her, leaving Leonora behind. As he leaves he sings his famous and stirring stretta which most tenors try to finish off with a high C, if they can do it. It isn’t actually in the score, but legend has it that one of the first Manricos got so carried away by the music that he inserted the high C by mistake, and Verdi allowed it to stay.
Both Manrico and Azucena are prisoners in Count Luna’s castle. Leonora arrives outside the fence, determined to save Manrico’s life even at the cost of her own.
In desperation, she tell Luna she will marry him if he sets Manrico free. He agrees, but Leonora secretly takes poison so she won’t have to consummate the marriage.
The poison takes hold too quickly. Leonora dies too soon. Luna realizes he has been betrayed and executes Manrico.
This is Azucena’s moment. Egli era tuo fratello she tells him. He was your own brother.
The storyline of this opera has often been criticized as turgid and illogical, ever since Verdi first composed it in 1853. But I really like what the stage director Robert Carsen has to say about it in the Bregenz program book:
“It seems to me totally mistaken to consider the libretto of Il trovatore as bad. How could it possibly be bad since it inspired such extraordinary music from its composer?”
He goes on to say:
“Opera celebrates the irrationality of the emotions, their burning destructiveness and searing power. The inner world of Il trovatore is not logical, not rational. It is violent, destructive, all consuming, anarchic, nightmarish.”
He points out that there are over one hundred references to fire in the libretto, which is why he decided to use so much fire on the stage.
Here the gypsies — supernumeraries and members of the stage chorus — are taking their bows after the performance.
After the singers and supernumeraries have taken their bows and left the stage, the diver who has been in readiness the whole evening gathers up her equipment and climbs up the ladder. Fortunately nobody fell into the water tonight, but she was there just in case.
My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2017.
See more posts on the composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).