Sunday, 18 April 2010
My third and final attempt at theatre design (thus far) was for Rimsky-Korsakov’s epic opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and of the Maiden Fevroniya. I remember the first time I heard extracts from it on the radio as a teenager. Immediately I fell in love with the music, the composer and the legends and indeed Russia. Considered by many to be Rimsky-Korsakov’s finest opera, it was premiered in St Petersburg in 1907. Soon came the revolution though, and it’s spiritual and profound subject was unpopular in a newly atheist country and the opera fell into neglect.
In 1986 I went to Russia for two weeks, on a cultural tour. It was an eventful trip: firstly Chernobyl exploded (I had to be checked with a Geiger counter before being allowed back into the UK); secondly I was introduced to a dynamic young student conductor, Valery Gergiev. I gave him a sketch as a gesture of East-West friendship... and we kept in touch; a few years later – when communism collapsed – he became the director of the Kirov (now Mariinsky) opera. I heard that he planned a new production of Kitezh. I offered to design sets for free.
We often met when he came to London for concerts (see old photo of me with more hair!), and he seemed to be wrestling with a conundrum. He liked my designs, but he couldn’t afford to fly me to St. Petersburg to work at the theatre, and this was a very important production. Beyond that, this is a very patriotic work and the Russians felt a Russian should design the opera. And so eventually Maestro Gergiev said “no”. A new production opened in 1993 with designs by a Russian. It all had seemed too good to be true anyway and I was just glad this beautiful jewel of a work was being revived. In the event, the sets - which relied on elaborate projections - were not much liked (although the opera was recognised as a neglected masterpiece), and to avoid catastrophe, I believe that my own designs were projected onto the basic set. I have no idea how much or little was used or to what effect. I wasn’t there and I didn’t see any performances.
After this, my designs were returned and were wistfully put away. Meanwhile a new production using designs “inspired by” Ivan Bilibin (ie, stolen from him) was mounted, but this too was problematic. In 1994 the Kirov performed it in Paris, and it was so heavily criticised that when they came to present the opera in London, it was given in concert, without sets or costumes. And astonishingly, Valery asked if my designs could be used to illustrate the programme!
I suppose that was a small feather in my rather crumpled cap.
Several other commissions for Kirov/Mariinsky programmes and leaflets (and even T shirts for Heaven's sake) followed. Throughout this period, Valery Gergiev was always warm and grateful and appreciative, and so we became friends. I got the impression he was juggling so many (temperamental) balls that the plight of a forlorn English artist was not high priority and I certainly didn’t push things. There was talk of me designing Stravinsky’s The Nightingale opera. But in the end... silence.
I eventually saw Kitezh performed in Edinburgh in 1994. The Bilibin sets had been reduced to crude Disney-esque caricatures, and the potential of the piece to be magnificent was missed I felt, however glorious the singing.
A year later another new production was commissioned, this time with modern, abstract, expressionistic designs: the city is never seen and the clothes are largely contemporary. Critics liked this and felt it made the opera “political” and “relevant”. I think this living breathing musical icon deserves something more glorious. And so once again, my unfulfilled dream is ... to bring this work to life on stage as I see it. As with Traviata, these old designs posted here are not what I’d do now by any means. But it is an interesting story to retell and remember.
For those interested, Kitezh combines two “old believer” legends from Russia, summed up in the lengthy title. And the story is one of the most ambiguous and beautiful in the operatic world. It takes place in mediaeval Russia, at the time of the Tartar tyrants:
Fevroniya is a child of nature who understands the language of the birds and talks to the animals. She knows all the flowers and how they heal, and lives alone in the vast Volga forests. A nobleman from the Sacred city of Kitezh finds her when out hunting. He thinks she is a sorceress, for she admits she never goes to church. But she explains that “God is everywhere. This forest is my cathedral, where, day and night the flowers and birds and animals sing their praises to their creator.”
The hunter is overwhelmed and gives Fevroniya his ring promising to return with a wedding carriage: she will be his bride and the forest will become a sanctuary. It is only afterwards that she learns that her betrothed is the Prince Vsevolod of Kitezh.
The villagers don’t approve of their future Queen, however, and interrupt her wedding cortege. Fevroniya answers their comments with humility and convinces all but one: a drunkard called Grishka. When Tatars invade the area he is captured and tortured, and he betrays everyone and offers to show the Tartars the secret path to the Sacred City of Kitezh.
The Tartars murder the villagers and also capture Fevroniya. She prays for a miracle – may Kitezh become invisible.
Within the Holy Citadel, people pray for salvation. Vsevolod summons an army, but as the enemy approaches the Royal Page, from a tall tower, sees a fantastic sight: a golden cloud is descending, hiding the city. The bells ring by themselves “As if touched by the wings of angels”. The city vanishes from the face of the earth - of all the people who prayed it is the simple Fevroniya whose prayers have been answered
On the battlefield Vsevolod is slaughtered, and Grishka is driven mad with guilt. He sees a vision in the lake - when the mist clears, the city is completely invisible, yet it is still reflected in the water. The Tartars also see this vision and flee.
It is now winter. Freezing and alone, Fevroniya imagines it is Springtime again and sings to the birds. Suddenly, miraculous Birds of Paradise appear and lead her to the ghost of Vsevolod, who breaks bread from Kitezh with her. Fevroniya gives the bread crumbs to her friends, the birds and animals, before taking leave of this world. Together with Vsevolod she ascends to Kitezh which, in the final scene, reappears as paradise: nature and civilisation joined in heaven. Everyone welcomes the new queen, and she sends a message of hope to earth: put your ear to the ground and listen – you will hear the bells of Kitezh calling the good to prayer. In Kitezh there is no suffering – only eternal joy. Search and you too can find the path to the invisible city...
The pantheistic themes combining nature and faith are extremely potent and this is without doubt my desert island disc. I have been obsessed with both composer and legend for over 30 years. But...whether I will ever reach MY invisible, unattainable goal, who knows?
Thursday, 15 April 2010
After graduating from my illustration degree, a National competition was announced to design sets and costumes for a production of La traviata, the opera by Verdi (see elsewhere on my blogs and especially here). It is one of my favourite operatic works and so naturally I thought, "this is it - my opportunity", and I threw myself into the project. I had no other work to distract me.
The senes created show the tragic consumptive courtesan Violetta Valery, and her Parisian salon; her country house (in symbolic autumnal shades) and finally her decaying Miss Haversham-like bedroom where she dies in the arms of her forbidden lover, Alfredo. The costumes are decorated with camellias in the first act, and I had a very clear vision of how I felt the opera should be presented.
So... what happened? I lost confidence. And not for the first time. The overwhelming thing in life that has held me back is a fear of failure. Rather than face that, I decided to not enter. After all, who did I think I was? I had no training, no understanding of fabrics and making costumes and no concept of stage craft. I overlooked the fact I had passion and fire in my belly and a deep knowledge of the work, the era in which it is set and the costumes and architecture of the period. I also ignored the fact that I had a vision and was inspired. My sensible and anxious voice won, and my day-dreaming risk-taking voice bowed down. I cancelled my application form and shelved the art. It has never been seen by anyone... until now.
Interestingly, I don't just think - Oh! I wish I'd entered. Mainly I think... these are interesting; but I would approach and interpret the story very differently now, and I think much much better.
Designing La traviata one day remains one of my biggest hopes and dreams. I know I could do it; I know I could do it damned well. I have things to say about this opera, visually, and I would so love to try them out. Maybe one day... who knows? For now I will content myself by playing one of my umpteen recordings and if I close my eyes I can see my sets and costumes come alive in my imagination. I wish you could see them, too. They are very beautiful.
Tuesday, 13 April 2010
I recently found drawers full of old student work, mostly fit for the bonfire. But one or two things were of slight interest (well, at least to me) and I thought I'd sort of preserve them here in case they intrigue anyone. First up is the first of three dalliances with Theatre Design. Anyone who knows me well or has read widely on my blogs, will know how much I love theatre, opera and ballet, and have long dreamed of designing sets.
While on my second Foundation Course at Lowestoft Art College (the first was interrupted by a serious illness), I was faced with the decision of applying for either Illustration or Theatre Design degrees.
Now my interest in set designs at that time was entirely Romantic. I swooned over Swan Lake as I shut myself away with my old L.P. records and drew imaginary scenery for beautiful and elegant dancers.
To really test me, my tutors set me a Set Design Project based on The Troubles in Northern Ireland. They thought it would completely put me off the whole idea - a bit of gritty realism to bring me to my senses. But in fact I rather enjoyed creating streets filled with graffiti, and banners that could be raised or dropped to reveal changes in scene.
I was greatly helped by the fact that a fellow student, Andy Peters (now an illustrator and designer himself) had served in the Army, and still had some old clothes. So he dressed up and lurked convincingly in doorways and dark alleys while I protographed him. I had my own dark-room in those days (in the upstairs "loo") and he helped me process and print the films, which provided most of the figures for my little sets.
The tutors were like dogs-with-two-tails over the project and urged me to look at Theatre Design courses. Which is when the dream unravelled slightly because I didn't like what I saw. There was an aloof snootiness amongst students, and a competitive, aggressive edge that made me feel very unwelcome. It suddenly seemed a slightly bitchy world that I didn't want to inhabit, and my parents were entirely against it as well.
And so illustration beckoned instead, and I put my idea of set-design in the file marked "pure fantasy", for a rainy day...
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