This new incarnation of Claude Debussy’s only opera, staged on the 100th anniversary of his death by Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet Flanders, presents a new concept in abstract staging from an all-star creative team. Based on the 1892 play by Maurice Maeterlinck, Pelléas at Mélisande describes how innocence is able to transform into a dramatic – and deathly – love triangle.
The remarkable and futuristic set, imagined by performance artist Marina Abramović, includes a concave mirror with a backdrop that merges seamlessly to create the impression of being inside a silver eyeball. In the center of the ‘retina,’ a suspended ‘iris’ screens cosmic video compositions by Marco Brambilla, acting as a portal into the subconscious of the characters and the actions unfolding onstage, while costumes envisioned by Iris van Herpen take the viewers on a surrealist journey through a series of celestial pathways.
The overall effect is of a hybrid piece of theater where the singers, choreography, staging and projections are completely interconnected.
Debussy’s famously dark and disturbing masterwork is told using a reinvention of the cosmos, in which celestial imagery is manipulated into a surrealist composition to take the viewer on a metaphysical journey into the subconscious; a psychological ‘portal’ of loneliness, violence, drama, resolution and death.
Lending an epic element to a minimal stage concept, Brambilla used original NASA footage manipulated from real photography taken by the Hubble Telescope as brushstrokes to emphasize the opera’s rhythm in a series of eclipses that travel deeper and deeper, inspired by the classic, psychedelic ‘stargate’ sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Having worked with NASA on a commission in 2015, Brambilla had access to a vast library of high-resolution imagery, with which he was able to render familiar shapes and objects as mesmeric, terrifying, and artful, adding dimension and advancing the narrative of the production.
“The music of Pelléas et Mélisande has always conjured up images of the cosmos in my head. Since the text deals with the recurring theme of the eyes and sight, the set design becomes a portal into the subconscious where my videos unfold and heighten the tension and drama unfolding onstage. Using celestial bodies as my brushstrokes created such unexpected compositions and shapes; I don’t think the Hubble space telescope imagery has ever been used this way.”
"Marco Brambilla probes NASA for an opera of intergalactic proportions."
Playing a key role in reinterpreting the dark fairy tale as surreal and modern, fashion designer Iris van Herpen created 20 costumes that combined traditional materials like silk, wool and leather with more technical materials, using signature methods developed in her workshop in Amsterdam.
Van Herpen, who herself trained in classical ballet, explored with her designs the science and theory of parallel universes, the subjectivity of time, and how emotions can travel universally through the ages. Fabric treatments included a striped material that was laser-cut and attached to invisible tulle via heat treatment, to evoke a sketch on the body. The dancers’ silver web suits were made of a thin rubber and a changeable fabric that was laser-cut to create an armored effect.
The costumes characterize Van Herpen’s signature work, which combines new forms and methods of expression with traditional and radical materials to create a unique artistic vision.
“Van Herpen’s creations are more like sculptures than fashion and she has this way of taking one idea and stretching it to the maximum, she is dedicated; she has this burning inspiration and is so inventive.”
“Iris understands so much about the body, and organic [forms], and also having very complex ideas in order to achieve that. The opera is very much about light and darkness and the opposition between the two, and I think she really got that in her work.”
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