Floating opera

6th October 2000 at 01:00
(Photograph) - Between the romantic mountains of Austria and Switzerland, on the wide waters of Lake Constance, a steel skeleton of Death turns the pages of history. Fifty dancers pass through a large crown, strip off their coats, trousers and ties and change from loyalists and conspirators to seamen, sailing to consult a banished fortune-teller. Behind them, the sun sinks in blood-red clouds and intense symphonic music accompanies voices soaring in dramatic conflict. Welcome to Austria's Bregenz summer festival and its production of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (A masked ball).

Verdi's opera, though conceived on a grand scale, has never before received quite such a magnificent setting. Since 1946, performances on the floating stage at the Bregenz festival have tended to the grandiose; in opera circles "Bregenz dramaturgy" has become synonymous with large-scale outdoors spectacle. The stage, rebuilt each summer, can be 100 metres across (as it was in 1997 for Porgy and Bess). This year and last, Un ballo called for a 30-metre stage with a 16 per cent slope. There is always a stunning firework display.

Visiting directors Antony McDonald and Richard Jones are widely agreed to have surpassed their predecessors with a production which over several hours featured the fortune-teller Ulrica in a swimming coffin, a guillotine ascending in blood-red light out of the lake and a key scene in which conspirators are revealed underneath the slowly rising pages of the book.

For the cast, it was a tough assignment. All singers and dancers had to have swimming certificates, and divers were on standby for each performance.

Although there were TV monitors to keep singers in communication with the conductor, the spotlights often dazzled them. Moquitos bit, insects flew into singers' mouths, and the poor heroine had to sing one scene crossing a small footbridge from the book to the guillotine, drenched by water pouring off the moving blade above her head.

Then there is the weather. In slight rain the Vienna Symphony Orchestra can still play on as the orchestra pit is sunk in a concrete tub anchored in the water below the stage.

None the less, only about one in two performances on the Bregenz floating stage is ever completed in the open air. Lake Constance is famous for thunderstorms. If lightning stops play, those with special tickets can hear the rest in the theatre; the others have to head for home and the CD player.

Among the most famous works by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) are Rigoletto (1851), Aida (1871), La traviata (1853) and Falstaff (1893). Many of them have political themes: for most of the 19th century Italy was struggling to become a unified country and escape rule by the Austro-Hungarian empire. Un ballo in maschera (1859) nominally deals with the assassination of a Swedish king, but the censors, sensing subversion, forced Verdi to recast it in the United States. McDonald and Jones brought it back to its Swedish setting, imposed on its chaotic plot a unity of surrealist style and echoed the masterful music with magical effects. All to extraordinary effect - as long as you weren't one of the singers who swallowed a mosquito.

Books Grove Dictionary of Music, published by Grove ; The Cambridge Guide to Music, edited by Stanley Sadie. Links reviews of the Bregenz performances: www.operanotes.com libretto notes and biography in Italian: www.giusepperverdi.it. information about the festival: www.bregenzerfestspiele.com. Photograph by Miro Kuzmanovic

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