Urs Schönebaum, Bomarzo

Staged by Pierre Audi

World premiere at Teatro Real, Madrid, ES, on April 24. On stage until May 7

Bomarzo, which premiered in 1967, is based on the novel of the same title by Manuel Mujica. It was inspired by the impressive 16th-century sculptures of the Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters) which is located north of Rome.

The opera is a vertiginous journey into the past as a hunchbacked duke, tormented by his physical deformity and obsessed with immortality, is on the verge of death. He reviews his corrupt and libertine life in the Italian nobility of the Cinquecento.

Bomarzo had its world premiere in 1967 at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington D.C. and was acclaimed by both the audience and critics. Performances followed in New York and Los Angeles before it opened in Argentina in 1972. Since then it has been performed 3 times at the Teatro Colón.

In Europe, Bomarzo was performed at the Kiel Opera House in 1970, at the Opernhaus Zurich in 1972 and – last time – at the London Coliseum in 1976. In 2007, an audiovisual recording has taken place in situ at the Park of the Monsters, directed by Jerry Brignone and entitled Bomarzo 2007.

Bomarzo park, a sculpture. Photo © Antonio Alvar Ezquerra

BOMARZO, FROM THE “SACRO BOSCO” TO THE PARK OF THE MONSTERS.

About 100 km north of Rome, in the province of Viterbo, there is a leafy park with a series of 16th-century colossal stone sculptures. Set in a woodland area of trees, streams, and parterres, these statues evoke mystical and grotesque beings with an almost expressionist gaze. The disturbing sculptures which emerge from the bedrocks are the work of Duke Pier Francesco Orsini, who, overcome with grief by his wife’s death, commissioned the Mannerist architects Pirro Ligorio and Jacopo Vignola to build his strange Sacro bosco (Sacred Grove). Over time it became known as the Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters) for the ominous atmosphere it took on.

Its distorted and mysterious sculptures fascinated Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, and inspired Manuel Mujica Lainez, who wrote his famous novel Bomarzo based on these intriguing stone figures.

THE NOVEL BY MANUEL MUJICA LAINEZ

Manuel Mujica Lainez (1910-1984), was an Argentine writer, an upper-class, tireless traveler, and a great humanist. His novel Bomarzo, completed in 1962, narrates the troubled life of the misshapen duke Pier Francesco Orsini. The intersecting episodes describe in first person his miserly and dissolute life amidst the machinations of the Renaissance nobility. Despised by his family and deceived by his wife, the duke lives an embittered existence, confident in the immortality invoked at his birth. However, in the elixir of eternal life which he drinks, there is the poison which ultimately kills him.

THE OPERA BY ALBERTO GINASTERA

Fascinated by the novel of his fellow countryman, with whom he shared an attraction to the esoteric, Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) composed the cantata Bomarzo in 1963. Later he recognized the theatrical potential of the work and decided to accept the commission of the Opera Society of Washington for an opera based on the tribulations of the Duke of Orsini. He counted on Mujica Lainez as his librettist.

The opera is constructed as a flashback in which the dying protagonist goes over moments of his deranged life without holding back on any of its perversions, obsessions, erotic fantasies, homosexuality or impotence. There are 15 scenes which all have the same internal structure: exposition, climax and denouement.

The music is a highly personal and bold score. It renounces tonality, at times uses incidental microtonality, yet also connects with modal forms, perhaps to evoke Italian Renaissance music which is suggested here by age-old traditional forms of the madrigal, musetta, or villanella.

 

THE NEW PRODUCTION OF THE TEATRO REAL

In his vision of Bomarzo, Pierre Audi departs from any physical or structural reference to the statues in the Gardens of Bomarzo or references to the Italian Renaissance court. He focuses on the protagonist’s reverie which looks back over moments of his life, turning into different human figures depending on the different ages and moment of each experience the duke recalls, as he is on the threshold of death. The action stems from the delirious perception of the duke’s reality which allows scenographer and lighting designer Urs Schönebaum to create a claustrophobic, unreal, almost lunar-quality stage. These scenes take place in an atmosphere created with lighting and film projections by the prestigious video artist Jon Rafman.

The set design

The set of Bomarzo consists of 2 main settings. One part is a reflective black box that encloses the singers. The back wall can be pulled up to unveil a cyclorama for video projections.

 

One part is a reflective black box that encloses the singers. The back wall can be pulled up to unveil a cyclorama for video projections. In order to sidelight the action on stage, the sidewalls can be opened to allow the lighting to pass. When these walls are closed and video is projected, the reflectiveness of the walls and the floor will engulf the singers completely in a blurred video. This space is architecturally changed by different configurations of LED lines that are equipped with RGB LEDs in order to change color as wished. These multiple configurations can divide the space or frame the action on stage.

“The lines could also be seen as a coordinate system, as the restraints of Orsini’s social world or his inability to fit in this imposed frame. My idea is that this space is somewhat a mental, abstract space of Orsini Duke of Bomarzo. There is a certain tackiness of the black reflecting material that mirrors his self-pity and egocentric vision of his life,” Schönebaum says in his notes.

 

The other big scenic element is a raked, moonlike desert landscape, that is meant to translate his “garden”.

“It is the idea of the ideal world of Orsini, lonely with just cold stones. The way this landscape is built should be as realistic as possible, to contrast the abstract mental space around it.”

This landscape can move into the black box by lifting the projection screen and the upstage wall. In the run of the opera, after being marked with LED poles as on a construction site, the landscape is filled with black marble stones that are to be the base of the “Garden of Bomarzo”.

“Showing these two different worlds,” Schönebaum says, “goes back to a very basic question I have asked myself for quite some time: what should or could the set be in an opera performance? Is a set meant to create an illusion of a realistic space or place, or is it an architectural abstract setting that allows the audience to have its own interpretation of the space? I think to show this basic question openly is a perfect setting as the Opera Bomarzo asks the same in the person of Orsini, playing with his remembrance and dreams during this flashback of his life.”

Urs Schönebaum is an established light designer now working at his first set designs, that he conceives as magical spaces created through the light. 

Urs Schönebaum – Bomarzo (A. Ginastera) – 2017
Staging Pierre Audi
Set design Urs Schönebaum
Costume design Wojciech Dziedzic
Light design Urs Schönebaum
Video design Jon Rafman
Photo credits Javier del real / Teatro Real