The demimonde of 1853 Paris was a place of extravagant luxury and hedonism.
All-night parties with dancing, gambling, drinking, and entertainment were the norm, and the settings were accordingly sumptuous. Salons hung with velvet curtains and oil paintings, crystal chandeliers alight with hundreds of fine wax candles, ornately paneled walls and floor-to-ceiling paned windows, velvet sofas and fringed poofs or gilded chairs — sumptuousness to please the eye, anywhere it chanced to fall.
Set designer Peter Dean Beck is tasked with transporting Florida Grand Opera audiences to this opulent environment,
and his La traviata set, built in 2019 for Utah Opera, does not disappoint. Beck has designed scenery and lighting for more than 300 opera, musical theater, and ballet productions nationally and internationally, including Atlanta Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Virginia Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Sakai City Opera (Japan), Hawaii Opera Theatre, where he has been principal designer for 32 seasons, and the University of Colorado, where he has designed for 24 seasons.
Beck’s set and lighting designs have graced the FGO stage many times, including 1990 and 2001’s The Barber of Seville, 1991’s Falstaff, 1993’s La bohème, 1996’s The Marriage of Figaro, La traviata in 1998 and 2003, 1998’s The Elixir of Love, and 2017’s Eugene Onegin. He created the set we will use for this season’s La traviata in 2019 for a Utah Opera production.
As we snatch a sneak peek at the world Violetta, Alfredo, and Germont will soon inhabit, note how Beck’s beautiful and thoughtful designs carefully enhance the story without imposing an interpretation.
La traviata has three acts and four sets.
For Act I , Beck has created a suitably lavish salon in Violetta’s Paris home. Here her guests gather for dancing, gambling, flirting, entertainments, and more. When filled with people, the room appears lively and rich. But when the guests depart, its scale serves to emphasize how truly alone, and lonely, Violetta is in the world.
Act II, scene i is set in Violetta’s country estate,
where she and Alfredo have retired to enjoy a simpler life, basking in each other’s company. Traditionally, this scene may be set in a garden or indoors. Beck has chosen to create an interior room, airy and luxurious, but simpler than the grand Paris home. It is meant to be less formal and more comfortable, with wicker furniture, warm tones, and the high windows opening to the garden, inviting the outdoors in. Although the scale is still large, it’s a much homier atmosphere, reflecting the joy Violetta and Alfredo have found in quiet domesticity.
In Act II, scene ii we find ourselves back in Paris,
at the home of Violetta’s friend Flora, a considerably more garish establishment. The red tones make the scene appear gay yet somewhat tawdry. The looming curtains are as menacing as thunderclouds. This set supports the tension of the scene, which begins with revelry, all too soon there is an ugly confrontation that humiliates Violetta and inspires a duel.
In the final act, the warmth and luxury of the salons and country house evaporate
to a dull, stripped-down sick room. We are still in Paris, in Violetta’s house, but in her final illness, all the trappings of high living have deserted Violetta as surely as her former friends and lovers. Violetta’s wealth has disappeared along with her health. The height of the empty room and coldly lit windows serve to emphasize her loneliness and the ultimate emptiness of her life.
Beck’s set requires 12 carpenters,
4 flymen (those who move the set pieces, including flying hanging pieces in and out), 2 props runners, 8 electricians, and 4 car loaders (those who load and unload the trucks containing set pieces). It takes them a total of 17 hours to set and strike (set up and take down). It takes 8 carpenters,, 1 flyman, 2 props runners, and 3 electricians to run the set during shows. Of course, the audience doesn’t usually see these efforts — only the results, as intended!