The basic premise of the Renaissance paintings was to create an environment that acknowledges itself as being fake- something conjured by Méphistophélès. The kermesse* drop in Act I is based on a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder called The Wedding Dance. We wanted the characters to seem to pop right out of the paintings, so we used costumes that match very closely to the kermesse; the characters start the scene in that frozen pose, and come to life as the lights pop on.
The garden drop in Act II is a collage of Bruegel paintings—we wanted something that could give the beauty of the vista of the countryside, yet still feel intimate to satisfy the emotions of the multiple scenes in which we wanted to use it. The scale, as well as surreal ideas such as the door, helps to establish the paintings as a conjured environment, poetically establishing the world.
The church drop is based on a panel from a Hans Memling triptych, The Last Judgment. The historical context of the idea of the painting adds to the theatricality of the events: in that scene, Méphistophélès controls the chorus and ties to the manifestation of looming hell in the theatrical lighting booms, as on-lookers lurk in the darkened wings.
By comparison, the equations drop for Faust’s study in Act I is a collage of medieval equations done as chalkboard drawings, and even though it conjures a similarly heightened reality by being oversized, the intention was for it to feel the most real.
The drop in the finale (Marguerite and Faust’s redemption) is based on a manuscript illumination, Dante and Beatrice Ascend to the Heaven of the Sun, by Giovanni di Paolo.
[Editor’s note: if you enjoyed reading about the goals and context of these stage designs, we hope that you will join us next season, for our series of free lunchtime previews at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in downtown San Jose. In addition to a selection of arias performed by OSJ resident artists, we are often able to host a panel of distinguished speakers (such as the stage director, set or costume designers, academics, and more!) to discuss the production and answer questions. To keep informed about the Tuesday previews and similar events, sign up to receive OSJ Enews today!]
*A kermess is a Dutch mass and celebration of the church, accompanied by feasting, dancing and sports.