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Forging a Ring takes more than just one blacksmith. For our new production of Wagner's tetralogy, ten La Monnaie Workshops have been running at peak creative performance for months. Every set element, every costume, every prop has passed through many hands before appearing on our stage. A regular stop for many of those elements? Our painting workshop.
A vast space, spread over two floors and bathed in light. You hear music, a few muffled footsteps here and there, the gentle rustle of a paint roller... And, in front of the bay window, lies a six-metre-long black crocodile whose scales are being perfected. We’re in La Monnaie’s painting workshop, where the final touches are being made to one of the most striking visual elements of Das Rheingold.
The opening part of the Ring has presented many challenges to the craftswomen and -men here at work. The floors, the walls, the large bas-reliefs, the two crocodiles, even the metal beam of the Nibelungen: everything was patinated by a team of eight people, twice as many as in a normal production.
While the black floors received a coat of satin paint, the walls got a matte white finish. The dozen bas-reliefs, fine pieces of work by our sculptors, were covered with a layer of tarlatan, a thick gauze that protects and hardens the polystyrene. This would allow the stage technicians to handle these large structures freely on stage without the risk of damage. A coat of paint applied with a rag gave them the appearance of marble.
The two crocodiles that appear on stage (we won’t reveal exactly under what circumstances so as not to spoil the surprise) have been painted black, with a few touches of dark green, and varnished. The huge metal beam handled by Alberich and Mime was coated with a metallic product and then retouched with a handcrafted 'juice'. The combination of the two substances produced the effect of rust on the beam, which was then fixed with varnish to prevent it from crumbling at the slightest touch.
But according to decorative painter Nathalie Salaméro, it is the appearance of a large golden circle in the final scene of the opera that has created the greatest technical challenge for the team. “For most of the performance, this golden circle has to be invisible on a white wall. It must blend in perfectly, until the moment it will slowly be revealed by the stagehands. We’ve been working on this for a while. The workshop trials were conclusive. But on the set it’s still complicated.”
The gold disc itself is the result of a long research process to identify the most suitable material for the production requirements, particularly in terms of colour and reflectivity. Gilded sheets of metal were chosen to which an additional patina gives the appearance of an old mirror. The main difficulty in making this circle invisible lies in the fact that the white canvases surrounding it are painted, while the layer concealing the gold is made of kaolin, a ceramic powder whose final colour, once applied, can sometimes vary. Until a few days before the premiere, tests were still being carried out on stage to get the best possible result.
A creative dialogue
Working with a visionary and perfectionist director like Romeo Castellucci is a unique challenge for our technical and artistic teams. “With Romeo, the projects are often very conceptual,” explains Nathalie. “We don’t have a completely concrete model to work from because the project is constantly evolving. There’s a lot of research right up to the end. A true sense of experiment, too. Fortunately, collaborating with Romeo is pretty cool, he’s someone you can ask questions to. There’s none of the distance that can sometimes exist with other directors.”
In our painting workshop, we never do the same thing twice. The recipes created for the specific features of a production always have to be reinvented. It’s a place where ideas take on many shapes before they shine as 'the result' on stage. So, if you have the opportunity to indulge in the stylised tableaux of Das Rheingold, spare a thought for Camille, Louisa, Joseph, Joséphine, Mounir, Nathalie, Sylvia and Peter, who brought its whites, blacks and gold to life.