Magazine article The Spectator

An 'Intelligent Spectacle'

Magazine article The Spectator

An 'Intelligent Spectacle'

Article excerpt

Henrietta Bredin talks to David Pountney about running the Bregenz Festival

Back in the days when David Pountney was director of productions at English National Opera, his so-called office was a tiny broom cupboard of a space carved out of a backstage cranny of the London Coliseum, with a single grubby window overlooking a narrow passageway known as Piss Alley for obvious and strongly smelling reasons. He now, as artistic director of the Bregenz Festival in Austria, occupies a lavishly appointed sort of control tower, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out across Lake Constance and giving a direct hawk's-eye view of the stage built out into the lake, which is the festival's major attraction. He has a remote-control device on his desk with which he can stop the boat heading towards Lindau on the opposite shore and send it on to Wasserburg instead, change the points on the railway track running along the lake shore and manoeuvre the two giant cranes lifting parts of the set into place. His massive black-leather swivel-chair creaks very slightly as he leans back and strokes the white Persian cat that has settled on his lap.

Oh, all right, not every detail of that is true but it certainly comes as no surprise that Pountney struck a lucrative and exceptionally PR-rich deal with the James Bond franchise last year so that they could film a sequence of Quantum of Solace on the set for Tosca, complete with fake audience members in drop-dead chic monochrome designer kit. Real audiences at Bregenz tend to wear waterproofs, fleece layers and liberal applications of Deet. Neither rain nor mosquitoes are permitted to stop play here (plentiful supplies of both are usually assured). There are seats for 7,000 and once you've got that many people in place, they're there for the duration. Operas start late and run straight through, with no interval.

'It's all a juggling act, ' says Pountney.

'It's an exceptionally independent festival because we're 80 per cent self-financed, and 94 per cent of our income comes from the performances on the lake. So as long as they continue to sell as well as they have been, that basically means we don't have to rely on ticket sales for the other events. Altogether that means I have extraordinary artistic freedom.'

One could say that this freedom comes at a price. The performances on the lake stage are on such an insanely enormous, brashly blockbusting scale that they can't really be defined as opera. Singers are a very long way away indeed and they all have microphones strapped to their faces to relay their voices via a complex sound system. The orchestra and chorus aren't anywhere near the stage; they're safely under cover in the indoor theatre, led by a conductor with an earpiece looking at a video screen divided into four so that he can keep track of the widely separated areas from which the singers are performing. Graham Vick, directing Aida this year, took on the challenge with characteristic flair by taking full advantage of the lake itself - 'Well, there's no point pretending it isn't there.' Singers and dancers splashed in and out of it, Radames went off to war astride what looked weirdly like the Ark of the Covenant and came back on top of a floating elephant, he and Aida met their end in a boat which sailed into view and was then hoist dizzyingly upwards, well over 100 feet into the night sky.

'It's no accident that the directors who work on those productions are mostly AngloSaxons, ' says Pountney. …

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