Sunday, 28 April 2019

Freshness & energy: Victoria Stevens on her new Le nozze di Figaro at the New Generation Festival in Florence

The New Generation Festival at the Palazzo Corsini, Florence
The New Generation Festival at the Palazzo Corsini, Florence
The New Generation Festival (co-founders Maximilian Fane & Roger Granville) takes place in the grounds of the Palazzo Corsini in Florence and is intended to showcase the best of young operatic talent. This year's festival runs from 28-31 August 2019, and features a new production of Mozart's La nozze di Figaro directed by Victoria Stevens and conducted by Jonathan Santagrada. Victoria is a young director currently working at National Theatre, Mannheim and I spoke to her via Skype to find out what we can expect this Summer.

Victoria Stevens
Victoria Stevens
The production will feature a young cast (Daniel Miroslaw as Figaro, Anna El-Khashem as Susanna, Faik Mansuroglu as the Count, Nela Saric as the Countess, Sara Rocchi as Cherubino) and Victoria plans to take advantage of this to bring the sort of freshness and energy to the piece which the story needs.

The setting will be a 1930s film studio such as Paramount from the Golden Age of Film. Victoria has chosen this because she wanted to take advantage of the setting, the villa and its terrace, rather than building something to hide it. The Palazzo Corsini is a 17th & 18th century Baroque building still owned by the princely family, and its facade and the setting evoked, for Victoria, a film set. One of the main themes of Mozart's opera is the dynamics between men and women, and Hollywood of the period was riddled with pretence so it seemed an appropriate way to express the themes of the story. The production will make use of a lot of black and white film projections.

Another theme of the opera is the relationships between different levels in society, and the production brings this out via the film theme with the Count as the film producer, the Countess as his leading lady, Figaro as the cinematographer etc. Something that Victoria feels works out nicely.

As the production takes place out of doors, set in a beautiful garden, Victoria is trying to work with the setting, and the production almost stars parts of the garden itself. One of the challenges which they are working on is how to make the projections work given the extended daylight hours!

Staging rehearsal of Puccini's La Boheme - Victoria Stevens at Nationaltheater Mannheim (with conductor Alexander Soddy
Staging rehearsal of Puccini's La Boheme
Victoria Stevens at Nationaltheater Mannheim with conductor Alexander Soddy
Victoria trained originally as a singer, so as a director she feels that this informs the way she works and helps to give her an insight into the process singers use to insert themselves into a character. And she likes to think that this insight makes her sensitive to what singers need, for example at the most basic level,  an awareness of what positions a sing can and can't sing in. Also, she can help the singers to get into character, to help bring them to the point of being able to speak as the character. All this is a collaborative effort, but sometimes Victoria is a little jealous that she is not singing!

Whilst singing came naturally to her, she always wanted to direct. She studied at the University of Capetown and then did a masters at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She was quite young when she started singing, and there came a point when she had to make a decisions. To sing herself, or to better help the art form by working with singers rather than doing it herself. She still sings, but she admits that she rather prefers telling people what to do rather than being told, helping others to be story tellers. In fact, she did two masters degrees, the first in Scotland in singing and the second in Verona in direction (and she also learned Italian).

Since September 2018, Victoria has been working as an assistant director at the National Theatre, Mannheim (her job title is Regieassistentin / Abendspielleiterin), which was founded in 1779 and is one of the oldest repertory houses in Germany, and is one of the major houses in Germany. Victoria enjoys working in Germany, she describes the operatic landscape as 'very ripe' with so many fresh perspectives on the art and exciting things directors are doing.

Her role at Mannheim is to be responsible for revivals and to assist directors of new productions, so that when we spoke she was assisting Barrie Kosky on a new production of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande (a co-production with the Komische Oper, Berlin). Her first seven months in the job have been something of a whirlwind, including learning German on the job; though the language is close to both English and Afrikaans (Victoria is South African) she has found it difficult. The theatre is flexible, which means that when reviving older productions she is able to be quite free and refresh things, and leading the rehearsal process has helped her to grow.

Chorus rehearsal onstage ,  Act 2 of Puccini's La Boheme - Victoria Stevens at Nationaltheater Mannheim
Chorus rehearsal onstage ,  Act 2 of Puccini's La Boheme - Victoria Stevens at Nationaltheater Mannheim
The theatre at Mannheim has been collaborating on the production in Florence, and Victoria feels both lucky and grateful for the support, with the theatre providing props, costumes and furniture. The festival allowed Victoria to pick her own team, so that the costume designer Charlotte Werkmeister works at the National Theatre, Mannheim also, so the theatre is very much supporting their own. Ultimately 'a big old truck' will be travelling from Mannheim to Florence taking all that support with it.

New Generation Festival, 28-31 August 2019, Palazzo Corsini al Prato, Florence
Mozart - Le nozze di Figaro (28 & 31 August)
Director Victoria Stevens, Conductor Jonathan Santagada
https://www.newgenerationfestival.org/en/2019

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