Impossible stairs: Barkow Leibinger’s stage set for Fidelio
Client: Vereinigte Bühnen Wien, Theater an der Wien
Architects: Barkow Leibinger
Light design: Henry Braham
Location: Theater an der Wien, Vienna (AT)
Almost exactly 214 years after the first performance of Beethoven‘s sole opera at Theater an der Wien, a new production of the drama was slated to premiere at the same venue in March. Due to the coronavirus, the first performance took place “behind closed doors” without an audience and was broadcast on TV, thus reaching an audience of over 300,000.
Inspired by Piranesis Carceri, the stage set is reminiscent of a modern labyrinth or of one of M.C. Escher’s impossible staircases, being a double helix staircase made up of four interwoven, contorted spiraling stepways that fill the drama space in its entirety. It is the setting for the singers in both acts, which take place in a prison in Seville. Its abstract design does not lend it to figurative associations, thus focusing attention on the actual performance.
The labyrinthine geometry gives rise to varied spatial impressions, as in the case of the canopies and cavities that determine the scenes in the dungeon in the lower area of the labyrinthine stairs. The singers make their entries at differing points, stay in place for a while, or encounter each other as they step upward or downward or depart the scene, all at various levels.
The scenes are illuminated through the elliptical oculus at the centre of the construction, with the light ranging from gloomy darkness in the dungeon scenes to dazzling brightness in the prison yard. Brought to life by the choreography and the lighting scenarios, the static installation becomes part of the action in its own right.
The staircase construction consists of CNC-cut timber segments on an aluminium substructure prefabricated at a workshop in Poland. The relatively narrow openings at the theatre meant that the double helix staircase to be brought onto the stage in its component parts and then reassembled, much like a ship in a bottle.
Incidentally, an illustration of a practically identical stairway structure can be found in a 2013 study for a library by the architect Khoa Vu of Los Angeles. Barkow Leibinger has thus been faced with accusations of plagiarism, but these they reject: the picture was seen in their research work for the project and others and was known to them, but did not play any further role in the process of designing the stage set.