The Ring’s The Thing: Sven Ortel’s Projections for Ring Cycle

It’s all the rage these days for opera companies to mount innovative versions of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen, his epic 19th-century Ring Cycle. So it stands to reason that, when the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg decided to revive its 2003 productions of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung for performances in Russia and at the Royal Opera House in London in July and August, they opted to update the design, adding images by projection designer Sven Ortel to amplify scenery by George Tsypin, lighting by Gleb Filshtinsky, and costumes by Tania Naginova.

Conducted by maestro Valery Gergiev, this revival of the Ring Cycle was directed by Alexander Zeldin, while the former version had a different director for each opera, which did not help clarify a vision based on primordial Russian, Caucasian, and Scythian folk mythology. “The director sought me out,” says the London- and Brooklyn-based Ortel. “He told me he had researched projection designers and felt my work would be best for this Ring Cycle.”

The projections “added a layer of information about a world that is underneath the surface, or what happens under the skin, as organisms in the microscopic world,” Ortel notes, adding that, in 2003, it would have been too impractical and expensive to achieve. “Tsypin has always had an interest in the microscopic world, and this Ring Cycle is like a baby of his that felt incomplete, so he was happy to re-imagine it in 2009.”

Ortel created images of cells and organisms intentionally meant to be ambiguous. “They can look like blood cells or blurry clouds, or water caustics, like reflections in the bottom of a pool,” he explains. “Cell structures can look like a nervous system or arteries or wood or other organic materials, from charcoal to burning lava.” Additional images in this microscopic world evoked viruses or cells multiplying, as the video reflected the natural elements of water, fire, and air inherent in the operas. “There were lightning bolts that looked like cracks in soil, clouds that looked like tree bark,” Ortel adds. “Everything flowed into everything else, changing in front of your eyes and taking on new meaning.”

In researching these images, Ortel had to find a balance of microscopic images that looked good on stage. “I had to distill the essence and recreate it for the theatre,” he says, pointing out that he used a lot of photographs as well as custom images built by a 3D artist. His textures embraced everything from nerve clusters and nodes to branch-like artery systems. “The trees in a forest resembled arteries when you run blood through them. That was the kind of creative freedom I needed,” says Ortel, who made detailed references for the 3D artist to use in creating his intricate structures. His team also included associate video designers S. Katy Tucker, Nina Dunn, and programmer Sam Hunt.

The primary projection surfaces were four giant figures of painted fiberglass designed by Tsypin that flew in on custom frames with exposed chain hoists and took different positions in each opera. “They were über-beings, omnipresent in the cycle,” says Ortel. “They were influenced—and they influenced—what went on. The plot had an impact on them and vice versa.”

To project on the moving giants, the video rig included a Catalyst system—purchased by the Mariinsky Theatre from London-based SNP Productions—with three HD Catalyst media servers and four Barco DML-1200 DLP projectors with moving yokes. “The Catalysts allowed us to swirl images around the stage, and they’re fantastic. I’m quite fond of them now,” notes Ortel, admitting that, at first, he thought, “They have them; let’s make the most of them.” He then discovered that the moving yoke projectors were extremely helpful since the giants appeared in so many different places on stage.

The projectors also layered images onto the stage floor and were used for specific elements on the giants, such as a large eye that opened or the eye of a dragon. Two Christie Roadster 18K HD projectors hung front-of-house provided general cover for the stage with textures as well as special effects, such as an explosion. In St. Petersburg, the video gear belonged to the theatre. For Covent Garden, the equipment was rented from XL Video in London, where the Christie projectors were replaced with Barco FLM HD18 projectors.

Overall, the look of the projections was very elemental, almost primeval, rather than highly polished. “The images were immensely strong and bold,” says Ortel. “That’s the language we used. The four operas had very minimalistic use of actual scenery. There was more use of lighting and projection. This was my first Ring, and I made bolder choices once I heard the music live. Some of the images looked timid at first, as I had underestimated the power of the music.”

The schedule at The Mariinsky included only five days for all four operas. “We worked from midnight to five or six in the morning, got some sleep in the theatre, and then from 8am to 10am, we fixed mistakes before a rehearsal or proper tech with the designers and director in the afternoon, followed by a performance with an audience in the evening,” says Ortel. Covent Garden allowed more time to tech and complete the process.

“Everyone could see the potential, but Russia was not the finished version, although everyone became confident in the use of the technology,” says Ortel, who had spent two weeks in London on preprogramming before going to St. Petersburg, which helped in such a truncated schedule. “I worked with DVDs of the 2003 productions, as the sets remained largely unchanged. I had to integrate the images and make it look as if they were always there.”

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