La Descente d'Orphèe aux Enfers


The Haymarket Opera company of Chicago commissioned David Mayernik to design sets for their 2012 production of Charpentier's La Descente d'Orphèe aux Enfers. The seventeenth-century opera, in two acts, is split between a pastoral setting and the underworld.


From the Program:

The idea of the sets was to convey not only the setting—the particular place and also the mood—of each act, but also something of the narrative. Like music, the sets transmit tone and also help to carry the words along. They can in fact be “read” as supplementary stories, articulating visually what Charpentier’s eloquent music and the words themselves are saying. So in the first scene a seemingly idyllic pastoral, with its flowers and bowers and temples, is a setting for a wedding party that also suggests both the danger in the grass and the access to the world below: some of those delicate flowers may be poisonous, like the blue-violet larkspur, sacred to Apollo; many of the flowers are types that Persephone was gathering when she was abducted by Pluto; a snake might be hiding in that fallen branch from the repoussoir blasted tree trunk; the circular temple, perhaps dedicated to the god Apollo (music) or Venus (love) or Hymen (weddings), is partly ruined and overgrown; while underneath is a small, dark cave that hints at access to Hades. In the leftmost periaktos the basket overgrown with acanthus alludes to the story in Vitruvius of the origins of the Corinthian order in a similar basket and acanthus at the tomb of a young woman. Acanthus, for the Greeks, was a healing plant; the evergreen, long-lived cypresses that climb the hill toward the temple were ancient symbols of everlasting life. And so there is hope as well as danger hidden in the classical flora.


In the second scene Pluto and Persephone’s underworld—Hades, the house of Dis, the Greek version of Roman Pluto—suggests not only its own deep space, but also the way to get there from above. The rugged stair descending into a cavern is a reprise in a minor key of the stepped path that winds around the temple island in the first act. Despite the opera title’s reference to Enfers (a word similar to Dante’s Inferno), the mythological underworld is not Hell in the Dantean sense; it is instead a parallel realm to the upper world (which was ruled by Jupiter). Pluto’s lower realm was understood to be a source of riches (from its mines and cultivation), thus our word plutocrat. It is at once the god’s vast palace (which is how Rubens painted the scene), and a prison for those not permitted to return to the upper world. But while it may be a sort of prison, not all prisoners are punished like Ixion, Tantalus, and Tityus; and so the character of the space has to be both impregnable and vast, but not always horrific. Its craggy character is as much the result of artifice as Nature. It recalls in fact the kinds of grottoes Charpentier would have seen in Rome and Italy and that were being built at Versailles (the Grotte de Thétys), or the rusticated architecture favored by Giulio Romano at the Palazzo Te in Mantua. The architectural surround of the set’s central opening is a rugged replay of the temple from the first act, a below ground palace ruled as well by Persephone—like Eurydice unfairly taken from her loved ones. Persephone’s plight is hinted at by the tossed aside pomegranate, eating the single seed of which had sealed her fate as Pluto’s consort; while at the rusticated opening Cerberus’ snaky mane recalls Eurydice’s tragedy.


We employed an ancient technique for the side sets, the rotating prismatic periaktoi that the Roman architect Vitruvius described in his treatise of the first century BCE. Thousands of years old in conception, they are extremely practical mechanisms for changing up to three scenes quickly.

Charpentier's Actèon


The Haymarket Opera company of Chicago commissioned David Mayernik to design sets for their 2014 production of Charpentier's Actèon. The seventeenth-century opera takes place in a grove sacred to Diana.


From the Program:

Actéon in Diana’s Woods: “Oh no he didn’t!”


The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the full-blown rebirth of the classical landscape of gods, heroes, and myths in painting and sculpture. But the stories that Ovid had told in his Metamorphoses, which became such fertile sources for Renaissance and Baroque painters, had often been set in the far off lands of Greece, Thrace, or Africa. Most Europeans of the time had never seen those places; so artists imagined a classical landscape that was, instead, based on an ancient world they did know: Latium. In the hills south of Rome were the places that sheltered Aeneas’ first Latin city, and nearby a venerable sanctuary to Diana. For Charpentier’s compatriots the painters Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and Gaspard Dughet, this landscape around Rome was a place they (maybe for the first time among artists) documented on site in plein air sketches, and brought back to the studio to serve as models for their invented landscapes—the settings for classical stories and rituals.


In the previous century, Titian had painted Actaeon, accidentally lost in the woods and stumbling on the vengeful goddess. He painted it for the Spanish king Phillip II, and Peter Paul Rubens would have seen it when he visited Spain on two occasions. Through Rubens the imagery filtered into the broader European imagination. Charpentier’s opera only just pre-dates Titian’s Diana and Acteon’s eventual arrival in France in the collection of the Duc d’Orleans (ultimately settling in London at the National Gallery). It is this canonical imagery—Titian’s Ovidian poesie, as he called them, Gaspard Dughet’s landscapes of Latium, and Salvator Rosa’s wild woods and streams—that are the visual sources for our sets.


The Other Side of the Mountain

The Haymarket Opera company has already developed its own visual repertoire, and this new woodland scene derives from our earlier Orphée pastoral; now, though, we are in a valley, behind the hillock crowned with a temple in the pastoral. Here on the other side of the mountain a shady glade and winding stream hint at Diana’s refuge, within a grove of oaks sacred to the goddess. Off to the side, a ruined altar is inscribed thus:



Grove Of Diana, Three-Formed Goddess


Virgin Guardian of the Mountain


The inscription is combined from the Diana sanctuary at Lake Nemi south of Rome and from Horace (Odes, Book III:22.1). Diana, the three-formed goddess, had three roles: as huntress, as guardian of roads and byways (her earliest epithet was Trivia, guardian of the Y or three-way intersection), and as protector of women in childbirth. Naturally, the first interests us for Actèon, but the fact that she oversaw roads (especially the fork in the road) perhaps explains something of the confluence of fates that sealed the hunter’s doom.

The story of her sanctuary at Nemi is stranger still. A tree in the grove stood at its center; no one could break off its limbs, except a runaway slave who, if he could, was then allowed to battle the reigning rex Nemorensis—king of Nemi—in one-on-one combat; and if he defeated him would become himself the next king: until, of course, another challenger came along. So our grove, semper Dianæ, suitably rugged, is made of robust oaks with occasionally broken boughs.

The tragedy of Actéon is that he never intended to take the wrong path, find Diana, or break a bough. His fate was not, though, merely chance—he suffered for the sins of his grandfather Cadmus’ family, descended from Jupiter’s tryst with Europa. Like Ovid, Charpentier makes of this another one of Juno’s revenges on her lascivious husband, and her appearance is central to the story. So from the woods appears the supreme goddess, deus ex machina: her cloudy arrival—her Gloire—situates the seemingly random acts of discovery and retribution as part of a larger narrative. But our sets can only begin to hint at that larger story….


see: Carin M.C. Green, Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Horace: The Odes

Book III

Ode 22 To Diana, Translated by A. S. Kline © 2003

Dido & Aeneas


The Haymarket Opera company of Chicago commissioned David Mayernik to design sets for their 2013 production of Purcells's Dido & Aeneas. The seventeenth-century opera, in three acts, moves from palace to cave to wood to port.


From the Program:

The Art of Perspective does, with wonderful Pleasure, deceive the Eye, the most subtle of our outward senses.

—Padre Andrea Pozzo, S.J., Perspective in Architecture and Painting. English edition ca. 1707, Dover Publications, 1989, p. 12


One of the primary means of what the Italians called “l’inganno dell’occhio,” the deceit of the eye, was perspective. The ancient Romans had had something like it, but it was the Florentine Filippo Brunelleschi who first deceived modern eyes with his invention of linear perspective. In the succeeding centuries this illusionistic tool was employed in painting, in architecture, and inevitably on stage. The illusion of space created on a two-dimensional surface demanded some ideal fixed viewpoint from which the illusion worked best; and in court theaters it was the prince or king who occupied that seat. In our sets we have striven to not only provide one sweet spot, but also the possibility of deceptive views throughout the theater. Still, if you want it all to come together, see if you can find that princely seat.


This visual dimension is an essential part of what makes opera. While we are swept away by the music and voices, our eyes are treated as well. Dido’s sets reward careful looking: there are tropes and inside jokes hidden in the sets as much as the libretto. The delight of being beautifully deceived is essential to the Baroque worldview. In that world where all is a stage, what makes the theater the theater is the sense of wholeness or totality, a sensory world in microcosm. Baroque opera is not just a performance, it is a whole world: unified, total, and enveloping—if you are prepared to surrender.


"[T]he unity stemmed instead from the intoxicating array of sensory stimulants—constantly changing—that filled the mind alternately with marvel, fancy, and awe."

—Radice, M., “Theater Architecture in the Time of Henry Purcell,” in Opera in Context, ed. M. Radice, Amadeus Press, 1998, p. 94