Love, death, and betrayal are surefire ingredients to grip any audience from ancient Greece to today, but without the right sets, actors, costumes, and lighting, no drama can hold its weight in time. real. Tristan and Isoldaone of the world’s most beloved love stories, is not a contemporary tale, but it was given new life (and new light!) during a summer run at the Santa Fe Opera, which ended this week. More than 100 years after it first aired, the opera tapped a design firm based in Los Angeles and New York Charlap Hyman and Herrero for a truly new scenography of Richard Wagner’s transportive composition.

A Celtic myth originating in the 12th century, Tristan and Isolda is the story of star-crossed lovers at war with themselves, their families, and each other. Loose narrative similarities inspired comparison with by Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet: The two couples start off as enemies and, after a quick and intense banter, find themselves bound in a complex love triangle. And yes, both couples perish tragically and needlessly.

As the piece progresses, the architectural shadows become more prominent, with the background colors shifting from gray to umbra.

Curtis Brown/Santa Fe Opera

The tale was originally adapted by the German composer Wagner in 1865. The stage design for the inaugural production followed a traditional operatic format – moving and changing sets that grounded the viewer at every moment with little room for confusion. – complemented by colorful and dramatic costumes that recalled the medieval roots of the story.

But Adam Charlap Hyman and Andre Herrero had something different in mind for Santa Fe Opera’s reimagining of history. When we think of medieval love, we think of drama, excess and courage, but for this production the firm has found a way to give us all of that with very little. The production set, described by Charlap Hyman as “an exercise in reduction”, was shockingly simple. And yet, despite its understated theatrics, the set turned out to be the most ambitious of the five collaborations they did with the opera’s co-director, Zack Winokur. “In our first set with Zack for The Calisto, we only used accessories and doors”, explains Charlap Hyman. “We thought of doors as transformation mechanisms within the scene, and we continued to explore that idea here on a larger scale.”

As the metaphorical curtain was drawn, the stage consisted of four slanted walls of heather gray. The first act opened with a single central overture. The walls evoked dark clouds or shallow waters (like the opera opens with Isolde in the hold of a ship), and although they appeared to be poured concrete, they were actually made of fiberglass and wood. As the second act approached, six doors appeared on either side of the stage. The third act used two walls with cast and enhanced shadow plays that animated the structures. The tragedy then played out, starting with a stripped-down staging and more deceptive props: a column of resin “ice” and a pile of shale shaped like a polystyrene bed.

a costume for the santa fe opera production of tristan and iseult

Costume designer Carlos Soto reveals the outfit of Kurwenal, Tristan’s servant.

Curtis Brown/Santa Fe Opera

Set in a unique outdoor setting of Santa Fe, the success of each race depended in part on the cooperation of Mother Earth. The show began with the sun still visible, and as the story progressed, light gave way to shadow and then total darkness. “In storytelling, truth and purity can only be found in darkness,” says Charlap Hyman. “Within this framework of darkness as a source of liberation and truth, we felt it made sense to create a mechanism that would begin illuminated and end in darkness.” Charlap Hyman & Herrero adapted this theme with a setting that gradually opened up into a more complex and expansive backdrop as the opera progressed. “Our goal has always been to create a set that is a dynamic and breathable element of the show,” explains Charlap Hyman.

the scene of the santa fe opera production of tristan and iseult

Poignant accessories reinforce the architectural sophistication of the whole, serving as poetic stops for the eye. Pictured is a polystyrene tree trunk.

Curtis Brown/Santa Fe Opera

Designate by Carlos Soto the costumes for the show were the perfect complement to Charlap Hyman & Herrero’s minimal ensemble. Bias-cut dresses of ethereal organza, folded, padded and quilted doublets so stiff they could stand on their own, and heavy, painted linen heightened the emotions playing out on stage. “There was a moment in act two, where lightning struck and a breeze swept through the audience, activating Isolde’s dress,” Charlap Hyman recalled. “As her dress billowed, she started singing louder and louder and the crowd just lost it!”

The costumes were designed to intensify the effect of light, shadow and wind, making the actors props in themselves. Each look took you out of yourself and into the performer’s body; out of the present and in time. De Soto’s references ran the gamut of historical clothing – with inspirations as varied as native Scandinavian hunting costumes, 19th-century Dutch fisherman’s trousers, 15th-century illuminations, and the handsome Renaissance boys of Piero’s paintings. della Francesca.

Set design, lighting, and costumes were all powerful parts of this production, but the ultimate success of the show came down to preparation and a healthy embrace of the whims of nature. “We’ve been thinking about nature’s problems for all these years,” Herrero says. “But we never understood that nature in this context could be such an important theatrical force.”