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Stories from the Archive: theatrical masks

We take a look back at some of Glyndebourne’s productions that have used theatrical masks to terrify, delight and move audiences

Masks have been a common theme in our lives over the last 20 months and have always been associated with the theatre.

Masks for comedy and masks for tragedy. In time for Halloween, we take a look back at some of Glyndebourne’s productions that have used masks to terrify, delight and move audiences.

The Rake’s Progress

The Rake’s Progress, Tour 2021 | Photo: Sisi Burn

Composed by Igor Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress, designed by David Hockney, premiered at Glyndebourne in 1975.

In Act III Scene III – Bedlam, Tom, condemned by Nick Shadow, wanders through the madhouse, imagining himself to be a mythical figure – Adonis, and his lover Venus (Anne). Holding him in her arms, Anne sings the lullaby ‘Gently, little boat’, which is one of the more touching arias in this opera. In this scene, the lovers are accompanied by the masked figures in grids. Those masks come in various shapes, some spiked and some domed, and do they only represent the madhouse residents or Tom’s mental world? In their singing, it is as if they are using their voices to satirise Tom’s self-inflicted misery, with a sense of wonder.

After Anne leaves, Tom wakes up again to find his lover gone, and here the masked men whisper and sing, as if to lament Tom, or more like working for the devil to take Tom’s soul away.

This gloomy and sombre atmosphere is made all the more lonesome and frightening by the addition of the masks.

Image: an original polaroid of a masked performer, photographed by Mike Hoban, 2010

La damnation de Faust: the demon chorus

La damnation de Faust, Festival 2019 | Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust was staged at Glyndebourne in 2019. The opera tells the story of Faust, who, misled by Méphistophélès’ promise to restore his youth and fulfil his wish, falls in love with the beautiful woman Marguerite, and is ultimately lured to hell by the demon Méphistophélès. The designer, Nicky Gillibrand, created masks of different colours, shapes and expressions, but without exception they were all masks with horns. With the Glyndebourne Chorus positioned high above the stage and dressed in ornate costumes and hideous masks, leer not only over the performers, but the audience too. The uplighting makes them appear even more ghastly and terrifying. Meanwhile, a group of dancers, dressed in yellow and black tights and masks, swarm out of the doors on the stage and dance around Faust, adding a touch of horror and grotesqueness to the whole opera. The chorus with devil masks seems to be listening with Faust to the “benefits” of the Méphistophélès, and as if they are urging Faust to follow the devil’s call, which brings the horror atmosphere to a climax.

Un ballo in maschera

Un ballo in maschera, 1949 | Photo: Angus McBean

Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A masked ball) is little known at Glyndebourne, having only ever been performed in 1949 at the Edinburgh Festival, never quite making it back to Sussex. The opera, based on the true story of the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792, takes place at a masked ball. Carl Ebert, the director and Glyndebourne’s first Artistic Director, had produced the opera in 1932 for the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which had received universal praise and acclaim. Like the 1932 production, Ebert was keen to have Caspar Neher re-design the sets (other than the smaller size of the stage, the production was a ‘near-replica’ to the 1932 production).

Un ballo in maschera, 1949 | Photo: Angus McBean

The designs for the production are dramatic, with the sets soaring above the stage. Though light in tone, they are made more menacing knowing that behind one of the masks lurks the murderer. The masks range from simple black or white masks to more elaborate and grotesque and with the entire chorus wearing one is an incredible spectacle.

The images presented here, taken by Angus McBean, would have been staged by the photography, especially for the purpose of the shot. This was a common way of photographing stage productions at the time. Each performer would have been positioned specifically for the photograph, with the lighting also being manipulated for the purpose of the shot. Because of this, the images take on a more dramatic and theatrical quality which is not without its own charm.

Written and researched by Wendy Wang


The Rake Progressed is our new visual art exhibition which explores how artists have engaged with and celebrated The Rake’s Progress. The exhibition focuses on David Hockney’s radical new designs for the 1975 production of the opera and more recent interpretations by this year’s Associate Artist, Tom Hammick.
View the online exhibition.

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