Stage design for Act I, Scene 1 in 'Don Giovanni' performed at the Metropolitan Opera, New York
Stage design for Act I, Scene 1 in 'Don Giovanni' performed at the Metropolitan Opera, New York

Stage design for Act I, Scene 1 in 'Don Giovanni' performed at the Metropolitan Opera, New York


Eugene Berman.

[1957]. Pen and ink, and watercolour. 201 x 132 mm. 132 x 201mm. 0.5kg. . Near fine; image and paper remains crisp and bright; residue of mounting glue to verso, 2 corners neatly reinforced on verso.

An original stage design by Eugene Berman for the new production of Don Giovanni first performed at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1957. Although untitled it is probable that the design is for Act I, Scene 1 in the garden, outside the palace of the Commendatore. (Another scene also takes place in a garden, outside Don Giovanni's palace, but an image of the palace in a programme from The Met shows that it is somewhat different from this present design). A central courtyard, with chevron patterned stone work, is surrounded by arched colonnades on either side and a ornate, Baroque-inspired building to the rear. Two eye-like round windows and a matching pair of statues give a sense of foreboding and impending drama. A figure, perhaps of Don Giovanni or the Commendatore, stands in the central arch. The stage is framed by a walled structure.

Eugene Berman (1899-1972) was a leading Neo-Romantic painter and stage designer, becoming one of the world's most acclaimed theatrical designers of his time. He was an expert draughtsman and his set designs, with their jewel-like quality, are highly prized. He was born in Russia but emigrated first to Paris, and then to America. His career had two parallel strands, one painting and one theatre design, although the two overlapped stylistically. Berman was heavily influenced by nineteenth-century Romanticism and by the architectural ruins encountered on his travels to Mexico, Egypt and Italy. His images have a sense of melancholy, of the sublime and of the theatrical.

Berman had become fascinated by theatre design since his youth having attended the Imperial Ballet in Saint Petersburg and Diaghilev's Ballet Russe in Paris. His lyrical, architectural landscapes lent themselves to the drama and beauty of the opera stage. Berman designed the sets and costumes for five productions at The Met under the watch of Rudolf Bing, the General Manager between 1950 and 1972. These were Rigoletto, La Forza del Destino, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Don Giovanni and Otello . All were critically-acclaimed, used for many seasons and marked a high point in the history of theatrical design.

To design Don Giovanni had been a life-long ambition for Berman. In 1941 he wrote to Edward Johnson (an earlier General Manager at The Met): "I don't know if you are aware of it or not, but my great interest in the theatre lies even more in the opera than in the Ballet and my greatest desire is to design a classic or romantic opera, Mozart, Gluck or Verdi. Most of all: Don Giovanni , no opera is more beautiful and complete to me than this...". His desire was fulfilled when Bing wrote to him in October 1956 with an official invitation to design Don Giovanni for the 1957/58 season. The director for the production was Herbert Graf. Over the next year designs for the set and costumes flew back and forth between Berman, Bing and Graf. The opera premiered on 31 October 1957. Berman's dreamlike designs were a triumph and proved so popular in subsequent seasons at The Met that they were only replaced in 1990.

[Tuggle, Robert. Eugene Berman. Drawings for the Stage. Wheelock Whitney & Company. 1989; Duncan, Michael. High Drama. Eugene Berman and the Legacy of the Melancholic Sublime. Hudson Hills. 2004.]