More Mollino

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We ended our recent stroll through Turin with a visit to designer Carlo Mollino’s pharaonic retreat. But the building for which he is best known is the Teatro Regio, the city’s opera house. The original theatre built on this site in 1740 was a gilded jewel box which, typical of the time, reflected the prestige of its royal patrons. It burnt down in 1936 leaving only the facade, but it took until 1965 for work to start on the successor, under the direction of Mollino and engineer Marcello Zavelani Rossi.

The new Teatro Regio opened in 1973. Older opera goers who remembered the original interior and expected more of the same were soon disabused of the idea. Once through the facade the audience was not transported regally into the foyer through grand gilded portals, but sluiced democratically through a dozen low doors. And inside there was no elegant staircase or marble gallery to greet them, but a cloakroom, the kind of functional space usually confined to a less conspicuous side room or basement.

The Carlo Mollino we encountered in his riverside lair was withdrawn, contemplative, mystical. Here we see Mollino the public figure – bold, innovative, provocative. But here, too, his personal compulsions find expression. We see such recurring motifs as the ellipse – the symbol of rebirth – seen in the arrangement of repeating ovoid cavities at the entrance, and on doors in the form of mirrors (which naturally had a talismanic significance in Mollino’s vocabulary of materials).

Mollino delighted in up-ending expectations. He mocked the long-standing Italian superstition that purple should never be used in opera houses by using the colour extensively. Symbolic of mourning, purple was associated with Lent, a time when opera houses were forced to shut their doors, further imperilling performers’ meagre livelihoods (on the upside, the tradition did give us approved Lenten fare such as Mozart’s immortal piano concertos).

In the foyer Mollino quotes gilt, crimson plush, classical columns and Baroque motifs in a pre-postmodern style which is still recognisably of its time; you can practically smell the Rive Gauche. The auditorium, on the other hand, is harder to pin down – it might have been built yesterday, or it might have served as a legislature for one of the funkier Soviet republics. It’s an enveloping, slightly disorienting space, with Gino Sarfatti’s cloud of hanging lights and perspex tubes heightening the dislocation. The original plan was almost entirely devoid of right angles, with the stage aperture echoing the rounded forms of the rest of the auditorium. However, like the carpeted floor that Mollino originally conceived (since replaced), it was an attractive feature that was unfortunately disastrous for distributing sound. Here form didn’t follow function, it actually impeded it. Now the stage is framed by a stepped proscenium frame set somewhat awkwardly into the original arch.

Anyway, here are some snaps (and trust me…once you see that last photo as Muppet faces you can’t unsee it).

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Before we leave Turin, a final word on the city’s occult lore. To me the interesting thing about belief is not its object but the forms of its observation. And as they say, when the legend becomes fact, print (or post) the legend. However, much of the legend of Turin’s occult mystique may be of more recent provenance than one might expect; you can read an entertaining inquiry on the subject here.

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