This year several founders of Compagnia Finzi Pasca will take on the epic Fête des Vignerons. To the scores of Maria Bonzanigo, Jérôme Berney and Valentin Villard, the show features 5,500 actors, 950 singers, 107 musicians, 38 drummers, 36 horns of the Alpes de la Fête; 24 fife and drums players from Basel, 16 big band musicians, 11 tenors and six soloists. Interview by Clare Wiley.
Switzerland’s Compagnia Finzi Pasca (CFP) has brought theatrical productions to life for 35 years. It has applied its singular vision to two Cirque du Soleil shows, dazzled audiences the world over with operas and multimedia productions, and captivated the imagination of thousands at the closing ceremonies of two Olympic Games.
This summer they will help stage a once-in-a-generation spectacle: Daniele Finzi Pasca, Maria Bonzanigo, Hugo Gargiulo and other members of the Lugano-based company are contributing to the creation of the show at this year’s Fête des Vignerons, a festival that takes place on Lake Geneva only four times each century.
In a truly unique event that is featured on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage, Fête des Vignerons pays homage to the winegrowing traditions of the region through an explosion of song, dance and ritual. Each night, 20,000 people will watch the show in a custom built venue overlooking the lake at Vevey; there will be a total of 23 performances from 18 July to 11 August. The performance includes a staggering 5,500 actors, 900 singers, 107 musicians, 38 drummers, 36 horns of the Alpes de la Fête; 24 fife and drums players from Basel, 16 big band musicians, 11 tenors and six soloists.
The show is intended to represent a year in the life of a vineyard, through a total of 20 scenes that start and finish with the grape harvest. It takes in the labour of the vineyard, social occasions like weddings, as well as grander themes of the seasons, water, the sun and the stars. At its core is an exploration of the link between man and nature. The narrative arc comes from a touching dialogue between a little girl named Julie and her grandfather, who shows her the traditions and work of the winegrowers.
This year’s event is the brainchild of Daniele Finzi Pasca, CFP’s cofounder and director. Oscillating between enormous spectacle and emotive intimacy, CFP’s characteristic poetry will animate each scene. He explains: “The show begins with a day of grape picking and ends with another day of grape picking, as if the whole journey had only lasted a moment, just a break in the feverishness and excitement of the work. We will begin with a scene in a totally empty arena and finish with the same emptiness, an emptiness that I want to be filled with echoes, pictures and emotions to be forever fixed in the hearts of our audience.”
The show is intended to be a completely immersive and 360° experience, with exceptionally high-quality sound, multiple scenes and transitions. The creator of the arena is fellow CFP cofounder and scenographer Hugo Gargiulo, who created the space after an idea by Jean Rabasse, supported by design assistant Matteo Verlicchi. “It was a very big challenge,” he laughs; five years after the initial idea was conceived, the team are about to start rehearsals inside the arena. “Now we will see if all the things we’ve been thinking about – the main space, the scene transitions, the cast arriving, the backstage spaces, all the technology – can come together. So far, they’ve been only ideas. It’s really an emotional moment.”
The goal, Gargiulo adds, was that the arena would feel “like a bird’s nest”. “The sensation when you’re inside is that you’re in an intimate place. When you’re outside you just see a big construction, but when you’re inside, it’s an intimate theatre.”
Structural design comes from civil engineers Daniel Willi SA. Gargiulo says the team relied on a range of cutting-edge technologies. The show features not only the performers themselves but visuals projected onto vast screens as well as an immense floor, which is an 800m2 LED surface. “The floor makes it possible to see an image projected during the day as well as at night. The visuals projected in the floor will act as a source of light as well as imagery that works with the choreography and the music.”
As part of the CFP creative team, Gargiulo has years of experience in staging productions on a massive scale: he has worked on Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo; the Turin Olympic Games closing ceremony in 2006; the acrobatic show Nebbia with Cirque Éloize and Teatro Sunil; and Montréal Avudo, an outdoor multimedia production for Montréal’s 375th anniversary, not to mention many of CFP’s own shows. But, he says, working on the Fête des Vignerons was a little different, primarily due to the weight of the festival’s history: it was first staged in the 1700s.
“We are part of the history in this adventure,” Gargiulo says. “A generation of people wait for this event, they have it in their minds [for decades], so there’s a very enthusiastic energy. Half the city is involved. There are people who have performed at one Fête, others who have done three. People divide their lives by how many Fêtes they’ve performed in!”
Did this mean a lot of pressure on the CFP team? “For sure, a lot of people are [anticipating] this festival, so there’s a lot of pressure. But we are on the right path.”
Each edition of the festival revolves around a formal coronation of the winegrowers, the ‘Couronnement des vignerons-tâcherons’. This year the ceremony will take place on 18 July, marking the first day of the festival. In the midst of CFP’s dreamlike spectacle, winegrowers will be officially thanked and recognised for their talent and contributions. Following the show’s finale, all the performers and winegrowers with them set off on an extravagant procession from the arena in Vevey to neighbouring town La Tour-de-Peilz.
Another stalwart ritual is the Ranz des Vaches, a beloved folk tune that was traditionally played by Swiss herdsman on Alpine horns as they led their cows to pasture. It holds a special significance for many Swiss people; some consider it their honorary anthem.
The CFP team had to incorporate these historic customs that really make up the fabric of the event. “From the beginning, Daniele and the Confrérie des Vignerons de Vevey [the wine guild which organises the festival] were discussing elements we need to conserve, and things we can transform,” explains Gargiulo.
Was that an interesting challenge, honouring the festival’s storied history while bringing a bit of CFP modernity to the affair? “Absolutely,” he says. “This was the challenge, to bring these [customs] into the 21st century. So that it’s not just something very traditional, but it’s about really putting these people in the centre and doing the festival for them. It’s not a celebration of wine, but a celebration of the people who work on the land, it’s in honour of them.”
Indeed, an exploration of humanity is at the core of every CFP production – and that’s why Gargiulo believes they resonate with audiences in all parts of the world. “I think the [driving force] of the company is to touch the human essence, the human soul. We are a very international company, but we always talk about very simple things [which illustrate] humanity.”
He points to the CFP production Icaro, which has been performed for almost three decades. The magical show sees Daniele choose one member of the audience to perform alongside him, while the rest are spectators.
“There’s the same spirit in a show which is playing for one person as our events where there are 20,000 spectators,” says Gargiulo. “It’s the same energy and contact with the audience.”
“I think theatre is the most interactive thing in the world,” he adds. “It was invented 3,000 years ago but continues to be a very energetic experience, which brings the audience together. You don’t know each other but you’re watching something, and feeling something, together. This is the real interaction of the people.”