The History of Italian Opera


By Giorgio Pestelli

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © <1998- Giorgio Pestelli
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226045919

1 - Stage and Set

MERCEDES VIALE FERRERO

Theatrical Spaces and Designers

1. SPACE AND THE SET

It is an obvious fact that operas are performed in a theatrical space that includes a set. Indeed, there is a plurality of such spaces and sets and thus also of reciprocal interrelations among them. The performance takes place in a real space that is (usually) a stage, which is made out of tangible materials and covers a given area that can be defined in mathematical terms and represented graphically. However, this same stage also conjures up a fictitious space in which the events represented take place. Moreover, it is at the same time a symbolic space: the visual expression of the potentially conflicting inventions, intentions, and interpretations of the librettist, the composer, the singers, the stage designer, the director, and so on.

By the same token, operas are performed because there is a ready audience to attend the performance, and this implies the availability of a place in which individuals unite to become an audience: in other words, a real space, or auditorium. Like the stage itself, the auditorium is a quantifiable architectural structure. Yet in its own way it is also a somewhat fictitious space, in that it relates to the fictional events of the drama that absorbs the assembled individuals and elicits their consent, dissent, compassion, or indifference. In this sense it is also a symbolic space: an enclosure containing a (homogeneous or heterogeneous) society that appears to be a (convergent or divergent) projection of the society at large extra theatrum, and hence also of its organization, whether institutional, hierarchical, economic, or whatever. These two components (stage and auditorium) are interconnected both materially and in the mind of the viewer: the spectator must be able not only to see and hear the show but also to grasp its meaning; for its part, the show aims at obtaining the audience’s approval and thus also its intellectual comprehension and emotional involvement. But how much of this is specific to opera as such? Are there theatrical spaces and sets that are peculiar to opera? The question could be addressed in technical terms, albeit somewhat unsatisfactorily. For example, the theatrical space devoted to opera performance requires a place for the orchestra, whereas this is not necessarily the case for plays. Yet it is for ballet. Likewise, theatrical space should be so structured as to “carry the singers’ voices clearly everywhere.” However, optimal acoustics are also essential to spaces used for the performance of plays. An insistently reiterated conceptual distinction was introduced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: scene changes (and thus also a theatrical space in which they were possible) were typical of opera, whereas plays were bound by the Aristotelian concept of unity and thus required no such thing. Actually, scene changes existed well before the birth of opera. Moreover, there were operas with a fixed set just as there were plays with many scenes.

2. SPACES AND OPERA GENRES

The difficulty (indeed, impossibility) of laying down fixed rules for establishing optimal spaces specifically devoted to opera performance is probably due to the fact that opera itself comprises various genres requiring different types of spectacle that may vary according to time, context, audience, theatrical organization, and so on. One set designer (Pietro Gonzaga) defined his art as “musique des yeux,” which suggests a perspective that changes in relation to variations in musical expression. However, the question cannot be reduced to a mere temporal succession of tastes and styles, structures and images. Clearly, there are bound to be conspicuous differences between the staging of Bellerofonte by Nolfi (librettist) and Sacrati (composer) at the Teatro Novissimo in 1642 (the auditorium was probably horseshoe-shaped with steps; and Giacomo Torelli’s sets involved nine changes, or thirteen if one includes the appearance of the “machines” activated in full view); of La clemenza di Tito by Metastasio and Leo at the Teatro di San Giovanni Grisostomo in 1753 (auditorium with boxes; sets by Antonio Jolli involving seven changes but no stage machinery); of La traviata by Piave and Verdi at La Fe-nice in 1853 (auditorium with boxes; sets by Giuseppe Bertoja with four changes, none of them in full view); or of Prometeo by Cacciari and Nono at the San Lorenzo in 1984 (auditorium specifically equipped for this event). This choice of examples deliberately involves a principal variant (time) that determines a number of subvariants but also presentstwo constants: the entertainments were all performed in the same city, Venice; and the theaters were all open to a paying public.

If we eliminate the time variant, we shall still find essential differences between the fixed-set staging (“in the Argos countryside”) of Silvia by Capeci and Scarlatti at the Teatro della Regina di Polonia in Rome in 1710 and the staging of Tito e Berenice by Capeci and Caldara at the Teatro Capranica in Rome in 1714, where the sets designed by Filippo Juvarra involved ten changes and one mechanical apparatus. It might be argued here that the decisive variant was accessibility: the queen of Poland’s private theater was a “domestic” structure reserved for a social and intellectual élite, whereas the Capranica was open to the paying public. This, however, is not the case, because in 1713 Ifigenia in Tauri by Capeci and Scarlatti was staged at the queen’s “domestic” theater with sets designed by Filippo Juvarra that involved ten scene changes, albeit with no machinery. So at this point it seems logical to argue that differences in staging should be related to the musical genre of the entertainment. Silvia is described as “pastoral,” whereas both Tito e Berenice and Ifigenia in Tauri are drammi per musica. It is significant that this meticulous distinction of genres became established in the early eighteenth century, in other words in the century that was later to impose a rational separation of operatic genres and insist on the concept of “verisimilitude” in the staging. As a consequence, the sets had to be designed in a way that was appropriate for either “serious” or “comic” opera. Compare the settings required in the following two operas (Milan, Teatro Interinale, 1777):

Ezio (Metastasio and Mortellari): *Roman Forum / Imperial chambers / Palatine Gardens / *Gallery with great balcony . . . with a view of Rome / Atrium of the prisons / *Capitoline Hill
Le astuzie amorose (Cerlone and Paisiello): Ground-floor room / Room / Garden / Room / Lovely garden / Room / Garden / Courtyard
Ezio (a serious opera) called for six changes, three of them (marked with an asterisk) involving specific sites; Le astuzie (a comic opera) involved eight changes, though these actually corresponded to only three types (room, garden, and courtyard) and generic, everyday settings. In other words, for comic operas the simple sorts of sets that were part of the theater or company equipment were deemed adequate and could be adapted for use in numerous different shows.

Theatrical managers and directors became so convinced of the flexibility of their “repertory” of sets that, between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, theory became somewhat divorced from practice. Whereas the critical literature advocated precise correspondence between dramatic events and visual setting, the use of conventional scenery provided the stage with an abstract visual element rather than “something real.” Moreover, this was the case regardless of the genre of opera being staged. To clarify this point, three lists of “repertory” scenery follow. The first two lists pertain to the theaters in Vercelli and Casale Monferrato (1784, designs by the Galliari brothers), and the third to the theater in Recanati (1838, designs by Romolo Liverani).

The absence of a “Magnificent place” at the Recanati and the introduction of a “Graveyard” are variants that (to employ convenient but overused scene designations) seem to offer the only clue to the transition from the late baroque /rococo to romanticism. Apart from this, however, the differences between the three lists are more a matter of terminology than substance.

The examples quoted above refer to provincial theaters. Yet even at La Scala there was a marked contrast between theoretical aims and the practical use of the set. A singularly wide stage had been built to facilitate the “grandiosity of the entertainments.” However, a glance at the repertory of La Scala included in Pompeo Cambiasi’s nineteenth-century list, which also specifies operatic genres, reveals that between 3 August 1778 and 9 August 1788 only 22 works were defined as “serious” (that is, heroic operas that also required complex and dramatic staging), as opposed to the 41 that came under the heading of “comic.” Between 1804 and 1814 there were 30 “serious” titles, 3 “sacred,” and 4 “semiserious” out of a total of 115 operas. Not all the remaining 78 operas that Cambiasi listed as “comic” or “farces” were necessarily staged with simple sets. For example, the production in 1812 of Le bestie in uomini by Anelli and Mosca required at least one very complex change, with machines and transformations in full view. Yet this was an exception rather than the rule. Paolo Landriani commented on the misuse of “the usual red drapes, because they do for all times, all scenes, and all possible characters, as well as facilitating the scene painter’s task,” and he also deplored the way this kind of frame diminished “the proscenium opening,” which, “however large it may be, is thus reduced to the size of that of a small theater.” He was not in fact explicitly referring to La Scala. Yet without such “red drapes,” the “painters” would have had a hard time filling the vast Scala stage with “Part of the garden at Eurilla’s house” in Il pittore parigino (1782) or with the “Chamber” in Il matrimonio segreto (1793).

3. SPACES AND THEIR APPRECIATION

The tastes, traditions, and customs of the audience certainly influenced theatrical repertoire and inevitably had repercussions on the choice of set. By the same token, the type of set played a considerable role in the success of certain entertainments. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Claude-François Ménestrier had already recognized that these “décorations” were one of the principal sources of an opera’s success. In his treatise Des représentations en musique, he declares:

When the excellent composer Claudio Monteverdi became maestro di cappella at Saint Mark’s in Venice, he introduced there those sorts of [dramatic] represen tations that have become so well known for their magnificent stage settings and costumes, their refined singing, their harmonious instrumental accompaniments, and the erudite music of Monteverdi himself . . . and several other great composers. Such dramatic entertainments must be given all these ornaments if they are to be well received; for if they boast nothing other than beauty of composition, people consider them just like any other pieces of vocal music sung by several choruses or in recitative. But when all the decorative elements of a dramatic presentation were added, such as scene changes, stage machines, costumes, and orchestra, . . . these entertainments were received with great applause throughout Italy, a country in which the theaters are so appropriate, the stage settings so lively and varied, the singers’ voices so pleasant, and the music so erudite and so well suited to [expressing] the passions and sentiments of the heart.
This long quotation is particularly interesting with regard to the relationship between space and its appreciation. Ménestrier identifies Venice as the hub of opera, detecting a number of characteristic elements in the type of opera still today referred to as “Venetian.” He lists these elements in deliberate order with due rhetorical flair: the theatrical space specifically devoted to the performance of musical works (“théâtres si propres,” and thus in the case of Venice, a public theater), a stage structured to allow scene changes (“décorations si belles et si diversifiées,” “machines”), and fine singing (“voix si agréables”). These “ornaments” perceived by the audience were essential for ensuring that the spiritual delights of the music, perceived by both the intellect (“savante”) and the heart (“passions,” “affections de l’âme”), would be “received with great applause.”

A little over half a century went by, and in 1744 another learned Jesuit, Francesco Saverio Quadrio, expressed a contrasting opinion. “To be touched” by the “music,” he claimed, “what the soul requires is a certain highly refined sensibility, and a certain tenderness,” but this “is totally weakened and ruined by the impressions of the marvelous that the apparitions [Quadrio uses the term comparse to refer to the scene changes] induce, for the more wonderful they are, the more they undermine and oppose the delight of the music.” What was theoretically desirable, however, was not generally put into practice. On the contrary, impresarios made a point of “advising the librettist to make sure that the work could accommodate the introduction of many and varied apparitions.” Years earlier, Benedetto Marcello had lampooned this practice in his Teatro alla moda: “The modern librettist, before writing the opera, should request a specific list from the impresario concerning the quantity and quality of scenes that this impresario requires.”

Both Quadrio and Marcello were referring to public theaters run by impresarios; but much the same applies to court theaters as well. Granted, the positions of the impresario and the prince were different, yet they were easily reconciled as far as theater scenery was concerned. The impresario was well aware that to attract a paying audience he had to provide “marvelous apparitions.” Yet these were expensive and could have distinctly negative effects on what was already a precarious budget. So the only answer was to exploit them to the full, rebuilding and repainting all scenery according to need and avoiding unnecessary expense such as producing engravings of the sets. After all, such efforts were not only useless but also potentially damaging, since they were likely to reveal that the same scenery had been used for an earlier production! The prince did not have to worry about attracting an audience; at most he had to arrange his chosen spectators according to hierarchy. However, “marvelous” scenes were de rigueur for him as well. What counted was not so much their short-lived stage life (the audience was bound to applaud them) but rather the possibility of saving them for posterity in the form of painted reproductions or, better still, engravings. In this way such images could reach a much wider audience—other princes and aristocrats—and elicit their admiration, envy, or indeed competitive emulation. This circumstance explains why during the seventeenth century there is far more pictorial evidence of productions in court theaters or those financed by the court or by private patrons than there is of entertainments staged in public theaters (see §12). Not only is the disproportion enormous, but it is also deliberately biased. In fact, the illustrations circulated did not always correspond to the sets that were actually employed: they were mere projections of the image that the patron wished to hand down to future memory. A typical example is the opera Lisimaco that was staged at the Teatro Regio in Turin in 1681: the scene with the “Square before Alexander’s royal palace” (the image of Piazza del Castello in Turin itself) was never built, yet it was illustrated in a manuscript book containing miniatures of the opera sets.

At a certain point, however, the distinction between court theater and public theater ceased to be meaningful in relation to opera. During the nineteenth century the courts favored other forms of spectacular entertainment and opera was left in the hands of impresarios and contractors. Such management involved a number of different organizational formulas. But scenery and sets continued to be an essential attraction for the public and to play an important role in the somewhat shaky overall economy of opera. Of course, by the 1800s the social and historical conditions surrounding such entertainment had changed. Operas circulated via a much more tightly knit theatrical network, and audiences grew enormously. An outstanding new feature was the way the same opera could be staged simultaneously in different theaters and cities. Moreover, there was usually more than one performance of each production (except when the opening night was a total flop), and these productions then became the basic nucleus of theater repertories. The supplement to number 51 of the journal La pirata (December 1846) includes a “General Overview of the Italian Companies” for the 1846/47 Carnival. Despite the fact that it is far from complete, it reveals that seventy-four Italian cities had an opera season of their own. The cities whose repertories are given provide a good sample. For example, we find the following Verdi operas: Attila in Bergamo, Brescia, Genoa, Milan (Scala), and Parma; I due Foscari in Crema, Genoa, Jesi, Nizza Marittima (Nice), Saluzzo, Teramo, Terni, and Vercelli; Ernani in Empoli, Parma, Pavia, Perugia, Savona, and Vado Ligure; I Lombardi alla prima crociata in Como, Crema, Florence (Teatro Alfieri), Lodi, Novara, Padua, Trieste, and Vercelli (the Faenza production is not mentioned). The works of Donizetti were equally popular.

The multiplication of theatrical venues was already under way in the late eighteenth century. Stefano Arteaga points out:

In each little town, each village, a theater is to be found. The Papal States alone have more than forty of them. There may be no aid to the indigent, rivers may be devoid of bridges, the countryside lacking in drainage, there may be no hospitals for the sick or provisions for public calamities, but there is no doubt at all that the idle will have their own Coliseum entertainments.
He saw this as a pathological symptom of excessive “love of pleasure,” which “goes hand in hand with the complete destruction of all political virtues in a nation.” About twenty years later, Giovanni Antonio Antolini viewed theaters as “a blessed institution,” as an instrument “of the greatest utility” in teaching “the abhorrence of vice, and the pursuit of virtue.” The two positions are totally opposed, yet they share a form of worthy but abstract moralism. To judge by the limited number of new theaters built during the Napoleonic period, “virtue” must have been on the wane. Be this as it may, the financial resources were certainly lacking. There was another feverish the-ater-building spate after the Restoration, when due thought was not always paid to the size and substance of future audiences (how many spectators were they likely to attract in towns like Dronero or Vigone?). Yet if the theater was indeed “practically the sole entertainment of the majority of civilized nations,” as Taccani claimed in 1840, who would want to be excluded from the realms of “civilization”? 14 The theatrical myth was necessarily related to another myth: that of the appreciation of the scenery. For a variety of reasons, all artists, critics, and theorists involved in such entertainments insisted that audiences should be able to “see” the plot, especially in the case of opera. This was self-evident: who would not wish to see the scenes? So the real point was to provide the best possible form of theater building and stage sets to ensure optimal vision for the audience.

4. SPACES AND PRIVILEGE

Entertainment of this sort was a privilege, and this probably accounts for much of the change that came about in the specific development of stage technology and theater design. This may seem paradoxical; yet the truth is that theatrical entertainments in general (not only operas) were long held to be the sovereign’s prerogative, to be enjoyed within exclusive courtly circles or offered to (all or select) subjects in public venues. If the production took place in a royal residence (in other words, in an exclusive theatrical venue), the stage set would have a single centralized focal point that embodied the very essence of this privilege: only the sovereign (along with the group of people whose rank placed them in his immediate vicinity) could fully enjoy the visual effect of the decorations. This physical advantage had a metaphorical counterpart in that the spatial continuity between auditorium and stage established a symbolic continuity between illusory action and institutional reality: the Teatro degli Uffizi could become a metaphorical vehicle for the “Kingdom of Love” (in La liberazione di Tirreno e d’Arnea, 1637), or the courtyard of the Palazzo Pitti turn into the “Great Firmament” (in Le nozze degli dèi, 1637). Designed in tiers, such private theaters, both permanent and temporary, were “for princes and great lords, whose grandeur is reflected in the shows themselves.” When this type of theatrical structure gave way to “theaters with separate boxes . . . commonly known as fee-paying,” which were run as businesses, the stage and sets continued to have one central principal focus. Thus, privilege was not abolished but transferred to those in the central boxes, no longer the sole prerogative of sovereigns but of those with sufficient means, authority, or prestige to command them (such attributes generally went hand in hand). “The invention of diagonal perspectives, in other words the possibility of viewing the scenes diagonally,” was, in Arteaga’s opinion, “tantamout to opening an immense vista to the lively and restless imagination of spectators who viewed the spectacle from afar.” It was not so much a question of “seeing” the show as the privileged saw it but of being able to “imagine” it in equal terms. Indeed, the “author” of this very “contrivance,” Ferdinando Bibiena, had deliberately underlined the importance of establishing an ideal “viewing position,” to be located “where the worthiest persons sit to watch and listen to the operas” (that is, “in the center of the first tier of boxes”). Even when no dominant focal point is specified for scenes structured like landscape paintings, complete visual enjoyment of the scene was largely the privilege of the spectators in the boxes, and even there it was not equal for everyone. But beginning in the eighteenth century, attendance at the theater was an ordinary evening pastime for the élite and involved frequent visits to other boxes; therefore, those interested in doing so could actually appreciate the effect of the scenes from a number of different positions. This was no longer the case by the late nineteenth century, when most of the audience went to the theater on a specific evening to attend a particular opera. It thus became important to ensure that the stage was visible for those occupying less privileged seats. Cesare Della Chiesa di Benevello was justified in his complaint that “for those gentlemen of learning” who are ill-paid “to teach people philosophy . . . and thus have little choice but the stalls,” the lower part of the stage is “inevitably hidden by a huge number of lamps that we Italians rightly refer to as footlights (ribalta).” This is where the ability to see scenes relates directly to the belittlement of intellectuals, who surely deserved a privileged viewing position. Despite this, entertainments were sometimes devised with the deliberate aim of obtaining the intellectuals’ approval.

In the eighteenth century, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, rightly convinced that he was promoting cultural reform in his Teatro della Cancelleria, used to reserve one evening for “all men of science and fine arts, painters, sculptors, poets, and architects,” selected through the institutional establishment (the Accademia di San Luca, the Académie de France in Rome, the Arcadian Academy, etc.). Maria Casimira of Poland pursued a similar policy at her theater in Palazzo Zuccari. The aim was to create and run “domestic” theaters whose audiences would be made up of “a few close acquaintances of substance.” Filippo Juvarra’s designs for Ottoboni’s theater included an auditorium with 150–200 seats; the audience space in the Palazzo Zuccari theater was even more restricted.

In rather more recent times, the success of productions (of both operas and other entertainments) at the Teatro di Torino owed much to the fact that the audience was largely learned and well-to-do (the prices were exorbitant). But here again, the theater itself had limited seating capacity and was supported by a private patron, Riccardo Gualino. It was thus possible to try out set designs that would have been unthinkable in the great Italian opera houses of the time. Suffice it to recall how Guido Marussig’s designs for Pizzetti’s La nave at La Scala in 1918 aroused polemics that did not subside until after 1955. Better fortune befell “the production of sets designed by painters (Casorati, Chessa) instead of the usual in-house designers . . . commissioned by the Teatro di Torino and revived after 1930 by the Florence Maggio Musicale and in Venice and Rome.” Granted, even the Maggio Musicale catered to an élite, albeit of a different nature. So at this point it would probably be helpful to provide a description of set designs in “élite” theaters patronized by a privileged minority of the powerful, the wealthy, or the learned. Unfortunately, it is difficult to pinpoint particular characteristics. In 1659, “the price of a ticket” at public theaters in Venice “was higher than the daily salary of the best-paid theater worker,” so that mass public access is certainly to be ruled out. Yet by that date a practice mentioned in the early 1700s in Il teatro alla moda may already have become widespread:

The engineer or modern painter should focus all possible attention on the last set (decorazione). In view of the fact that this is normally seen by the multitude free of charge, it is in his interests to obtain widespread acclaim. This set (decorazione) should thus be a recapitulation of all the scenes in the opera, which means that he should include Beaches beside the Sea, Woods, Prisons, Halls, Chambers, Fountains, Bear Hunts, Lofty Pavilions, Dinners, Storms, Lightning, etc., all the more so if the work were to be entitled: Kingdom of the Sun, of the Moon, of Poets, of Impresarios, etc.
The “multitude” was thus able to have its say, as least as far as the sets were concerned. Moreover, the practice may not have been limited to Venice. If we move from Marcello’s pleasant irony to Quadrio’s straight-faced precepts, we soon come across a disapproving mention of the “marvelous things” that are “even included in heroic operas, to enchant the common people.”

It would thus seem that by the 1700s, some commentators identified a number of different and, to a certain extent, contrasting elements in opera: on the one hand were the “plot” and the “music,” which nurtured the noble “spirits” endowed with “highly refined sensibility”; and on the other were “sets” that could be lapped up by the “common people.” This disparity in the value attributed to the different components of opera prevailed for a long time, probably because it reflected the prejudicial distinction between conceptual and “mechanical” arts. Writing the libretto and composing the music are both intellectual operations, whereas the scenery is bound to imply manual labor. Thus, even the librettist Felice Romani, who wrote the most thoughtful and sensitive set instructions, was capable of dismissing two designers whom he disliked as “sawyers of wood or dyers of canvas.” In any case, by Romani’s time the circle of those who patronized the opera had expanded enormously, and no one would have dared express overt disparagement for the “common people.” Indeed, in 1830 Giulio Ferrario declared: “In all civilized nations, theaters nowadays should provide the most enjoyable and instructive form of entertainment for all conditions of people.” For his part, Landriani was more realistic in explaining the extension of the original theatrical privilege to “all conditions of people” in financial, rather than cultural and educational, terms: “the pursuit of lucre, to be obtained from all theaters, however small,” in order to “meet the great expense of the show.”

The expansion of opera audiences was still fairly limited in 1830. Yet within the space of thirty years the situation was to undergo remarkable change. Despite its outstanding political significance at that time, Turin was not a particularly important city from the theatrical point of view. Nevertheless, during the Carnival of 1858, twenty-eight operas were performed in five different theaters there. Moreover, the 1860s witnessed productions of forty-six operas in nine theaters. And since the population of the city was only around 200,000 (218,000 in 1864), it is reasonable to suppose that the opera theaters attracted audiences from a wide range of social strata. It is no coincidence that this period also witnessed a renewed burst of criticism for the sort of scenery that elicited the acclaim of such a mixed audience: “Any old scrawl, in hideous contrast not only to the rules of art but also to those of common sense, as long as it displays bright colors, even clashing ones that dazzle the eyes, immediately arouses indescribable enthusiasm,” and so on. This is reminiscent of the outrage expressed over a century earlier. But is such disgust evidence for an élite familiar with the “rules of art” and appalled by what “dazzles the eyes” of a largely ignorant public? This may be so, to a certain extent. Yet it also bears witness to the lament (or irony) of the intellectual who gains in prominence just as theatrical scenery undergoes a process of change and innovation.

5. SPACES AND TECHNIQUES

At the time Benedetto Marcello was writing Il teatro alla moda, new visual forms and types of scenery were being developed in response to the need for diagonal viewing and multiple-focus perspectives. This fact explains the mischievous advice given by Marcello to the “modern stage designer or painter,” who should see to it that “the architectural sets are designed as if viewed from four or six points at the same time, such that the eyes of the spectators are more fully gratified.” Forty years later this was no longer such a novelty, and Francesco Algarotti praised “the scenes viewed diagonally . . . and the accidental points in sets seen frontally that create the movement in the underlying plan”; however, he deplored “those buildings that would never stand up and could not be drawn as a plan either, the ones with columns that . . . disappear in a sea of drapes simply hung in midair.” In other words, what Algarotti disliked were sets made with hanging, painted canvases that could be moved up and down, a technique that was just coming to the fore and was to become standard within fifty years. For the nineteenth century, evidence for technical innovations (particularly those relating to lighting systems) is found more often in eyewitness accounts of operas and in press reviews (where opinions were plentiful and often opposed) than in theoretical treatises. Polemics ensued when Italian theaters adopted the French custom of keeping a great central chandelier lit during performances. In Turin this novelty was introduced as early as 1811 and was met with restrained criticism: “It is said that since the impact of the light was not part of the painters’ design, it actually detracts from their sets . . . it slightly diminishes the effect of the scene.” However, all is well when the designers manage to “counterbalance this new mass of light with the warmth of their colors.” After Stendhal left Milan, where at La Scala “there is no lamp in the auditorium: it is lit exclusively by the light reflected off the sets, “he attended the San Carlo theater in Naples in 1817. He initially admired the chandelier in the auditorium, describing it as “superb, glistening with light.” But then he pointed out that “the brilliance destroys the whole effect of the sets.” The most heated debate took place in Milan, where La Scala was embellished with a chandelier in 1821. Those in favor of this innovation chose to pass over its effects on the sets (“The scenery, though not painted in relation to this increase in light, was not noticeably diminished; but then the whole matter is [the designer Alessandro] Sanquirico’s business”), whereas the detractors insisted that “having the stage well lit and the auditorium less so is bound to benefit the visual effect considerably. Conversely, by placing a lot of light everywhere..., the visual effect will be reduced and sometimes even totally destroyed. The point we are making does not regard the general effect of the sets, though everyone will appreciate that these are bound to suffer to some degree; what we are referring to is the aerial perspective, which will be almost entirely lost, unless our designers come up with another miracle.” This was just one of many “arguments” against “bold” lighting (“It’s not a question of taste . . . but of exact science”). The chandelier actually consisted of Argand lamps; later, when gaslights were introduced, and later still electricity, there were renewed spates of agitation, albeit in different guises: light had come to be identified with “progress,” and “progress” with human civilization, so that critics did not feel that they could attack technical innovation directly. The only recourse was thus to attack its consequences. First and foremost, the brightness and variety of colors were now viewed as responsible for detracting from an “ideal essence” (whatever that may have been): “The art of creating an effect has gone too far . . . The art of dance, the art of music, are exquisite things that should not be adulterated in their ideal essence.” The introduction at La Scala of three-dimensional sets for Adolphe Appia’s staging of Tristan und Isolde in 1923 was met by more overt criticism, despite the fact that the designs had been approved by a select group of intellectuals that included Gio Ponti. There was incomprehension on both sides: Appia was upset about the Scala production, which “did not correspond to his wishes.” But then La Scala was probably the least suitable venue for Appia’s experimentations, given his theoretical position “against the traditional Ital-ian-style staging and the disjunction of auditorium and stage” and his calls for “radical reform of theater architecture.” In time the principle of three-dimensional sets gained ground and is still widely used in opera productions. Doubts and criticism have not been entirely expunged, however, since pleas still arise for a return to the past:

Our ideal of a stage set seems to be the absolute vacuum . . . Who brought us into such a miserable state? The disciples of Craig and Appia . . . Wherever we look, there is the puritanical spirit of alienation rampant interfering with our direct communication with the playwright. The painted stage had been outlawed. The platform, the scaffold, the bread-board, the disk, and the saucer have “freed” the director from the “tyranny of scenery.” We are constantly reminded that we must question the aesthetic competence of our fathers and grandfathers who found infinite and legitimate pleasure in the magic world of the great scene painters of the nineteenth century, of artists who could, with the masterly strokes of their brushes, conjure up the Château d’Amboise, . . . the valley of the Wartburg, the Roman Forum.
The idea is interesting, but it overlooks the fact that present-day “evokers” can count on technical equipment unlike anything available to their predecessors, such that the outcome could never be the same.

All in all it would seem that new technologies have always been more or less readily adopted in relation to how they meet the specific requirements of staging a given opera: the show itself, its possible financial yield, audience appeal, and so on. But has there ever really been a direct relationship between the set designer (in other words, the one who establishes new genres) and the audience (that is, those who interpret the values and meanings of the images)?



Continues...

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