An illustrated history of opera production offers an extraordinary view of the work that makes operatic spectacle function.
To write the history of opera production, not only must one know the repertory well, but one needs to understand the extraordinary work of the many people involved backstage who make an operatic spectacle function. Few people are as capable of writing such a history as Evan Baker, who has worked as a dramaturge and stage director for decades. Baker understands the changes that have accompanied operatic spectacles in modern times, as nonmusical influences have become an increasingly prominent aspect of the performance. In his new book, From the Score to the Stage: An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging, he follows these changes from the seventeenth century to the present. For the history of directing, stagecraft, and lighting in particular, Baker is superb.
He describes, for instance, how stage directors have grown in importance over the course of opera’s history. There has always been some degree of flexibility in the way in which operas were staged: Verdi himself was often forced to change the time and locale of his productions. But in the early days of opera, productions often remained more or less faithful to the opera’s original stage directions, distinguishing themselves instead with elements like mechanical flourishes—pulley systems for scene changes, for instance. In contemporary opera, however, the director has full reign over the setting and tone of the entire production. This so-called regietheater or “director’s theater” has aroused a great deal of controversy. It has led to interpretations as varied as Patrice Chéreau’s beloved 1976 staging of Der Ring Des Nibelungen, which placed Wagner’s opera in the political environment of the nineteenth century and the Industrial Revolution; to Hans Neuenfels’ somewhat less beloved Lohengrin, in which all but the main characters are dressed as giant rats.
Baker treats smaller changes in opera with equal care. He notes that in the eighteenth century, lighting was often the most expensive part of the production, as, unlike costumes or scenery, candles could not be recycled from one performance to the next. When electricity provided a revolution in lighting at the end of the nineteenth century, some directors and artists were reluctant to lose the flickering flames provided by gas lighting and candles.
One can gain some sense of From the Score to the Stage by glancing at the photographs below, selected from the book’s almost two hundred illustrations. The first two images are from Antonio Cesti’s Il pomo d’oro, a significant Baroque opera, written for wedding festivities of Hapsburg emperor Leopold I and Margaret of Spain in Vienna in 1667. The third image shows the Drottningholm court theater in the eighteenth century, the only surviving theater of the period with its machinery intact. Turning to the nineteenth century, there are images from within an Italian box, of costume designs for Verdi’s Rigoletto, and of Verdi rehearsing with his cast, where, as one of his singers recalled, he “did not care if he wearied the artists and tormented them for hours on end with the same piece.” Not surprising, many images relate to Wagnerian productions, since much recent stagecraft derives from efforts to mount Wagner’s operas: there is an early image of the three Rhinemaidens from Das Rheingold, and a scene from Chéreau’s Die Götterdämmerung. There is also an image from a Russian opera by Rimsky-Korsokov, whose opera Le coq d’or featured Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
Baker limits his discussion of the history of operatic staging to Continental productions, although he acknowledges the importance of some contemporary staging in America by including an image (reproduced here) of a scene from Tan Dun’s 2007 Metropolitan Opera premiere, The Last Emperor. Over the past few decades the Met, as well as other American theatres, has featured interesting productions, including the recent The Nose by Shostakovich, in a production designed by the South African artist William Kentridge. Yet it is certainly the case that the history of staging opera and of theatrical innovation over the past four hundred years has largely been European.
Baker’s treatment is particularly rich in the documentation of these changes, and it will please all those who love the art form traditionally understood as “opera.”
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Philip Gossett is the Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. His reconstruction of Gustavo III, the original version of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, had its première at the Göteborg Opera in Sweden this past September. (March 2003)