The best work of its kind.

Brilliant History of Opera Staging

Evan Baker’s book From the Score to the Stage: An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging (Univ. Chicago Press 2013) is the best study of its kind: scholarly, entertaining, and comprehensive in its grasp of this wonderful subject.

Baker seems infused with enthusiasm for the topic, lingering deliciously on such topics as early 17th Century stage machinery designed to depict moving clouds (or floating goddesses), and the introduction of the permanent proscenium arch in Parma to mask the stage machinery.  I was delighted to learn of the ingenuity of Nicola Sabbatini’s various inventions for adjusting candle-lit illumination of raising or lowering clouds – all the more so because I once acted in a production of Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns in which the precocious kid takes out a library card in that name.  And here is a book written by Carini Motta in 1688, detailing the nuts and bolts of wing-drop scene changes.

Baker astutely tracks the change in staging styles prompted by that the move from private to public performance.  The creation of large public opera houses coincided with openly competitive theatrical spectacles, culminating in the staging of the eruption of Vesuvius at the end of Auber’s La Muette de Portici at the Paris Opera in 1828 – a production that forever heightened the ambitions of stage artists and expectations of opera audiences.

Meanwhile, Baker notes the transformation of acting styles from castrati who utterly ignored dramatic action in favor of vocal embellishment, to the rise of the stage director and the early work of theorists such as Gluck who advanced the notion that a musical theatre work should contain both good music and good theatre, both in the service of each other.

Which brings us to Baker’s treatment of Wagner and Verdi.  He notes the rigor with which Verdi insisted upon theatrical expression (if not verisimilitude).   Baker ranks Verdi “one of the first artists in opera who fully understood stagecraft and possessed the force of character and conviction to make the singers act the drama as well as sing.”  Marianna Barbieri-Nini, who sang the part of Lady Macbeth, recounts a last-minute rehearsal on opening night:

[W]e were dressed and ready, the orchestra in place, the chorus on stage, when Verdi made a sign to me and Varesi, and called us backstage: he asked us – as a favor to him – to go with him into the foyer and rehearse the damned duet again at the piano.

“Maestro,” said I, Aghast, “we are already dressed in our Scottish costumes; how can we do it?”

“You’ll put on a cloak.”

And the baritone Varesi, fed up with this extraordinary request, tried raising his voice a little, saying, “For God’s sake, we’ve already rehearsed it a hundred and fifty times!”

“You won’t be saying that in a half hour’s time: it will be one hundred fifty-one by then.”

We were forced to obey the tyrant.

As for Wagner, Baker points out that Carl Brandt’s appointment for the 1876 Bayreuth Festival amounted to the installation of a new position in opera: the technical director.  Baker notes the luxuriant detail with which Wagner sketched scenes from Lohengrin to guide the stage director from his own position of exile.  These and other notes, as well as the stage models created at Ludwig’s behest, continued to influence productions of Wagner’s works throughout Europe.  And while the sunken pit in Bayreuth is often remarked upon, the extraordinary height of the fly space over the stage was singular in its day and later modeled by theatres in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Baker continues on, studying the enormous influence of the productions of Faust (Opera, 1859) and Carmen (Opera-Comique, 1875), in which the staging, costumes, light effects, and scene design were prepared as meticulously and greeted as rapturously as the music.  The rise of the practice of published stage-pamphlets is noted, enabling revivals to follow the original stagings.

My own hero, Adolphe Appia, is given the attention he deserves in this volume, as he was denied in his life; Baker notes accurately that “Appia’s theories and designs were nothing short of revolutionary.”  The period of Roller and Mahler in Vienna is covered inspirationally, and legendary early 20th Century stagings of Butterfly, Boris Godunov, Jonny spelt auf and the Krolloper are richly reviewed and analyzed.

Post-war Bayreuth receives the attention that it can in this broadly purposed history; we are perhaps too near our own age to assess the lasting import of regietheatre and the work of Joachim Herz, Götz Friedrich, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle  and Patrice Chereau.

The book is a trove of insight for lovers of staged opera, and a mainstay of the library of any serious student of musical theatre as actually practiced.


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