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From the Score to the Stage: An Illustrated…

From the Score to the Stage: An Illustrated History of Continental Opera…

by Evan Baker

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In this extremely informative and well-researched history of operatic productions, Baker covers opera stagings from the early 17th c. spectacles for kings and emperors to current-day Regietheater productions. As opposed to a standard history of opera, many of the influential people are impresarios, architects, and stage directors as well as the usual composers and librettists.

There is only sporadic information on some of the earliest productions, and the ones that Baker covers at length are fairly obscure now. He does describe what is known about the premiere of L’Orfeo, the first operatic masterpiece, by Monteverdi, but it’s not much. The theater technologies as well as the building of various theaters are also described. Productions consisting of painted backdrops, wings that held the scenery pieces (flats representing trees, ships, statues, etc.), and borders with painted cloths for clouds, branches and ceilings were commonly in use for several hundred years. The contraptions used for flying effects, water, and fire are also described and would remain basically unchanged for much of operatic history. Baker spends a lot of time on lighting and lighting effects through the years. This turns out to be very relevant, as lighting was usually the number one expense for theaters. From candles to Argand lamps to gas lamps, fire was a constant hazard. Pretty much all the theaters that the author describes went on to be destroyed by fire (a distant second cause of theater destruction was World War II). The first opera impresario, Marco Faustini, was working in the 17th century, although it would later be noted that impresarios rarely made money. Theatrical spectacle was important – as the author notes “stage effects compensated for many of the weaknesses in opera – poor music and offhand librettos created solely to enable the scenographers to achieve the most striking visual results possible.” Most of the Italian theaters in the first chapters are Venetian, and had a haphazard approach to directing an opera, but in France the situation was different as Jean-Baptiste Lully, the father of French opera, chose the collaborators to put on his operas and directed the singers himself.

In the 18th c. and beyond, theatrical productions would be strongly affected by the writings of Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena. The Galli-Bibienas were a family of architects and stage designers who planned many of the theaters in the German and Italian lands. Ferdinando wrote several treatises on stagecraft. Some of his most influential ideas were about stage perspective. Up to that time, productions generally had the center of the stage as the vanishing point, as many theaters had been built with only the audience members in the front-center in mind. Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena proposed alternatives – stagings seen from angles, showing rooms from various views. There was still no positon of a stage director and rehearsals were undertaken by the librettist, composer, impresario, or even a singer. Pietro Metastasio was an extremely famous librettist, whose works would continue to be adapted by composers after his death. He also acted as a director – not much is known about his productions, but he was reputed to be a careful and thoughtful director. Still, acting was very rudimentary and Baker prints cartoons or criticisms of the nonexistent operatic acting. He often has long citations in the book from first person sources, and the quotes are generally very illuminating and sometimes entertaining.

In the latter half of the 18th c. Christoph Willibald von Gluck composed operas in a deliberate contrast to the opera seria of earlier years. He toned down the vocal pyrotechnics and made the chorus a larger part, but he also railed against staging spectacles for the sake of spectacles. He was a very involved and energetic director. The author covers his work putting on his own operas as well as Mozart’s Idomeneo and Die Zauberflote. In lighting matters, the Argand lamp was developed, an oil lamp that provided more illumination and eliminated the problem of smoke in the theater that was created by candles. Scenery painters would have to adapt to each new lighting advancement though. However, without a strong, involved director, productions were sloppy. Singers felt free to interpose unrelated songs, the costumes would either be the singers’ own clothes or taken from an unrelated production, and the chorus and dancers were overworked and underpaid. For a long time, the chorus would march out, form a half circle on stage, sing their parts, then march offstage. These practices continued into the 19th c. In Berlin, Count Karl Moritz von Bruhl became essentially the general director of the court theaters and attempted to institute some reforms. He promoted the idea of accurate stage productions with appropriate costumes and found the money to make them happen. He hired Karl Friedrich Schinkel as the stage designer and theater architect, who also promoted the ideas of unity of production and period accuracy. Schinkel published his designs for various operas – including a well-known one of the Queen of the Night’s appearance in Die Zauberflote. There is a long section about one of the best known German Romantic operas, Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz, focusing on the staging of the Wolf’s Glen scene. Still striking in its hellish imagery and imaginative orchestration today, the scene shows Max, the hero, and Caspar, the devil’s minion, summoning the demonic Samiel, with lots of stormy weather, ghostly apparitions, and shrieking orchestra. There is an interesting account of a dispute between Weber and the stage designer - the designer wanted to have a less elaborate Wolf's Glen scene, implying that the apparitions were in Max and Caspar's mind, but Weber rejected the idea as being too sophisticated for the public.

The author spends a lot of time describing the elaborate productions for the French theaters in the early 19th c. While there were a few where much care was lavished on the productions, the majority tended to be sloppily put together and performed - this was the case with many of the houses and operas that are described. Even with Gluck's criticisms of spectacle, spectacle continued to be popular. The author notes how volcanoes were a trendy thing to include in operas and that there were several that had one. A series of spectacular productions at the Paris Opera made it the leading opera house –Nicolas Isouard’s Aladin ou La Lampe merveilleuse, Meyerbeer’s operas, Gounod’s Faust. Under the direction of Louis-Desire Veron, the house was briefly profitable (although was receiving substantial government subsidies), but Baker notes that opera was pretty much never profitable. Indeed, all his discussion of the efforts, people, and technology that goes into putting on a performance emphasizes why they never made money. At the Paris Opera, the position of stage director was finally solidified. The productions for Faust and Carmen, another megahit of the 19th century, were very realistic. Besides the music, a few old stage tricks made the production for Faust a sensation – traps for Faust’s transformation from an old doctor to a young man, the vision of Marguerite behind a screen. Baker does note – and at several other times – that the productions, while successful, made realistic productions de rigueur until later in the 20th c.

Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner are the two dominant Italian and German operatic composers of the 19th c. and they also had a strong influence on stage productions and the operatic business. Verdi’s fame and popularity allowed him to address the shoddy copyright laws in the 19th c. Along with Ricordi, the largest and most powerful publisher of Italian operas, he helped to regulate opera publication and distribution and impede the casual borrowing that frequently went on. Verdi was very interested in how his operas were presented – there are some quotes from him and other composers decrying the lazy productions of their works – and he refused to work for theaters that he thought could not successfully present his operas. Wagner was as obsessive about his productions as he was about everything else. With the patronage of King Ludwig of Bavaria, he was able to design an opera house to his specifications at Bayreuth, a sleepy Bavarian town. The theater to this day has a festival of his works and is known to have impressive acoustics. Wagner left detailed accounts of what he wanted in his productions, which were generally realistic, and had to push against the generally sloppy standards of the day. His efforts paid off, but his legacy led to creative stagnation, as highly detailed, realistic productions were seen as the only proper way to stage Wagnerian operas.

Adolphe Appia was an architect who had a number of radical ideas for Wagnerian stagings – suggesting that they needn’t be realistic. He also had ideas on using lighting to create a unified production. This was around the time when electric lighting was being installed in theaters – again, set designers had to rethink their color palettes to deal with the new technology. Appia even wrote to Wagner’s widow, Cosima Wagner, to present his works, but she was contemptuous of his ideas. Eventually, he was able to stage a few Wagner operas, but they were not a success and his importance would only become apparent in the latter half of the 20th c.

Gustav Mahler is not a name that usually pops up in operatic history, but as director of the Vienna Opera, he helped promote more radical productions along with set designer Alfred Roller. There was a controversial production of Don Giovanni based on a series of pillars instead of wings/drops/flats and one of Tristan, where instead of a realistic ship in the opening, there was a more abstract view. But the tradition of popular realistic productions had set in, although the author notes some innovation in the use of lighting, for example, in the vigil scene from Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The problems with poor acting was a regular complaint throughout the years, but Baker points to some directors and singers who tried to change that – some of the best known ones such as Fyodor Chaliapin (and Maria Callas in the post-war years), but also the director Max Reinhardt, who had a hit with his production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Most of the productions that are described or depicted in the book seem pretty tame today, but some of the productions from the Krolloper, a smaller house during the Weimar years, would be more radical than a lot of current stagings.

In the final chapter, the developments since WWII are followed. It was here that Appia's theories were put into practice. Wagner's grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, ran the festival at Bayreuth and oversaw several controversial productions. Some were abstract, almost minimalist, like their Ring Cycle, and the stripped-down Meistersinger also raised hackles. Again, Baker does a good job of distinguishing the causes of outrage - pictures from the Meistersinger production seem like not a big deal, but the drawings of past stagings do provide a strong contrast. There were still some ideas about One Right Way, since Wagner wrote extensively about what he wanted in a production. Baker notes the impact and radical productions of directors Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Götz Friedrich and discusses the current Regietheater movement, refreshingly without a lot of the usual biases that you see.

There are a number of great illustrations in this book, but it is maybe too dense to be a good coffee table book. Definitely interesting and informative, but probably more for people have a strong interest in the subject. ( )
3 vote DieFledermaus | Aug 23, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226035085, Hardcover)

Without scenery, costumes, and stage action, an opera would be little more than a concert. But in the audience, we know little (and think less) about the enormous efforts of those involved in bringing an opera to life—by the stagehands who shift scenery, the scenic artists who create beautiful backdrops, the electricians who focus the spotlights, and the stage manager who calls them and the singers to their places during the performance. The first comprehensive history of the behind-the-scenes world of opera production and staging, From the Score to the Stage follows the evolution of visual style and set design in continental Europe from its birth in the seventeenth century up to today.
In clear, witty prose, Evan Baker covers all the major players and pieces involved in getting an opera onto the stage, from the stage director who creates the artistic concept for the production and guides the singers’ interpretation of their roles to the blocking of singers and placement of scenery. He concentrates on the people—composers, librettists, designers, and technicians—as well as the theaters and events that generated developments in opera production. Additional topics include the many difficulties in performing an opera, the functions of impresarios, and the business of music publishing. Delving into the absorbing and often neglected history of stage directing, theater architecture and technology, and scenic and lighting design, Baker nimbly links these technical aspects of opera to actual performances and performers, and the social context in which they appeared. Out of these details arise illuminating discussions of individual productions that cast new light on the operas of Wagner, Verdi, and others.
Packed with nearly two hundred color illustrations, From the Score to the Stage is a revealing, always entertaining look at what happens before the curtain goes up on opening night at the opera house.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:03 -0400)

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