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From the Score to the Stage : An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging

Ort: Chicago
Jahr: 2013
Autor(en): Evan Baker
Herausgeber: Academy of Theatre Arts Moscow
Autor der Rezension:
ISBN: 9780226035086
Umfang / Preis: 464 Seiten / $ 65.00

Opera is one of the most expensive and least profitable art forms. Moreover, opera is and has always been serious business. Even back in 17th century Venice, there was a fierce competition among the first public opera houses. Impresarios like Marco Faustini (1606-1676) were responsible for the management and applied new strategies to attract the paying public and maximise the income from selling or leasing the boxes while on the other hand having an eye on the expenses. Stagehands, musicians, singers, stage designers and additional stuff had to be paid and the building had to be equipped with the newest development in stage machinery. New operas had to be commissioned and contracts with composers and soloists had to be negotiated. The impresario was performing a balancing act between investments in high quality opera productions (that would ensure the public’s attention) and pecuniary benefit (p. 26-29).

In ¬From the Score to the Stage Evan Baker gives fascinating yet profound insights behind the scenes of opera production and staging from the 17th century up to today. As the author explains in the preface, his central question was “What or who played a significant part in the continuing evolution of opera production and staging?” (p. XVII). The result is an appealing hardcover book of 464 pages, weighing more than 2500 gr. and containing 189 illustrations. All illustrations are of excellent quality and - without any exception - printed in colour. Every single one of them is provided with detailed annotations and credit lines. I want to emphasize this, because in many publications on opera history this point is sadly being neglected, making it, for example, unnecessarily hard to trace back the origins and whereabouts of a particular stage design. Evan Baker’s target audience however is not the scholar, but “the operagoer, the student, and the performer, who wish better to understand the practical aspect s of opera production [...]” (p. XVIII). From the score to the stage sure is a publication for a wider audience but it is far from being popular science in a negative sense. The American Evan Baker, who is not only an Opera historian but also gained practical experience as an assistant stage director and dramaturge, may not address academics in the first place. However, he managed to write a book that will please both, the scholar and the non-expert. His publication is based on conscientious research in archives, theatre collections and museums all over central Europe and the United States. The scholar may be thankful for the many useful and precise references to archived materials, research databases, digitalized resources etc. The vast bibliography contains a formidable assembly of the current and crucial literature and the carefully edited index helps the reader to navigate throughout the volume. Annotations are reduced to a reasonable amount, so they are not as numerous and detailed, as you would find them in a comparable, strictly scientific publication. Baker writes in a clear and comprehensible, yet refined prose. Quotations of historical writers about opera are included throughout the text.

¬From the Score to the Stage is neither yet another history of Opera, nor a history of stage design throughout the centuries. Baker examines what was (and still is) happening before the curtain goes up and the music starts. As the example given at the beginning illustrates, the study includes the protagonists in charge, the business and economics of Opera productions, staging, theatre architecture, stage-technological evolutions, scenic and lightning design and also the socio-cultural composition of the audience. How did innovations in stage machinery influence the libretti? How did printed staging manuals (the “livrets de mise-en-scène”) and lithographs of stage design of French Grand Opéra productions change the aesthetics in staging and scenic design throughout Europe? What impact did the introduction of electric lightning have? Baker uses key events and major protagonists as a starting point for revealing these interactions and reactions. The generous visual documentation, consisting not only of stage designs and production photographs but also of pictures of backstage scenes, theatre buildings, stage machinery, staging manuals, mechanical drawings, caricatures and illustrated magazines accompanies his arguments.

It is understandable that the author had to apply some limitations to cope his vast subject. The geographical focus is set on the developments in continental Europe, and there mainly on Italy, France and the German-speaking countries Austria and Germany. Sweden has a short appearance with the baroque stage machinery in Drottningholm; Russia makes an entry with the premiere of Boris Godunov, staged by Sergei Diaghilev at the Paris Opera in 1908. Music, scores and opera plots only play a minor role, while non-musical drama, dance and costumes are excluded from the study.

The book is divided into nine chapters, an overture and an epilogue. In the “overture”, the author pays tribute to the premises of the genre that can be traced back to the festival culture of ducal courts in 16th and 17th century Italy. The musical intermedii to the performance of the comedy La Pellegrina were the apex of the events celebrating the wedding of Ferdinando I., the Grand Duke of the Medici to Christine of Lorrain in 1589. With their elaborated stage machinery, colourful costumes and supernatural scene changes, these allegorical representations contained the main characteristics of that what should soon be called opera in musica.

From Andromeda to Regietheater

The time span of the main part of the book covers – in chronological order - around three and a half centuries in a whole of nine chapters, commencing with the premiere of Andromeda by Francesco Manelli at the Teatro San Cassiano at Venice in 1637 and concluding with Patrice Chéreau’s Der Ring der Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1976. Both events were chosen cautiously. The Andromeda was the first production of an opera that was open for the paying public. It was the impetus for the success of opera as an art form, first at Venetian theatres and soon spreading throughout Europe. Chéreau’s Ring on the other side had caused uproar among conservative Wagnerians by radically breaking with long-established traditions and introducing Regietheater to the genre of opera. From that moment, as the author concludes, “the way for further experiments with opera staging and production – and not only with the Ring – was cleared.” (p. 368). Each of the chapters covers approximately half a century by taking a closer look on key events and protagonists in all the three areas covered by the study: Italy, France and the German speaking countries.

The first chapter, entitled “The Beginnings” starts with the competition among the first public theatres in Venice and the evolution of stage machinery in Italy, promoted by this environment. The migration of Italian artists, ingegneri and impresarios to the courts of Germany and the Austrian Empire leads over to the staging of Ludovico Burnacini’s Il Pomo d’Oro for the Emperor Leopold in Vienna in 1667. At about the same time in France, King Louis XIV named the Italian composer and ballet dancer Jean-Baptiste Lully superintendent of the royal music, thus granting him full control and responsibility over the opera productions for the royal court.

As it would go far beyond the scope of this article to summarize every aspect of this comprehensive study, I want to restrict my further descriptions to a rough outline. The second chapter “1700-1750: Perspective with a New View” features the peak of baroque court theatres that came along with the refinement of painted perspectives by the members of the Galli-Bibiena family. “1750-1800: Theatres for the Greater Public” covers the boom of theatre constructions in the age of Enlightenment, as well as Gluck’s reform operas and paying tribute to the varieties of theatres, that developed at Vienna as a result of the so-called “Spektakelfreiheit” (p. 94).

The years 1800-1850 deserved the author’s particular attention. As so many decisive things were happening simultaneously, Baker decided to dedicate a whole of three chapters to this period, each single one covering the developments in one country, respectively region: “Romanticism in Germany “ lifts the curtain for Schinkel and Brühl in Berlin and throws a spotlight on Carl Maria von Weber and his principles for staging in Dresden. “French Grand Opéra” covers the phenomenon of the elaborated and sumptuous productions at the Académie Royale de Musique at Paris. Historical and romantic themes, dramatic and overwhelming visual effects and staging attracted the middle class as a new audience, whereas staging manuals and graphic reproductions of the scenery influenced the repertoire of opera houses all over Europe. “Italy, Center of Opera” on the other hand pays tribute to Italian impresarios and scenic designers and culminates in Verdi’s struggle for a reasonable staging of his works.

The following chapter, covering the second half of the 19th century, features the two persons that probably had the greatest impact on opera staging: Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. Or, as Evan Baker puts it: “Both knew what they wanted and took the steps necessary to achieve their goals [...]” (p. 191). The 20th century is divided into two parts, using the end of World War II a meaningful cut: “1900-1945: Clearing the Stage” and “1945-1976: Postwar Revolution”. In the first half of the century, innovations in technology, staging and stage design profoundly changed the aesthetics of opera all over Europe: Adolphe Appia introduced lightning as an artistic element; at Vienna, Gustav Mahler fought for artistic authority; at Paris, Sergei Diaghilev brought Russian aesthetics and culture to the stage and at the Berlin Krolloper, radically reduced settings provoked uproar with the emerging nationalists. The post-war-years sum up the developments that led to Regietheater, using the Richard Wagner Festival at Bayreuth as a case study, concluding in 1976 with Patrice Chérau’s Der Ring der Nibelungen.

The “Epilogue”, ironically introduced by the exclamation “Eurotrash!” pays tribute to some of the developments that had an impact on opera during the last years. Technical innovations reach from super- and subtitles for “a better understanding” (p. 369) to reaching new audiences by broadcasting single performances via internet by means of online streaming technology. But the main topic of the epilogue is the controversial issue of the Regietheater and the choices, that artistic directors and opera administrators nowadays have to face: play safe and stage in a conservative way (and thereby be sure of sold out performances) or be open for new and visionary ideas, experimentations, not being sure if the result will be a flop or a striking success.

Baker concludes his book with an appeal, drawn as a logical conclusion from the more than 400 years of staging, he presented to the reader: only ongoing innovations will keep Opera alive and vivid.

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DOI: 10.13150/05131.41
URL zur Zitation:
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Erstellt am: 09.09.2014