Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

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VII. Production

1. 17th-century Italy.

2. France from Lully to Rameau.

3. ‘Opera seria’.

4. Enlightenment tendencies.

5. From Weber to Verdi.

6. Wagner and after.

7. Since World War II.

Opera, §VII: Production

1. 17th-century Italy.

Although Italian opera was a brand new form in the decade 1598–1608, it was able, where matters of production and staging were concerned, to draw on many established 16th-century procedures. Indeed, only one expertise had to be newly created for it: the ability of a leading singer-actor to sustain a single role through several operatic acts. With that exception – a significant one, as the future of opera was to prove – the skills required for the staging of opera were available for borrowing and adaptation from earlier musical and/or theatrical forms. ‘Dramatic’ presentation of solo song involving face-play, gesture and bodily movement; deployment on stage of singing choruses and comparse (silent supernumeraries); the mounting of elaborate sung-and-danced ‘production numbers’; the use of oil- and candle-lit changeable scenery (pastoral and urban); the revelation of hells and heavens and the flyings about the stage of supernatural beings (their songs accompanied by instrumentalists cunningly hidden behind the scenes): all these were to be found in Cinquecento courtly music-making, in humanist essays in the staging of classical or neo-classical tragedy, comedy and satyr play-cum-pastoral, or in the spectacular musical intermedi sometimes set between the acts of spoken dramas (see Intermedio).

The exclusive court-connectedness of opera in its first 40 years provided a further reason for operatic staging's being able to slip fairly unobtrusively into existence. It inherited the general convention in Renaissance court theatricals that there was a more or less amiable co-existence between the experts responsible for different aspects of a show, under the exigent or indulgent eye of the local autocrat or ‘academy’, or of an executive nominee: such a figure as Leone de' Sommi or Angelo Ingegneri (both of whom wrote illuminating accounts of staging in the late 16th century that are relevant to the mounting of early opera), or like Emilio de' Cavalieri, who, having been involved practically with intermedio and pastoral comedy in the 1580s and 90s, ghosted a preface on the singing and staging of his own operatic Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo in 1600. It is in the tradition of such hands-on activity and treatise writing that the composer Marco da Gagliano printed an introduction to his Dafne (1608) which makes detailed but undogmatic suggestions about that opera's staging, and an anonymous Florentine around 1630 wrote Il corago – an extended job description and handbook for the corago, who is a courtly master of theatrical revels (including opera) and unites the roles, later to be separated, of impresario, intendant, drama teacher, director and stage manager.

It is clear from such treatises as these that true acting (as the Renaissance understood it) was required from opera singers, not mere standing and warbling: that a performer's facial play and seemingly natural movement about the stage should embody the meaning of the libretto, and that specifically operatic techniques – slowing down of gestures so that they last the full length of the sung phrase, movement during ritornellos rather than while singing – were thought to be additions to, not substitutes for, serious attention to the eloquent, expressive and lucid presentation of character out towards the audience that was required of spoken acting. The comparse and the chorus (when there was one) needed to be equally attentive: the comparse learning the elaborate battles devised for them by a master of fencing and gracefully filling stage space granted them by the principals in ceremonial scenes; the chorus respectful and responsive to the principals, its movements carefully synchronized but avoiding any sense of a regimented corps de ballet. Behind these, the symmetrical scenery, made more easily changeable in the early 17th century by the introduction of sliding wing flats (but best kept at a distance by performers, wherever possible, for fear of showing up the flat-painter's radical foreshortening of perspective); and above them, the supernatural machines which, it was stressed, had to be moved at a tempo that harmonized with the music and did not discommode any performer who had to sing while riding on them.

The expansion of operatic activity from the later 1630s onwards to include the public and commercial had its shop window in Venice, where paying citizens could see features of production that had been hidden behind princely doors in Florence, Mantua or Rome. Accounts of the Venetian Andromeda (1637) and Bellerofonte (1642), for instance, celebrate their stylish acting and glittering costumes, their crowds of well-dressed, well-drilled comparse, their frighteningly realistic monsters and sophisticated dance interludes, their spectacular machine apotheoses and their smooth changes of scene before the audience's eyes: the décor of Bellerofonte was by the inventive and influential scenographer Giacomo Torelli. For the next 40 years, from Naples to Vienna and beyond, commercial, courtly and academic Italian opera was to develop a wide spectrum of scale and finesse in performance, from the productions of small companies touring the Italian cities much in the manner of the popular itinerant commedia dell'arte troupes to grandiose and prestigious events like Cesti's Il pomo d'oro at Vienna in 1668 (see fig.6 above), where the 24 souvenir engravings of Ludovico Burnacini's sets during performance vividly illustrate the culmination of the 17th century's tendency to impose a strong axial symmetry on performers as well as on scenery. Yet an integrated approach to acting in opera – and one the author of Il corago would have approved – probably continued in favour well beyond the middle of the century. Even the progressive increase in the length, complexity and potential for vocal display of the operatic aria did not remove the concept of sheer acting skill as a desideratum in the new species of opera star. For instance, in his Dell'arte rappresentativa (1699), Andrea Perrucci is as insistent as his forebears on the expressive use in sung as well as in spoken drama of head, eyes, arms and body (deriving much of what he says from the teachings of classical rhetoric) and on a clear frontal presentation of character. In discussing a particular phobia of his – collisions between actors making entrances and those leaving the stage – he suggests that a good way of avoiding these, with entrances from behind an upstage flat and exits as close as possible to the proscenium arch, would be of special value to the opera singer, who can thus leave from the front of the stage (where the light is strongest and contact with the pit band easiest) just after an aria. With opera seria and its proliferation of exit arias just coming on stream, this is advice that would have decades of relevance.

Opera, §VII: Production
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