2. France from Lully to Rameau.
Though the librettist of a new Italian piece may have had a considerable say as to its staging, in person or through the stage directions he was able to broadcast over his text, mid- and late 17th-century Italian opera seems not in the main to have been wedded to production practices that required firm, centralized directorial control; but in the 1670s and 80s they ordered things differently in France. There, Lully's reign over the French opera he had virtually created shows directorial presence at its most absolutist, working (probably not coincidentally) in the service of the arch-absolutist Louis XIV. In establishing tragédie en musique, Lully was clearly concerned that its staging should not suffer in comparison with that of the spoken comedy and tragedy that was then having such a golden age in France; so this hands-on composer-dancer-violinist-corago thought it best to have a direct say in everything (though in matters of design there were major delegations to significant figures, for example Carlo Vigarani and Jean Berain). Lully instructed his casts in person as to entrances and exits, moves and deportment, sometimes showing a performer every gesture of his or her role or demonstrating the pantomimic parts of the inset ballets. His mastery of the local details as well as the complex wholes of his operas in conception and in staging, his having their scores printed and (in effect) copyrighted, his arranging for uncut revivals and his personal training of a generation of actor-singers to perform them: all this led to Lullian opera becoming an influential national institution, and to Lully himself posthumously becoming a potent directorial phantom at the Opéra.
In the 18th century, French opera was more galant in mood and also more demanding vocally – provoking the remark ascribed to Rameau that, while Lully's operas needed actors, his own needed singers – but Lullian constructions and stage procedures were still pervasive. Operatic tradition went on setting great store by le merveilleux, which meant a greater emphasis on the vertical aspect of the stage – celestial descents, infernal trapdoors and the like – than was called for most of the time in the more ‘historical’ (and hence horizontal) Italian operas of the age. Then, true to that part of its origins that lay in ballet de cour, the tradition also insisted on the frequent incorporation into the action of dance sequences: hence the presence of a corps de ballet, which not only danced the symmetrical fêtes for the opera's principal characters but was also the resource for any troops of warriors, priests, genii or the like that might be required, in marked contrast to the non-dancing comparse who filled equivalent roles in Italian opera.
Another vital distinguishing feature of opera in Paris was its continuing commitment to a major role for a sizable chorus. The entry of the chorus at the Opéra in a tragédie en musique or an opéra-ballet was a spectacular moment: its richly dressed members advancing in two ranks, one from each side of the stage, to take up their places in an elegant U-formation. By framing the activities of principals, dance troupe and any active theatrical machines in this way, the chorus helped maintain a strong axial symmetry, which may partly explain the rarity on the French operatic stage (outside the work of Servandoni) of the skewed scena per angolo that was becoming a popular part of operatic décor elsewhere in Europe.
It is not clear whether in the early 18th century there was much active collaboration, beyond the necessary polite co-existence, between these operatic elements and departments. An at best benign convergence of the arts rather than an organic compounding of them seems to have been the rule. In the performance itself, principals sat graciously out of harm's way during the inset fêtes; the dancers tended to wear masks, which set them apart from other performers; and, once settled into its U-formation, the chorus seems rarely to have bestirred itself very much. Still, royal edicts which rationalized the company structure at the Opéra in 1713–14 provided for the appointment of two active administrative ‘syndics’ (later known as ‘directeurs’); and making sure that there was at least a bare sufficiency of liaison must have been the responsibility of ‘le syndic chargé de la régie du théâtre’. This officer dealt with artistic planning and casting (in consultation with the composer, if still living) and nominally oversaw all rehearsals and performances. It is a moot point how far his role in the staging of an opera was a creative and how far a purely diplomatic-administrative one; but it is clear that his drawing together of strands made for memorable performances at the Palais Royal. Reviewers would occasionally congratulate ‘MM. les Directeurs’ on brilliant and satisfying shows that excelled in words, music, casting, décor, costumes, choreography and execution. And individual performances could impress the most demanding critics. Even Rousseau, no lover of the opera as an institution, was impressed enough by the performances there of C.L.D. Chassé – he created several important bass-baritone roles for Rameau – to cite him in the Encyclopédie as everything a good operatic performer ought to be: never dropping his character to become merely a singer; forever interesting, even in silence; and conspiring by steps, looks and gestures to make his audience feel that the music rising from the orchestra pit was rising from his soul.
Opera, §VII: Production
3. ‘Opera seria’.
In the Italian tradition as in the French, increasing emphasis was placed on sheer vocal expertise as opera seria established itself; and from this sprang the new tribe of Italian vocal virtuosos who had considerable success in the opera house for all that their acting abilities were fairly rudimentary. Yet the truly desirable opera singer was still generally deemed to be one who had (as an intendant of the royal opera in Lisbon in the 1760s put it) ‘buona voce a grande estensione di corde, buona figure e buona azione’.
Once such performers were under contract, and provided they were not too fractious, the staging of opera seria was a relatively simple matter. The strong segmentation of the form allowed for discrete cells of activity. If there were ballets, battles or ceremonials to attend to, there was likely to be a maître de danse on hand (and perhaps an associated fencing master) to arrange them; a machinist could advise performers about any theatrical coups they might be involved in (descents of airy chariots, magical transformations, collapsing of city walls and the like); and a creative scenographer, or simply a resourceful scene-store keeper, would be ringing the changes on elaborate perspectives (‘straight’ or per angolo) which rendered a fairly limited range of motifs: palace, temple, street, harbour, cave, camp, garden, wilderness and so on. As for the principals working up the recitative-and-aria scenes of psychological interplay that are the staple of the seria form, their rehearsals of a new piece may quite possibly have been brief and not strongly directed, but need not be thought of as careless or primitive. For one thing, there were the stage directions of the libretto to be observed, not only for entrances and exits but often also for characters' moods and stage business. For another, performers could easily and independently apply to their recitatives the age's basic courtly stage deportment (a singer could find several primers in print for tragic acting in the spoken theatre, many of the techniques of which would apply equally well to opera). Again, since at the centre of opera seria was a spectrum of general emotions expressed one after another in a series of arias, an experienced performer coming to a new opera would almost certainly have given formal histrionic expression to all his or her character's feelings before – sometimes in exactly the same words (as multiple settings of successful librettos were common), sometimes even in the same music if the ‘new’ piece was a pasticcio. Stage performance of a seria aria seems to have been not unlike the 18th-century speaking actor's delivery of a tragic tirade or soliloquy.
Hence a group of competent principals might achieve a fluent, decorous, pointed and telling staging of an opera seria (in all but any spectacular or balletic parts) with no more external help than was needful for recording which wings were used for which entrances, the assigning of courtly retinues of comparse and the resolution of any points of princely etiquette or clashes of artistic temperament. Sometimes the impresario or manager might provide such help, or the prompter or the maestro di cappella (who might anyway be the opera's composer). But most often it was the theatre's resident poet, in which case he might perhaps take on a more consequential, directorial role at rehearsals.
The comic ironies of Benedetto Marcello's Il teatro alla moda (D1720) carry the strong implication that a theatre poet worth his salt would explain the dramatic conception and intentions of his text to the performers in rehearsal, advise them on costume, gestures and the proper sides of the stage for their entrances and exits, and insist on a clear enunciation of his words. Later, Goldoni, who himself had had responsibility ‘for directing and coaching the performers’ during a stint as poet to a Venetian opera house in the 1730s, put such a figure into his comedy L'impresario delle Smirne (1761). There his Maccario, armed with the works of Zeno and Metastasio, some old plays and a rhyming dictionary, practises his specialities of writing new librettos, adapting old ones, fitting new words to old music, instructing the singers in acting, directing the scenes, attending the ladies to their boxes, looking after the comparse and blowing the traditional whistle for scene changes. Metastasio himself would have recognized at least some of this activity. Though it would not have been possible for him to rehearse all the settings of his librettos in person, his letters from Vienna to various sorts of theatre people from the 1730s to 50s show him to have been a careful director – concerned with the effective ‘blocking’ of scenes, making diagrams of the disposition of characters on stage, supplying detailed analyses of principal characters for composer and singer, offering suggestions for optional stage business over and above that in the printed text to busy intendants three or four countries away. Metastasio's letters also reveal that, however formalized the stage action may have been in opera seria, the genre's leading librettist was convinced that telling theatricality in the communication of feeling was the essence of its staging, not the blind following of formula or protocol.
Opera, §VII: Production