on designing sets for the Haymarket Opera Company of Chicago’s upcoming performance of Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphèe aux Enfers:
If the classical visual artist sometimes feels out of step with the world, it’s good to remember the world is complex, and there are many strands of Beauty being woven while the thread is being unraveled elsewhere. Craig Trompeter, Ellen Hargis and the rest of the Haymarket Opera company are proof of the talent and energy in the Early Music world, and their wonderfully counter-cultural project of staging Baroque operas in Chicago has afforded me the privilege of providing the sets—something, it is worth remembering, architects and artists once did as a matter of course, but do so rarely today.
We know Piranesi as a printmaker, but he signed many of his prints Architetto (or Architetto Veneziano, or Venetus Architectus), and his earliest perspectival compositions may have been made for the stage; one wonders about the plays or operas he had in mind for his Carceri, or Prisons. The architect who transformed Torino in the eighteenth century, Filippo Juvarra, spent his first years in Rome after winning the Accademia di San Luca’s Concorso Clementino designing the theater and stage sets for Cardinal Ottoboni (patron also of Handel, Scarlatti, Corelli, Vivaldi and Caldara). Louis-Jean Desprez was an architect and painter who designed many spectacular sets for Sweden’s Drottningholm Theater (if he was little rewarded for it in the end). The painter of ruins Hubert Robert also designed gardens inspired by his paintings, but it is less well known that he designed the interiors of a theater at Versailles.
In the seicento the English diarist John Evelyn wrote of Bernini that he “gave a public opera wherein he painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, writ the comedy, and built the theatre." It is often said that Pietro da Cortona’s figures borrow poses from the stage, but it is just as true that performers of the time borrowed expressions and gestures from paintings and sculptures; Cortona, not coincidentally, designed the entry to the theater at the Palazzo Barberini. The fourth great seicento Roman architect, Carlo Rainaldi, was also a very accomplished musical composer in the spirit of Carissimi.
Why this excursus down Mnemosyne lane? Because in a time when there is precious little art left in architecture, a well-rounded architect can, as architect/artists once did, find challenging, rewarding things to do outside of mainstream practice. If the modern classical architect might be inclined to make everything—table, coffee pot, spoon—look like a miniature building, his or her Renaissance and Baroque predecessor (who was likely a painter or sculptor as well) was versatile enough (grazie a disegno) to invent solutions to disparate things according to their natures. Sebastiano Serlio’s architectonic Tragic and Comic Stages were accompanied by the oft-forgotten woodland Satyric Stage; Serlio, it should be remembered, trained under the painter/architect Peruzzi. It should also be noted that architects in the past, vis-à-vis their modern counterparts, actually designed relatively few buildings, although these were often more time-consuming, and vastly more substantial, than the modern building enterprise today. They spent the rest of their time engaged in a host of cultural activities, for which Evelyn’s Bernini is the paradigm. As for painters, maybe nowhere else today is the pastoral landscape, or perspectival colonnade, or Salvator Rosa-esque grotto as acceptable as on the stage.
Is this artist/architect ideal a reasonable expectation, or even aspiration, today? The answer might be, will there be any culture left without it? Competent buildings, despite their recent dearth, are still fairly easy to accomplish. Great buildings, instead, are rarer breeds, and an artist/architect who dreams of great things in a mediocre age must perforce direct her or his energies to accomplishing something of greatness, even if it can’t be bricks and mortar. That work might remain on paper, but it might also manifest itself in ephemera, or on canvas, or in models. And on the stage.