Search This Blog


11 February 2012

Opera III

on designing sets for the Haymarket Opera Company of Chicago’s upcoming performance of Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphèe aux Enfers:

Serlio's Tragic Stage
The stage buildings for it [Tragedy] should be those of characters of high rank, because disastrous love affairs, unforeseen events and violent and gruesome deaths (as far as one reads in ancient tragedies, not to mention modern ones) always occur in the houses of noblemen, Dukes, great Princes or even Kings. Therefore (as I said) in scenery of this sort there should only be buildings that have a certain nobility,…
Sebastiano Serlio on Architecture: Volume I, Books I-V, trans. V. Hart and P. Hicks, Yale, 1996, Book II, p.88

Opera was the ne plus ultra of the Baroque integration of the arts, and the development of opera sets across the seventeenth century was closely linked to developments in architecture and painting. While architects designed sets based on sixteenth-century techniques of perspective, they were also developing real spaces that deployed the illusionism of the theater; ancient versions of these perspectival sets had been described briefly in the Roman architect Vitruvius’ treatise, and were later codified graphically in Sebastiano Serlio’s Renaissance treatise. For Serlio each set—Tragic, Comic, or Satiric—represented the essential character of each type of drama. Tying words to images had been Roman as well: Horace had aphorized ut pictura poesis (as in painting, so in poetry), which painters used to lay claim to the status of poets in paint. This fluid relationship between words and images was paralleled by the contemporary concern for integrating words and music; if the vox humana was the paradigm of instrumental music, words were made more meaningful and affective by being set to music. So poets painted in words, and music was the expressive vehicle for conveying as much the sense as the beauty of the words. As music reached new heights of expressive potential it became natural to think of it as even the primary conveyor of meaning:

I have been more sensibly, fervently, and zealously captivated, and drawn into divine raptures and contemplations, by those unexpressible rhetorical, uncontroulable perswasions, and instructions of musick’s divine language, than ever yet I have been, by the best verbal rhetorick.
–Thomas Mace, Musick’s Monument, London, 1676, p.118 cited in H. James Jensen, The Muses’ Concord: Literature, Music, and the Visual Arts in the Baroque Age Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976p.69-70

The idea that images could metaphorically convey the worlds of words and ideas made the visual arts poetic and rhetorical. Seventeenth-century paintings, rooted in this Renaissance outlook, were illusionistic, affecting, and narrative; the great debate of the period was only on whether painting was more like epic poetry (big gestures, lots of figures) or tragedy (focused action and fewer figures). Charpentier’s sojourn in Rome and Italy no doubt made him alive to this articulate visual word.

Charles Le Brun's Expressions
The seventeenth century set great store by the power of images to convey specific messages; character could be read in the gestures of a hand and the expressions of a face; Louis XIV’s Director of the Arts, Charles Le Brun, had in fact provided artists a catalogue of characteristic expressions. The settings of paintings and operas themselves were understood to be articulate, structuring and informing the painted or performed plot; Charpentier would have been too late in Rome to know Poussin (he died in 1665), but that artist’s calculated landscapes influenced his compatriot and Poussin’s brother-in–law Gaspard Dughet, whose frescoed landscapes find echoes here; the influential Salvator Rosa also has something to do with the rocky underworld. But since imagery was also static, it had to convey multiple moments in the story—hinting at what came before and what was to come after. For us then each set, although distinct in character, also links to the other, bridging the disparate worlds of the drama’s two acts—hopefully not unlike Charpentier’s articulate music.

Detail of the Underworld Set, Orphèe

PS: Pastiche: Good thing or bad thing?

No comments:

Post a Comment