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26 January 2013

Emulation: II.1

Opera and Rhetorical Gesture

Last year at this time I had just finished the drawings for Chicago’s Haymarket Opera company’s production of Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, and this year I’ve designed two additional sets, a palace and a port, for their production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Last year I posted on the integration of the arts and opera; this year, in concert with my book on emulation, I want to offer something brief on the emulative relationship of the arts.

After the Charpentier performance last year I was struck by the image of live actors in period costume performing in front of the sets I’d designed, and it prompted me to compose a painting based on a moving scene in the opera where, on the death of Eurydice, Orpheus curses the “implacable gods.” Reverberating back from the drama, my composition recalled the approach to rhetorical gesture that Poussin had developed, and I wanted to integrate the “actors” and the setting in both formal and rhetorical ways.

What I had learned in the course of thinking about the first performance was the ways in which performance gesture in the Baroque depended on painting, even as painting itself was often “theatrical” and dramatic. Those interdependencies were reciprocal and ongoing, despite what some art historians might prefer to see as a more linear borrowing. Seeing for myself what dramatic action does to static scenes made me appreciate even more Poussin’s rhetorical gestures, for example in the Metropolitan Museum’s Rape of the Sabines; and I wonder if anyone has looked into Poussin’s attendance at the theaters of Rome?

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