Notes 60.2 (2003) 462-464
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Opera on Stage. Edited by Lorenzo Bianconi and Giorgio Pestelli. Translations by Kate Singleton. (The History of Italian Opera, Part 2. Systems. Vol. 5.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. [xii, 346 p. ISBN 0-226-04591-9. $55.] Illustrations, bibliographies, indexes.
By 1700 critics of Italian opera had begun to identify the aesthetic difficulties posed by opera as a dramatic event. Opera was not only a poetic text set to music; it had also become a complex system of visual symbols that involved spectacular elements, including the construction of a theatrical space, the use of set design, and the coordination of theatrical acting and ballet. Opera on Stage, the English translation of La spettacolarità (volume 5 in the series Storia dell'opera Italiana, published in 1988 by Edizioni di Torino), explores from an historical point of view three different aspects of staging and spectacle: (1) the evolution of Italian stage design (contributed by Mercedes Viale Ferrero); (2) the role of the director in opera (Gerardo Guccini); and (3) the connection between Italian opera and ballet (Kathleen Kuzmick Hansell). This volume (the second in the series presented in English by the University of Chicago Press) exposes a larger readership to another dimension of Italian opera, specifically the often neglected visual elements of musical drama.
Opera on Stage is divided into three large chapters, each including a rich collection of well-documented plates and an annotated bibliography. This new edition also appends a much needed index of names, works, and venues. Since the 1988 Italian publication, all authors have updated their bibliographies, and Hansell has also revised the original English-language version of her chapter. Perhaps Viale Ferrero and Guccini should have considered revising theirs as well, especially the sections dealing with the latest innovations in set design and direction, since each of their histories covers the subject only up to the early 1980s.
The three authors trace the history of their subjects chronologically, from the birth of opera to the present. In chapter 1, "Stage and Set," however, Viale Ferrero departs from this model, at least in the first part of her essay, to introduce readers to the concept of theatrical space and the role of the stage designer. Viale Ferrero emphasizes the fact that the architectural environment of the theater, both stage and auditorium, must be interconnected materially as well as conceptually. It is not enough to see and hear the show; audiences need the symbolic mechanism of the stage and set to become emotionally invested in the performance. Viale Ferrero reminds us that the spatial concerns of the theater are not limited to opera, yet have a particular function for opera, and that historically it was the set designer who helped to establish opera's unique theater conventions.
In the following section, Viale Ferrero traces the evolution of Italian stage design in great detail. Rather than strive for a [End Page 462] comprehensive history of set designers, the author focuses our attention on key figures, including Giacomo Torelli, the Bibiena family, Alessandro Sanquirico, and Giuseppe Bertoja. Using a case study approach, Viale Ferrero is able to give each example a deeper, more thorough treatment, and her probing questions help to dissect the role and influence of designers on opera.
In his chapter "Directing Opera," Guccini introduces us to an area of research rarely studied in opera scholarship. His illuminating contribution begins with a point of clarification central to the construction and argument of the essay. Contrary to expectations, the concept of theater direction in Italy "as an autonomous creative function carried out by the director" did not derive from earlier practices, but rather began to take shape as recently as the 1950s, marking a new phase of development in Italian opera direction (p. 125). Drawing on this distinction, Guccini divides his chapter into two sections. The first part is, by and large, a history of Italian opera itself, with a particular focus on the different professional overseers of opera production. Through the late nineteenth century, the role of the opera director was often a conflicted and ambiguous conglomeration...