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  • "In the Score":Music and Media in the Discourse of Operatic Mise-en-Scène
  • Emanuele Senici (bio)

In 2017 French director Olivier Py explained his staging of Giacomo Meyerbeer's Le Prophète at the Deutsche Oper Berlin with the following words: "There is an orgy in the score, and therefore I stage an orgy. … I am completely faithful to the work [absolut werktreu]."1 For Py, then, staging an opera means making visible what "is in the score" (in German, a little more emphatically, "in der Partitur steht"), a course of action that ensures fidelity to the work in question on the part of the director. Such statements might seem uncontroversial to those familiar with recent debates about operatic mise-en-scène, or, more broadly, to anybody who has some interest in opera. Even a passing backward glance at history, however, suggests that they are a fairly recent development, and that they would have made little sense to our operatically inclined ancestors up to around the middle of the twentieth century. Why on earth should a director stage what is in the score rather than what is in the libretto, they might have asked. And why is the score equated with the whole work, so that being faithful to the former automatically means being faithful to the latter? These imaginary questions from the past prompt more concretely historical ones: How did such beliefs come about? And why?

What follows is a gesture toward answering these questions, a set of related thoughts more than a thoroughly developed historical investigation. In particular, I want to focus on a few prominent recurring themes in the discourse concerning the relationship between listening and seeing in opera, and more specifically on the rhetoric of staging as it has developed over the last few decades in the Western European and North American context. I will discuss neither specific productions nor individual directors, then, nor will I delve into matters of poetics and aesthetics, not least since many others have done all this with very interesting results. Mine is rather an attempt to advance a few hypotheses about the origins of and reasons for some notable features of the present rhetoric concerning operatic mise-en-scène, es- pecially the recurring trope of Werktreue, fidelity to the work. My initial postulate is that the history of the relationship between opera and its audiovisual media might be crucial for the genesis of this trope, and the first part of the article is devoted to [End Page 207] sketching a medial history of opera in the twentieth century. As I hope to demonstrate, it is only thanks to this historical perspective that some characteristic tensions of the present discourse about operatic staging acquire meaning.

A historical perspective might even help to explain some of the reasons behind the often intemperate tones of this discourse. As readers of Opera Quarterly know well, for the past half-century or so heated attitudes have often colored reviews of opera productions published in Western European and North American newspapers and magazines, especially when the mise-en-scène is concerned. Such attitudes pale, however, in comparison with the violent polemics that almost always erupt on social media, in comments on individual blog posts or YouTube videos, discussion threads on online forums, or Facebook posts and their replies. Not to mention theaters, of course, where I have often seen faces consumed by anger and heard voices raised to the breaking point by the effort to shout at those responsible for the visual component of a production, whether the production team was present or not.2 I will return to audiences and the reasons for their negative reactions in the concluding section of the article. The initial step in my argument focuses instead on the opposition between the audible and the visible highlighted by such reactions and, more generally, by the current discourse of operatic mise-en-scène. As I have already suggested, I want to argue that this opposition has deep roots in the medial history of opera.

Listening to Opera in the Twentieth Century

Let us focus on the sound of opera first. I believe...


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pp. 207-223
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