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A night at the opera.

From its beginnings in the seventeenth century, opera has always been an intensely social and spectacular art, often with highly elaborate and demanding staging requirements. Here we examine the history of opera theatres designed to house both the art and the social spectacle.

Historically, the British view of opera and opera houses has not always been as splendidly enlightened as that of George Christie who conceived the new Glyndebourne. `Opera', pronounced Dr Johnson darkly, `is an exotick and irrational entertainment'.[1] The notoriously unmusical Dr Johnson was speaking of the Italian opera of his day, which, with its male sopranos and altos, its glorification of the singer and the spectacle over drama, and its performance in London in the original language, might well be lost on the average Englishman. An eighteenth-century engraving by William Hogarth satirises the vogue for foreign operas by showing the plays of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson relegated to the dustbin.

So it is particularly ironic to reflect, in view of Britain's decidedly erratic operatic history, how near London was to becoming the site of the first public, purpose built opera house outside Italy. In 1639, William Davenant, then Poet Laureate, obtained a public licence to erect a theatre in which he might `exercise musick, musical presentations, dancing or anything other the like'. Unfortunately, being shrewd enough to anticipate the impending Civil War, Davenant did not execute his plans immediately and the opportunity was lost. The subsequent enforced closure of all theatres and general disruption of the country's musical life at a time when opera was at such a crucial stage of development in Italy, was to prove a disastrous set back from which Britain never really recovered. This is all the more regrettable in view of the promising pre-operatic history of the English court masque, dating from Elizabethan times, which reached its apogee during the reign of James I from 1605 to 1620. Something of the splendour of the productions, devised in emulation of French and Italian models, can be gauged from the drawings of Inigo Jones who visited Italy in 1613-14 and returned fired with enthusiasm for Italian stage techniques. Jones lived too early to have any direct influence on the operatic stage and it was left to his successor John Webb to design the scenery for what can be realistically called the first opera to be staged in England. In 1656 (four years before the Restoration), The Siege of Rhodes was performed at Rutland House in Charterhouse Yard, on a small improvised stage, as the public theatres were still closed. It was presented by its author Davenant who described it as `A Representation by the Art of the Prospective in Scenes and the Story Sung in Recitative Musick'.

Davenant died in 1668, without seeing the realisation of his theatre at Dorset Gardens in London's Blackfriars which opened in 1671. Designed and built by Wren at a cost of 10 000[pounds], it was the most resplendent theatre of its time, with two tiers of seven boxes each holding 20 people, a well equipped backstage and a proscenium arch decorated by Grinling Gibbons. Though not an opera house in the strictest sense, some of the versions of Shakespeare by Shadwell and others performed there spill over into the realm of opera by virtue of the music provided for them by Purcell. It was to be nearly two centuries before E. M Barry's lumbering Royal Opera House (built in six months to replace Smirke's fire destroyed Neo-Classical theatre) opened in 1856 with a performance of Mayerbeer's Les Huguenots.

Fascinating though Davenant's travails may be, they are a mere divertissement compared to events in Italy. The origins of opera are incontrovertibly Italian, but can be said to extend back further than 6 March 1637 when, in the parish of San Cassiano in Venice, the first commercial opera house opened its doors to the public. Just as for the ancient Greeks drama was primarily a religious experience, so the medieval church appropriated the power of dramatic and musical performance to convey the essentials of the Christian message to a largely illiterate congregation. Liturgical plays from the tenth century contain the basic elements of opera and these developed into the more elaborate Mystery Plays of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Those in Italy, known as Sacre Rappresentazioni are especially pertinent since they led directly to oratorio and opera. They were also originally staged in church, but by the fifteenth century had been transferred to other locations, such as the piazza in front of the church. This move outside the church precincts exposed the Sacre Rappresentazioni to cross-fertilisation from secular pageants and entertainments, which eventually led to the development of operatic form in the late sixteenth century. What may with some justification claim to be the first opera per se was Dafne, by Jacopo Peri, performed in Florence in 1598.

The evolution of opera precipated a decisive shift towards the Italian Baroque form of theatre. By the early seventeenth century, the operatic audience and singers were already separated by a fixed proscenium, and two dimensional scenery, set up on runners, could provide perspective and recede into the background as necessary. Private boxes or loges mounted in rows above one another evolved because of social distinctions engendered by an aristocracy who demanded not only privacy, but decoration and splendour. Early opera houses, such as Venice's SS Giovanni e Paolo (1654) by Carlo Fontana, with five tiers of boxes arranged in a U-shaped auditorium, made no pretence of serving the general public -- they fulfilled their own, highly select purpose.

The Venetian enthusiasm for opera was particularly intense. Between 1637 and 1 700 at least 16 theatres were constructed, with the number of operas running into hundreds. In a situation comparable to that of the cinema in its 1930s heyday, each parish could boast a neighbourhood opera house. The Venetian palchettisti (box holders) delighted in the elaborate stage mechanics, of, among others, Giacomo Torelli, the outstanding technician of his day. An account of Andromeda, the very first opera publicly performed in Venice in 163 7, descrities how the sky opened and one saw Jove and Juno in glory and other divinities. This great machine descended to the ground to the accompaniment of a concert of voices and instruments truly from heaven'.

Once the Baroque form had been established, no fundamental changes were made for 200 years, except in the spectacle, which became increasingly lavish and varied. This necessitated ever more ingenious stage machinery -- for example the magnificently Heath Robinsonesque mechanical contraptions of the Drottningholm Court Theatre (1766), although such dramatic contrivances were not to everyone's taste -- `Up ye machines', Benjonson noted with disapproval. It also gave rise to more frenetically elaborate seenografia, culminating in the fantastic designs of the Gahi da Bibiena family. Ferdinando, the first of the dynasty, is credited with the invention le scene vedute eper angolo, feigned architecture set up at an angle. Giuseppe and Carlo Galli da Bibiena went on to design the first opera house at Bayreuth in 1748, the extraordinary Rococo Residenztheater, rivalled only by the even more extravagent Munich Residenztheater (I 752) by Jean Frangois de Cuvillits, which was bombed during the Second World War but subsequently rebuilt.

Italian theatrical development reaches its climax with Milan's La Scala, built to Giuseppe Pierinarini's designs in 1776-78 and still widely regarded as the spiritual home of opera. Since it was effectively paid for by the palchettisti, each was allowed to furnish their box and ante room according to their taste. `So many little drawing rooms with the fourth wall removed is how Proust described it.[2] La Scala had 266 arranged in seven tiers around a truncated oval auditorium, although externally it was surprisingly subdued -- a rusticated ground floor, with pilaster strips above.

The eighteenth century saw the flowering of opera seria, the highly formalised and stylised court opera. Ornate theatres to house this phenomenon became an indisperisable indulgence throughout the courts of Europe. The opera at Versailles by A.J. Gabriel is one of the most festive, completed in 17 70 at a time when the French Opera was barely 100 years old. The Academie Royale de Musique was established in 1669 in Paris, and early performances were given in the aptly named Sane des Machines in the Tuileries or more lavishly en plein air at Versailles. The Berlin Staatsoper built by Frederick the Great to the design of G. W. von Knobelsdorff mediates between the court and public theatre. Seats were free, but only available by invitation. Distribution on the opening night was as follows -- generals and other officers in the pit. The Diplomatic Corps in the ground floor boxes, civil servants in the next two tiers, then invited citizens. By far the most ambitious French theatre of the eighteenth century was Victor Louis monumental Grand Theatre of Bordeaux (1777-80) which was totally freestanding with balconies as well as boxes and generous public ambulatory spaces. During the last few years of the ancien regime, the Paris Opera moved to quarters in the Boulevard St Michel (a supposedly temporary situation that was to endure for over a century) when the Palais Royal was burnt out. These were dark days. To the Parisian sans-culottes the Opera, under the protection of the court, was an irresistible symbol of privilege and two days before the fall of the Bastille a hostile crowd effectively forced its closure.

The mood of revolution continued to swell. Across Europe, opposition was growing to the entire conception of the Baroque theatre, with its divisive culture of boxes, on political, social and aesthetic grounds. The theatres of Classical antiquity had no such distinctions. Francesco Milizia, one of the main protagonists in the war against the Baroque, argued that `Boxes are bad for seeing and hearing as well as immoral'. An experimental, unbuilt design for an opera house by Boulle from 1 78 1, with its vast semi-circular auditorium and democratic fan of seating, hints at the shape of things to come. These ideals were given substance by Ledoux's graded amphitheatre at Besangon (1784) described by its architect as the progressive form that makes humanity equal'. It also had a sunken orchestra pit, making it the first to experiment with this distinctly Wagnerian feature.

By the time Schinkel had built his Schauspielhaus in Berlin (1818-21), the Greek Revival had emerged as the acceptable form of architecture parlante for major public buildings. The polymathic Schinkel was fascinated by the theatre and designed a number of opera sets, among them the quintessential Queen of the Night cyclorama for Mozart's Die Zauherflote, which is still popular among contemporary producers. Nineteenth-century opera was dominated by the twin colossi of Verdi and Wagner (both born in 1813), while the opera house continued to evolve through Garnier's triumphant excursion into the Neo-Baroque for the Paris Opera, and Bruckner's innovations at Bayreuth. The Paris Opera overtly extended Louis' notions of the social promenade, with its acreage of gilded halls and sumptuous staircase. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium, with four tiers of boxes seating over 2000, seems almost incidental. The new Festspielhaus at Bayreuth was in marked contrast to the Bibienas' original ornate flights of fancy. Otto Bruckwald gave form to Wagner's notion of an ideal theatre, with scrupulously democratic amphitheatrical seating, no boxes or gaileries, a sunk orchestra and a darkened auditorium. In 1876 the theatre opened with a performance of Der Ring des Nihelungen, with Rhinemaidens strapped to tall trolleys energetically trundled around by unseen stagehands.

In fact it was Wagner's Bayreuth that provided the conceptual model for Glyndebourne's founder John Christie when he established his original opera house in the Sussex countryside in 1934. But what was actually built bore a stronger resemblance to a seventeenth-century Venetian opera theatre, with a shoebox auditorium, and the apex of the cyclorama as far from the orchestra pit as the back wall of the auditorium, resulting in a huge depth of stage (around 60 feet) that was eagerly exploited by directors. The auditorium was repeatedly expanded from 300 seats to 800, until it became clear towards the end of the 1980s, that despite the great affection And tradition surrounding it, the old building was unable to keep pace with evolving artistic and technical standards. A financial appeal was launched in 1990 (the building is funded almost entirely from private donations) and from an initial invited shortlist of nine British practices, two (Hopkins and James Stirling) were selected to develop detailed proposals. Astonishingly, the new building was completed in just seventeen months, so that only one performance season was missed. Throughout, George Christie has played the role of the consummate modem patron. In the past, the perceived aura of exclusivity surrounding Glyndebourne made it seem like a slightly archaic English court theatre (albeit without the architectural lavishness). Now, with seating capacity increased by 50 per cent and a greater number of `cheap seats' (now 36 per cent of the total as opposed to 12 per cent), the hope is that the new Glyndebourne can extend its appeal. Despite its increased size, it remains essentially an intimate theatre -- Christie cites the da Bibienas' Bayreuth, rather than Bruckner's as the conceptual precedent for the new Glyndebourne. Another model was Victor Louis' opera house at Bordeaux, with its circular auditorium of similar capacity. Yet the building is only half the story -- the real performance is still to come. The audience for the inaugural Le nozze di Figaro (60 years ago to the day when the same opera opened the old Glyndebourne), may care to recall John Evelyn's description of a night at the opera in Venice in 1645 -- `This night, having with my Lady Bruce taken our places before, we went to the Opera, where comedies and other plays are represented in recitative music, by the most excellent musicians, vocal and instrumental, with variety of scenes painted and contrived with no less art of perspective, and machines for flying through the air and other wonderful notion's: taken together, it is one of the most magnificent and expensive diversions the wit of man can imagine'.[3]

1 Knapp, J. Merrill The Magic of Opera, Da Gapo Press, New York, 1989, p5.

2 Pevsner, Nikolaus A History of Building Types, Thames & Hudson, London, 1984, p74.

3 Orrey, Leslie Opera, A Concise History, Thames & Hudson, London, 1991, p9.
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Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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