The Phenomenon of opera

Opera Production as Part of Cultural History

In the same way that the publisher rather than the theater represents the rights to a work, the production itself is also considered to be an asset worthy of protection. The figure of the “editore-impresario”, the publisher as impresario, uniquely embodied by Giulio Ricordi, represents the publisher’s job of monitoring the staging and the cast in addition to the rights to the music — and also, the expression of the desire for a kind of quality assurance for each production. From France comes the idea of “mise-en-scène”, which Giulio Ricordi picks up and develops as “disposizioni sceniche” (production books). Numerous original “disposizioni sceniche” are in the Archivio (some manuscript). In some cases, there are several volumes addressed to the various protagonists in opera production: the conductor (“maestro d’orchestra”), the dressmaker and the “direttore di scena” (the present-day stage director). The stage arrangements for the important opera Mefistofele (complete 1868/1875 2nd version) by Arrigo Boito are divided into three volumes: Volume 1 is a complete edition for the “direttore di scena”, Volume 2 is an edition for the dressmaker and prop manager, Volume 3 is an edition for the “maestri” (the conductors). In addition, there are instructions for the singers, a glossary of theater terminology (“terminologia del teatro”), a list of props (three and a half pages), and, in a separate booklet, an illustrative overview of the props (“attrezzi”). The stage directions for the performance of Mefistofele at La Scala in 1881 were compiled by Giulio Ricordi himself in accordance with the composer’s instructions. The stage directions describe every movement, every detail of the scenery and props, their position and use. Sets and costumes are also part of the staging.

The archive has a real treasure trove in this area. It preserves the designs and patterns for sets and costumes drawn up by many important artists such as Adolf Hohenstein, Alfredo Edel and Giuseppe Palanti, among others. The works show the meticulousness of the set designs of that time with regard to the historical and cultural context of the performances.

The same applies to the costume designs, of which the archive houses a vast and rich collection. The drawings of the costumes sometimes come with sewing patterns, samples of actual fabric patterns and instructions for the tailors. The impression of these unique pieces is hard to convey through digital reproduction; they must be seen, and perhaps held — the material has to be felt, or a pattern unfolded, to grasp the punctiliousness with which these things were made. A picture emerges of a time in which the individuality of each production is important in relation to the work. The archetype- and convention-bound world of the theater of the 17th and 18th century is supplanted here by a concept of theater that is individually tailored to each historical context. This represents the first step towards the director’s theater. Ricordi’s efforts to achieve performances that are faithful to the work reflect an aesthetic of the “Gesamtkunstwerk” (synthesis of many individual pieces of art), which becomes popular in Italy as it is becoming popular in Germany with Wagner, and that requires a precisely controlled dramaturgy in all elements of musical theater: orchestra, singers, lyrics, stage design, and costumes.

Also noteworthy are the figurines for productions from the years 1902—1904 at La Scala in Milan, created by the painter Giuseppe Palanti (1881—1946), for Un ballo in maschera, Rigoletto, Luisa Miller by Verdi and Madama Butterfly by Puccini. They not only reveal the equipment and design of each first performance of a given opera — the various examples also illustrate the history of stage aesthetics and director’s theater. For the transformation of the opera in the early 20th century, which equally extended to publishing, theater, aesthetics and social significance, also had an impact on the monopoly of interpretation. The existence of opposing contemporary aesthetic tendencies — faith in technology, (self-)stylization and super-elevation of humanity, crisis of the modern subject, psychology and criticism of the idea of progress — also has an impact on the opera and its representations. The archive contains valuable material for researching these contexts.