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Exploding apples and slow motion arrows: how to stage moments of high drama in grand opera

Have we gone beyond Wagnerian snobbery about the genre’s reliance on special effects?

By Sarah Hibberd (Royal Opera Writer in Residence)

19 March 2015 at 3.35pm | 2 Comments

In the early 1830s, French grand opera was at the height of its splendour. Each new opera sought to outdo its predecessor in its magnificence and use of the latest technologies and techniques. Teams of artists presented backdrops inspired by paintings and by contemporary panoramas and dioramas, animated with complex systems of machinery (to trigger collapsing buildings, or depict shipwrecks), and the whole was enlivened with special effects, including the creation of mists and fogs with explosives and gases. Breathtaking lighting effects were achieved though the use of hundreds of oil lamps and gas burners and the stagings were endlessly dissected in the Parisian press. An enthusiastic spectator recalled the state of ‘mental chaos’ in which Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (1831) had left him, ‘still as present for the eyes as the noise of this euphonic cataclysm still vibrating in the ear’.

Audiences clearly delighted in the ingenious solutions to the genre’s extravagant visual demands, and awareness of the artifice, whether high- or low-tech, was an intrinsic part of the appeal. By the late 1830s, however, the writer Théophile Gautier was declaring his nostalgia for the low-tech solutions deployed in earlier operas: the stormy seascapes generated by a team of small boys jumping about under a green tarpaulin to simulate the effect of waves, and the malfunctioning smoke machine and papier mâché rocks thrown onto the scene by stage-hands to portray the eruption of Vesuvius in Auber’s La Muette de Portici (1828).

Wagner had no time for the genre’s reliance on complex staging and in 1851 famously condemned grand opera’s ‘effects without causes’. The sunrise in the third act of Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète (1849) deployed electric light for the first time on the operatic stage, a dazzling effect that for Wagner, with its ‘empty’ musical accompaniment, ‘absolved [the imagination] from any painful toil’. In other words, grand opera pandered to the Parisian bourgeoisie, with their unsophisticated musical tastes, simplistic approach to drama, and delight in mechanical effects. This view has remained surprisingly tenacious. I shall return in a future post to the ways in which grand opera might encourage us to challenge the modern attitude to opera spectatorship, shaped by the Wagnerian ideal of focussed concentration in a darkened auditorium. But for now, I’d like to think more about the ways in which modern companies have approached the challenge of grand opera’s visual spectacle.

The alternatives seem to be to omit the spectacle altogether, to offer a knowing, modern perspective, or to embrace and transform the spectacle. Emma Dante in her 2012 production of La Muette for the Opéra Comique in Paris dispensed with the erupting Vesuvius at the work’s conclusion, a decision that not only weakened the opera’s thrilling effect, but also reduced its political resonances – in 1828 the volcano stood symbolically for the opera’s revolution and its echoes of 1789. Laurent Pelly’s production of Robert le diable for The Royal Opera in 2012 tended to emphasize the comic aspects of this strangely mixed-mode opera, and to step back from the historical pageant, offering an ironic perspective. But when in Act 3 the choral chanting of the demons sounded from the mouth of the mountain cave, projected images of the flames of hell licked round the rocks, and devils cavorted: it was as if the suggestive orchestral accompaniment had conjured them in front of our eyes, in a medium that in turn evoked the phantasmagorias and dioramas of the early 19th century.

One of the best-known challenges in Guillaume Tell is Tell’s shooting of the apple from his son’s head in Act III. David Pountney’s production for Welsh National Opera in 2014 offered a slow-motion passing of the arrow along a line of chorus members: amusing and witty – something of which Gautier might have approved – but it diffused the sense of anticipation that builds gradually through the scene, and distracted from Tell’s victory. It is not at all clear how it was done in 1829 – the original production booklet is frustratingly silent on the matter. For the Rossini Festival in Pesaro in 2013, Graham Vick offered an exploding apple, which magnified the significance of the moment very effectively. Like Pelley’s Robert, Vick’s production also alluded to the visual culture of the early 19th century: the mountain scenery takes the form of a panoramic exhibition set in the museum space of the stage set – and the sunrise at the opera’s conclusion accompanies the lowering of a stairway from the outer world, a gesture to the sublime ‘beyond’ of the new era signalled by defeat of the Austrians. Modern directors face a challenge when re-creating the spectacle of grand opera for modern audiences. But an inventive solution can add immeasurably to its effect – as 19th-century spectators knew all too well.

In my next post, I’ll turn to the sound of grand opera – the ‘euphonic cataclysm’ of the orchestra, and the challenges posed for the tenor heroes in particular.

Sarah Hibberd is Associate Professor in the Department of Music at the University of NottinghamFind out more about her association with The Royal Opera as Writer in Residence.

Guillaume Tell runs 29 June–17 July 2015. General booking opens on 31 March. The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 5 July 2015. Find your nearest cinema.

A recent Royal Opera production of Robert le diable is available on DVD.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 7 April 2015 at 5:51pm Reply

    Another splendid read Sarah-very many thanks! Your observations in respect of Laurent Pelly's production of Robert le diable encourage the hope that this will soon be revived at ROH..
    I did not see David Pountney's production of Guillaume Tell but I DO remember John Moody's for WNO back in the early 1960's. Having said that, I cannot recall how the apple scene was staged but it was all very quick and there were gasps from the audience!
    Needless to say am very much looking forward to the forthcoming production and also to your next post, Kind regards.

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 9 April 2015 at 11:18pm

      Thank you, Tony. Yes, I think 'short and sharp' is the best solution for the apple scene - I'm looking forward to seeing what lies in store for June...

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