Fire on all sides! Descend on a cloud! Singing fish-children!: Opera’s most challenging stage directions
Opera has long pushed the boundaries of what's possible on stage.
12 February 2014 at 11.57am | Comment on this article
Shakespeare‘s stage direction ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ in The Winter’s Tale (soon to be adapted as a ballet by Christopher Wheeldon and Bob Crowley) is famous for giving directors a headache. But rampaging bears are nothing compared to the ambitious instructions that pepper opera librettos. At the end of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the lothario’s downfall is accompanied by librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte‘s stage direction ‘Fire on all sides; earthquake’ (though Kasper Holten introduces a whole host of different challenges in his spectacular projection-enhanced Royal Opera production). But even Da Ponte is arguably bested by the dramatic ending of Handel’s Semele, where ‘Jupiter descends in a cloud; flashes of lightning issue from either side’.
Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten presents several intriguing posers for the director, particularly towards the end of Act I. The Empress has no shadow and cannot have children without one. Somewhat against her better judgement she persuades a mortal woman, Barak’s Wife, to give the Empress her shadow. As Barak’s Wife prepares a supper of fish, she hears mysterious singing, and ‘Suddenly the voices of five children ring out fearfully through the air, as if the little fish in the pan are singing’.
Elena Pankratova, Michaela Schuster, Emily Magee and Falk Struckmann in Die Frau ohne Schatten, La Scala, Milan, 2013 © Monika Rittershaus/Teatro alla Scala
Strauss worried that Hofmannsthal’s directions implied that Barak might be about to eat his own unborn children: ‘One is bound to identify the unborn children with the little fishes in the frying-pan!’ Though the singing fish-children stayed, Hofmannsthal did make one concession – in the ensuing scene Barak leaves the fish alone and eats some bread instead.
But all this is small fry compared to Die Zauberflöte (one of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s models for Die Frau). The serpent that opens Mozart’s opera may just be a question of a little (a lot of) puppetry, but Tamino and Pamina’s ‘trials of fire and water’ in the opera’s closing moments are another thing altogether. Emanuel Schikaneder’s original stage directions are ambitiously precise: ‘The scene is transformed into two large mountains: one with a thundering waterfall, the other belching out fire; each mountain has an open grid through which fire and water may be seen.’
But Wagner is the true master of impossible stage directions – his Ring cycle demanded stage effects so ambitious he had to build a whole new opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The astounding technical demands of the Ring made its first full staging in 1876 a logistical nightmare. Siegfried‘s dragon was missing its central section – allegedly the torso had been sent to Beirut rather than Bayreuth. The Rhinemaidens of Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung were perched on tall stage wagons behind a gauze illuminated with gas light to give the impression of their aquatic frollicking. But still the Telegraph reviewer complained that they were ‘a little too mechanical and wanting in freedom’.
The impossible stage direction has become a much loved operatic tradition, enjoyed by spectators and relished by directors. These fires, earthquakes and metamorphoses are like gauntlets thrown down by composers and librettists centuries earlier. Whether directors take a literal or metaphorical approach, it is always fascinating to see how challenging stage directions translate into a theatrical experience.