It takes a genius to make a stage less than forty feet deep — including stage extension — convey an Arcadian countryside. Stage Director Gilbert Blin, affiliated with the Boston Early Music Festival since 2001, achieved this illusion by employing his knowledge of European art history with experience in the theater for the current BEMF production of Steffani’s Niobe at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. (Final performance in Boston is tomorrow night, though there will be two performances at the Mahaiwe Performance Art Center in Great Barrington next weekend.)
The opera originally was performed towards the end of the seventeenth century, which saw the birth of modern opera with stage techniques of perspective, proscenium, curtains, stage scenery, pit, lighting, masking, layering, … when spectacle was grist for the mill. The fruitful century also saw the birth of collecting as a mania, and — thanks to Louis XIV— of the elevation of printmaking to the status of one of the liberal arts, both of which figured for Blin in creating the set for Niobe.
Audience members versed in art history immediately recognize in this production the allusions to Claude Lorrain, the great seventeenth-century French artist— the peaceful landscapes with sweeping airy vistas softening as they recede in the distance — a fascination with delineating perspective; trees almost always framing and often the focal point, their leaves at the end of branches rows of tiny nodding silhouetted, almost transparent, ovals; buildings or fragments of Classical architecture peaking out of groves; figures small — really accents; and subjects (ostensibly) often mythological. A perfect stage for Niobe and possibly the source of the original production, as Claude’s pictures were very well known in prints almost immediately throughout Europe.
While a full-time student at the Sorbonne he also attended the École du Louvre, but after two years the intensity of the schedule caused him to make a choice to continue in theatre studies at the Sorbonne — not before having absorbed a good knowledge of European art history, however.
“In my mind, art history and painting history are intimately linked with theater history. It’s what I like to do for the stage.”
Blin’s first goal was to understand the context of the first performance at the Salvatortheater in Munich in 1688. (There is no documentation of any other early performances, in Munich, Paris, anywhere.) He found a published libretto, Niobe, regina di Tebe,… from the collection of the Duke August in Wolfenbüttel, printed both in Italian for the Court and in German “for the lower classes,” he noted. The cast is listed, down to the Comparse (loosely translated, the retinue). The libretto is not illustrated, but it does contain short descriptions of scenes of three types. Two are generic: city architecture — “Camere Regie,” Regale con trono,” “Piazza di Tebe”; and rural scenery: “Boscaglia,” “Colline con Fonte.” The third, specifically linked with the action, exist only in this libretto. It refers to specific moment of the action: “Reggia dell’Armonia” , “Muraglie”. Blin’s challenge was to discover what these scenes might have been, whether they would work for the current production.
Enter a second source he discovered, a book by the seventeenth-century architect brothers Domenico and Gasparo Mauro, illustrating their redesign the 1642 Salvatortheater for the 1686 wedding of the Prince Elector of Bavaria— two years before Steffani’s opera was to be seen.
The book was a gold mine and became the basis of his design, to recreate the possibilities of sixteenth-century’s division of sets into tragica for the city (Thebes, one of the settings in Niobe, was a city where tragic events happened), and pastoral landscape.
However, Blin explained, “We wanted to reduce to what was important for the action.” He had to, in fact. (The book shows five wings — or shutters — on each side, but the shallow depth of the Cutler allows for only three.)
The book’s illustrations show a heavy Baroque frame around the proscenium with low bulging balconies at the base, trompe-l’oeil curves and counter-curves on the monumental Baroque columns on the wings. The landscape seems to extend for miles, à la Claude.
“The backdrop had to be a light color to achieve that effect of the landscape extending far into the distance,” Blin noted.
Inspiration for the “marble” columns and their pink to purple coloration came from Drottningholm Palace in Sweden, built at the end of the seventeenth century for the royal family. Asked why the source was Northern Europe, Blin responded that Munich had been influenced by Venetian culture, which moved north and even into Denmark and Sweden early on, so it seemed feasible to use those elements of for the cities. The polychromy of marbles in Versailles was also an inspiration.
So the Niobe set is essentially what was used over three centuries ago, even to the mechanical movement of the scenery, though there are two notable changes brought on by the modern age, one electrical, the other, digital.
Lighting was the biggest compromise, true for all modern audiences, Blin explained. They do not tolerate darkly lit sets. But thanks to talent of Lenore Doxsee, lighting designer, period illusion was also achieved.
“Paintings [in the seventeenth-century stage] gave the main source of light, and candles reinforced it,” Blin explained. Hundreds of candles were needed, because their light is not directional and reflectors are difficult for creating contrast.
The set for Niobe has thin flexible electric lighting tubes running down the back of each shutter to simulate candlelight.
The second “change” was the use of computers to digitize the “painted” sets. Up close, one can see the pixilation. It was cheaper, Blin noted, to recreate the paintings this way than to find and hire painters in America skilled enough to accomplish it, though according to Blin, in Europe the reverse is true.
What does Blin think about directors who reinterpret operas in modern situations?
“Oh! I’ve done that, too!” he quickly retorted. It’s OK to smash the icons for familiar works, he added, “But this piece did not need me! This is a sharing experience. I come after.”