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June 18, 2011

Creating the Admirable Scene for BEMF’s Niobe

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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.

Gilbert Blin holding one of the many drops of the model for Niobe. (BMInt photo)

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.

Model of the stage set with the drops for the miraculous walls of Thebes. (BMInt photo)

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.

The actual stage set. (Photo by André Costantini for BEMF)

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.”

Bettina A. Norton is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and has been attending classical music concerts since the waning years of World War II.

4 Comments

  1. Blin is a genius. The show proved that is is possible to do a ‘period staging’ that actually means something and engages the emotions. What a pleasure!

    I would love to see some of Blin’s iconic smashing, too!

    Comment by Michael Beattie — June 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm

  2. A nice article overall; one point that surprises is a reference to Claude Lorrain – to me the mis-en-sence looked much more opulent and heavily baroque rather in Rubens and especially Bernini style, with the abundance of twisting columns, reminding strongly of Bernini’s invention in St-Peter in Rome and replicated throughout Europe everywhere at that time. The architecture of the scene also brought to mind Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, by Palladio, but again, eclectically embellished with Bernini’s elements.

    Heavy clouds and ornate exuberance spoke much rather of Simon Vouet and Guercino than of placid, almost neo-classical Claude Lorrain. And the figures at the stge were truly very prominent – not at all accents, as article correctly states about a general place of people in Claude’s paintings.

    Overall, there was a feeling of being in a luxurious palace during the whole action than anywhere outside in a pastoral landscape that Claude so adores and makes us adore, too.

    It was a magnificent performance, though. Bravi to the whole production team!

    Comment by Anna Shlimovich — July 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm

  3. You show familiarity with European High Renaissance/Mannerist/Baroque art history, and your observations are interesting. Without getting into a debate on art-historical references and other artists you mention, one of whose works also were well known almost immediately upon execution through engravings/etchings, the scene reproduced here shows the wall — NOT the receding landscape in the main scenes, for which a photo did not exist. Second, just let it stand that when I suggested Claude to Mr Blin, as the overall effect he was trying to create (rather than the composite of Baroque TWISTED columns — Bernini’s being dramatically visually twisted in his baldacchino at St. Peter’s, rather than straight with a pastiche of decoration, as in this set — he stated, very emphatically,”Exactly!”

    Naturally the buildings (and the figures — singers — in the scenes) loomed larger. Call it stage license. Even necessity.

    I don’t see Teatro Olimpico. (If you are interested in a very nice model, it is housed at the Boston Athenaeum.) The buildings, frankly, look more like something 19th-century American artist Thomas Cole would have cooked up.

    I’m glad you (overall) enjoyed the article.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — July 31, 2011 at 9:04 pm

  4. Dear Ms. Norton,

    I have found your reply by a pure chance – there appears to be no notification when another comment is posted (as exists on Amazon.com, for example). I am so glad to read it, thank you for responding.

    I would not doubt that some aspects of Claude influenced Mr. Blin in his designs; Claude is a universally loved artist, of course. However the end result of “Niobe” staging bears no resemblance of him, for reasons I’ve already outlined; but for anyone who had ever been to Teatro Olimpico, the reference is striking. In fact, last year’s staging of “Il Coronazione di Poppea” was also carrying verisimilitude to the same theater. And I personally was very happy to see the beloved Teatro, I suppose the great Palladio’d design is the best possible for the performances of Baroque era. Obviously, this understanding has been fully incorporated into famed productions of Monteverdi operas by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Zurich Opern in 1970’s.

    Perhaps the reason why you ddI not see Teatro Olimpico in this Niobe production is that you show familiarity with its model, but not the real thing. I assure you that once you physically enter the building, it would make an unforgettable impression. Certainly architecture is the art form that has to be experienced live – no model or picture would ever make up for impressions made by aforementioned buildings, or any building, for that matter. A voyage to Vicenza would open eyes on many treasures – not just Teatro Olimpico, but The Basilica in the center of the city, marvelous palaces and of course Villa Rotonda, which should especially delight American eyes – Jefferson’s home of Monticello was modeled after it. A Grand Tour over Veneto is generally a necessity for the art education, I am sure you would agree.

    If for some reason it is not feasible, you can get a good idea about Teatro Olimpico from a few DVDs – “Cecilia Bartoli – Live in Italy”, you can find it on Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/Cecilia-Bartoli-Italy-Pauline-Viardot/dp/B00000DBTM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1314047068&sr=8-1

    or it is available in Muniteman library network; it is a splendid concert, filmed in Teatro, and it is very well shown, with details, so the musical and visual pleasures can be combined while watching/listening to this DVD.

    Also “Mozart/Bach: Andras Schiff Plays and Conducts Mozart” DVD:

    http://www.amazon.com/Mozart-Bach-Andras-Schiff-Conducts/dp/B001OBT3EI/ref=sr_1_3?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1314047231&sr=1-3

    offers great insights into the Teatro – it shows not only Teatro Olimpico inside out, but also some Vicenza images; and to listen to this wonderful music while literally being there is a unique experience. Naturally, you could also rent Monteverdi/Ponnelle/Harnoncourt DVDs to see how Palladio’s design was used encore by the great stage director.

    Definitely after watching these DVDs you will have no difficulty to ever recognize Teatro Olimpico influence in any other stage production that uses its ideas! I am even somewhat envious for the pleasure you will have discovering this masterpiece of architecture.

    Sincerely,
    Anna Shlimovich

    Comment by Anna Shlimovich — August 22, 2011 at 5:21 pm

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