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Ja, natürlich… Naturalezza/Simplicité: An artistic research project investigating naturalism as a concept for the (music)theatre stage


DRA.VERA GRUND

This autumn, the Anton Bruckner University of Linz, Austria, in collaboration with the University of Salzburg, Austria, gave the go ahead for an artistic research project initiated by Dr. Claire Genewein and Dr. Vera Grund which aims on bringing back to light the concept of naturalness as an aesthetic idea for the musical theatre, as became popular at the end of the 18th century. In an introducing session the historical context and different meanings were discussed, which can be subsumed as follows:

In the middle of the 18th century, a marked change in society occurred all over Europe: The Austrian War of Succession and the subsequent Seven Years’ war challenged hitherto traditional relations between individual states on a global scale. While Prussia rose to the rank of a state exerting international influence, Habsburg needed to seek new alliances and France became the center of European interests as possible federate, its culture a yardstick to be measured with. Cultural politics served as an instrument to demonstrate political connections and relations, and thus French influence on the arts increased prominently to became an important factor, especially for music theatre.

Prussian King Frederick II personally rearranged several French dramas and instructed his court poets with Italian versions as librettos for the operas at the Berlin stage. Frederick’s choice to generate an individual form of drama for his operas can also be seen as an act of opposition against the enemy Habsburgian state. [1] This must be taken into consideration when analysing Frederick’s libretto of Montezuma with the music of Carl Heinrich Graun, in which he castigated Habsburgian imperial politics. Frederick used the history of the brutal conquest of the Aztec empire as an unflattering allegory. Even changes of the musical structure from virtuous Da Capo arias over to the simpler two-part Cavatina form served him for critique as introduced for Erissena’s aria „Godi l’amabile“ in Montezuma: The new simplicity challenged the traditional form of the Metastasian opera, which, while generally spread all over Europe, had its epicentre in the Habsburgian capital, where Metastasio acted as court poet.

Thus, simplicity also became the leitmotif of Montezuma as a character, embodying humanistic virtues and rationality. The evildoer par excellence, the Spanish conquistador Cortez opposes the Mexican ruler Montezuma, who corresponds to the ideal of the noble savage. „Un alma pura rendo al sen della natura“[2], are Montezuma’s last words before his execution.

As a creature of nature, superior to his adversaries of a corrupted and degenerated civilization, Montezuma very much embodies the principle of „naturalism“. The noble savage was typically used in French literature with a humanistic impact. Bearing this in mind, Frederick’s sympathy for new artistic models from abroad becomes obvious– especially if they served to criticize the court of Maria Theresia.

Meanwhile in Vienna, the French ideas of the Enlightenment served to display the reconciliation with the former archenemy. In competition with the Prussian court, the Viennese theatre thus became the center of a cultural “arms race”. The State Chancellor, Wenzel Anton Kaunitz, in close relations with Empress Maria Theresa personally headed a group of theatre enthusiasts. Their ideas gravitated towards French music theatre aesthetics, including the ideal of simplicity and nature’s ideals. Poet Ranieri Calzabigi, closely related with the chancellor Kaunitz, rose to some prominence in his capacity as a leader of the opposition against the Viennese court, not least fuelled by his rivalry with Metastasio.[3] Calzabigi in turn had come to the Habsburgian court as an economic adviser, but soon assumed the position of an artistic consultant and ghostwriter for theories on music theatre. One example is the famous preface for Gluck’s Alceste in which Calzabigi wrote:

„Il successo ha giustificato le mie massime, e l’universale approvazione in una Città così illuminata, ha fatto chiaramente veder, che la semplicità, la verità, e la naturalezza sono i gran principi del bello in tutte le produzioni dell’arte.”[4]

Christoph Willibald Gluck embraced naturalism as the leading idea also for the musical composition especially for Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). Remarkably, in the furies scene he challenged listening conventions of the Viennese audience by presenting the cries of the nature’s creatures in an unusually dissonant chord, interrupting Orfeo’s plead “Deh! Placatevi con me” with a pitiless “No”. Imitation of nature played an important role for the scenery as well, although the stage design of the Viennese performance did not convince the critique: Even if the cave that leads Orfeo and Euridice back into the world is beautifully designed, it did not satisfy the inventors intention.[5] As might have been expected, stage designer Giovanni Maria Quaglio followed the rather traditional ways of modelling the underworld, including its religious and mythological symbolism even though the critics asked for a more naturalistic style reflecting a new, modernised world view.

Fig. 1 exhibits a traditional stage design presenting the underworld: Bartolomeo Verona, Design for Carl Heinrich Graun’s Orfeo in 1785, wood engraving, figure removed from: Julius Kapp, 200 Jahre Staatsoper im Bild, Berlin 1942, p. 11.

Fig. 1 exhibits a traditional stage design presenting the underworld: Bartolomeo Verona, Design for Carl Heinrich Graun’s Orfeo in 1785, wood engraving, figure removed from: Julius Kapp, 200 Jahre Staatsoper im Bild, Berlin 1942, p. 11.

When in 1773 the opera was performed again in Munich, Giovanni Paolo Gaspari’s naturalistic stage design was very much admired. Presumably, the Viennese theatre troupe wished a comparable scenery for the premier.

Fig. 2 a and b exemplify a naturalistic representation of the underworld: Giovanni Paolo Gaspari, Entrance to the underworld and river Cocytus for a performance of Glucks Orfeo ed Euridice in Munich in 1773, water colour, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München, 30593 Z und 30594 Z.

Fig. 2 a and b exemplify a naturalistic representation of the underworld: Giovanni Paolo Gaspari, Entrance to the underworld and river Cocytus for a performance of Glucks Orfeo ed Euridice in Munich in 1773, water colour, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München, 30593 Z und 30594 Z.

The same demands were placed on costumes, especially for the opera comique, which became the main genre of simplicité. French intellectuals and artists employed this new genre as a befitting instrument to express their perception of peasant life as “natural”, and for that reason, superior to courtly pomp and its affected conventions. Le Devin du village, a work in the style of opera comique by Jean Jacques Rousseau inspired Charles Simon Favart and his wife Justine Favart to create their own version entitled Les Amours de Bastien et Bastienne. The message conveyed by this opera resembles Montezuma’s, but instead of the “noble savage” stands the “natural man” as a symbol for righteous moral values. One highlight in the Paris performance of Les Amours de Bastien et Bastienne was Justine Favart performing in a costume modeled on the clothing of the common rural population of those days.[6]

Sonograma-Fig3FigurinecostumeFrederick

Fig. 3 Example of a traditional 18th century stage costume: Anonymous, Figure of a stage design with autograph annotations of Frederick II, from: Heinrich Stümcke, Die deutsche Theaterausstellung: Berlin 1910, Berlin 1911, plate XXI.

Fig. 4 Jean Daulle nach Carle Vanloo, Justine Favart as Bastienne in a costume resembling a common rural costume, etching, 1754, Bibliothèque national de France, RESERVE QB-201 (107)-FOL.

Fig. 4 Jean Daulle nach Carle Vanloo, Justine Favart as Bastienne in a costume resembling a common rural costume, etching, 1754, Bibliothèque national de France, RESERVE QB-201 (107)-FOL.

Naturalness was also a sign of quality for performances: Francesco Algarotti asked in his famous Saggio sopra l’opera in music (first edition Venice 1755) for a recital technique and gestures simulating reality.[7] The episodes of Gluck fighting for “true expressions” of his singers are famous, as well as his despair of the choristers in Alceste, incapable to move when they were supposed to act like furies. His advice for the famous primo uomo of the Parisian stage, Joseph Legros, to cry as if his leg was cut to credibly transmit the passionate pain of Orphée, was rather unconventional.[8]

Naturalness as moral virtue also became a quality for artists and Gluck knew well how to use this to his advantage. Reports from the Parisian salons pronounced the „noble simplicitié“ of his appearance as if Gluck embodied himself the „noble savage“ or the „natural man“.[9] This stereotype became characteristic for the Tragedienne lyrique, the diva of the late 19th century. As opera was regarded as mannered artefact the idea of naturalism of late 18th century again served as theme. Singer Pauline Viardot, performing the role of Orphée in Gluck’s opera, embodied the natural artist.

Fig. 5 Studio Disdéri & Co., Pauline Viardot as Orphée, 1859, Carte-de-visite-Photograph, (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, S.138:418-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Fig. 5 Studio Disdéri & Co., Pauline Viardot as Orphée, 1859, Carte-de-visite-Photograph, (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, S.138:418-2007, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

The photograph reveals the distinction of 19th century naturalism from the modern idea of naturalistic performances. Pauline Viardot displays a very determined and theatrical pose, unusual from daily life movements, inviting us to deduce that the concept of naturalism differs through time and space. Naturalism in art therefore has to be regarded as a construct influenced by the zeitgeist, as well as by cultural and political behavior. Our project aims to highlight the different notions and appearances of naturalism by using various available methods, and the possibilities of artistic practice to create the impression of naturalism on stage. A theoretical introduction started the project followed by a practical masterclass held by Robert Toft with students of the Anton Bruckner University, which focused on the ideas portrayed in Francesco Algarottis theory of language oriented recital technique to produce naturalism. As part of the curriculum, more classes will be held in the coming month in which students will be invited to work on the relevant repertoire. This includes the opera comique, opera seria, melodrama and ballet as practice-led research on the topic. The international symposium, to be held at the Anton Bruckner University on 20th and 21st April 2016 will feature lectures from science and the arts, interdisciplinary contributions, recitations and lecture performances. In the project’s final performance, students will show the results of their work in a production of Justine Favart’s opera comique Les Amours de Bastien et Bastienne presented at the Anton Bruckner University at 18th June 2016.

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[1] About the similarities and distinctions to the poetry of Metastasio see Michele Calella, ‘Metastasios Dramenkonzeption und die Ästhetik der friderizianischen Oper’, in Metastasio im Deutschland der Aufklärung, ed. Laurenz Lütteken und Gerhard Splitt (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 2002) 101-123.
[2] “A pure soul returns to nature”, Carl Heinrich Graun/Fridrich II., Montezuma, ed. Albert Mayer-Reinbach (=Denkmäler deutscher Tonkunst 15), Leipzig 1904, p. 211.
[3] See Vera Grund, ‘Reform der italienischen Oper? ’, in: Gluck und das Musiktheater im Wandel, ed. Gluck-Forschungsstelle Salzburg, München 2015, 124–181.
[4] „Success justified my maxims and general acceptance in an illustrious city made it clear that simplicity, truth and naturalness are the great principles of beauty in all products of art.” Christoph Willibald Gluck [Ranieri Calzabigi], Preface to Alceste, Vienna: Trattner 1777, [3–5].
[5] “Die Erfindung der Höhle, durch welche Orpheus seine Euridice der Oberwelt zuführet, ist zwar schöne; wir können uns aber doch nicht bereden, daß der Pinsel des Mahlers die wahre Absicht des Erfinders erreichet habe“ Anonymous, Review of Orfeo ed Euridice, Wienerisches Diarium 13 October 1762.
[6] The idea of naturalness by rurality then became popular among aristocrats. Following the new trend Marie Antoinette built her “hameau” in Versailles, where she busied herself as a gardener with rakes made from silver and buckets made from porcelain.
[7] „[…] coiè che andavano significando a quel modo che la natura detta […] Lo sceneggiare, che chiamasi muto è altresì una parte della recitazione, che dipende in tutto della propria intelligenza dell’attore.“ Francesco Algarotti, Saggio sopra l’opera in musica, Livorno: Marco Coltelini 21763, p. 43.
[8] Cf, Vera Grund, „Reform der italienischen Oper?“ and „Musikdrama, ‚Tragédie à la Grecque‘ und die Revolution der Oper“, in: Gluck und das Musiktheater im Wandel, ed. Gluck-Forschungsstelle Salzburg, Munich 2015, p. 175 and 196.
[9] Vgl. Grund, „Musikdrama, ‚Tragédie à la Grecque‘ und die Revolution der Oper“, p. 204. Because of his rural origin and the lack of high education Gluck profited from the trend simplicity that opened him the doors to the noble society that previously demanded sophisticated etiquette and the ability for intellectual conversation.