This magisterial account of the evolution of the early opera house as a building type, the teatro all'italiano, stems from the author's long-standing interest in the subject, beginning in the late 1970s, when he was on sabbatical at the Biblioteca Hertziana in Rome. Inventing the Opera House integrates many publications dating from before and after these initial investigations, drawing together an extensive body of scholarship that until now has been largely published only in Italian and focused on individual buildings. By synthesizing this literature into a single account, Eugene J. Johnson makes it accessible to a wider audience. He recounts the story of a building type that culminated with Giuseppe Piermarini's Teatro alla Scala at Milan (1776–78), the largest and grandest opera house to that date (La Scala is beyond the chronological scope of Johnson's discussion).
The book is remarkable for resurrecting a nearly vanished group of buildings in Renaissance Italy. Johnson examines numerous theaters, both permanent and temporary, from a period extending over two centuries, yet only three of these structures still stand. Many were destroyed by fire, including the first of the permanent theaters to be built, those of Alfonso I d'Este in Ferrara and Giovanni Battista Bertani in Mantua. The earliest survivor from this period is Andrea Palladio's Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza (1580–85), an innovative interpretation of a classical theater, soon followed by Vincenzo Scamozzi's freestanding Odeon (1588–90), a landmark of the ideal city of Sabbonieta built by Duke Vespasiano Gonzaga. The third surviving theater is Giovanni Battista Aleotti's Teatro Farnese at Parma (1617–18), almost destroyed in 1944 and later rebuilt in unpainted wood. Here the architect elongated the cavea, or seating section, to form a U, thereby creating a large arena in front of the stage. In 1628, during the performance of a “drama-tourney,” Mercurio e Marte (Mercury and Mars), with intermedi by Claudio Monteverdi, the spectacle's climax coincided with the sudden flooding of this arena. A storm and sea fight ensued, the fury finally being quelled by Jupiter seated on a cloud, representing the triumph of peace.
Johnson reconstructs many of the other theaters discussed here from contemporary descriptions, a process that he describes as “imagining lost structures” (1). The narrative is organized in geographical and chronological order, located across the many independent states of Italy, some secular, others under papal domination, and explores how varying types of government, laws, and societal demands influenced the theaters' design. While the book confines itself to theater projects built or designed for specific sites and does not consider contemporary design principles and theory, a brief appendix summarizes the key ancient and Renaissance texts, from Vitruvius to Leon Battista Alberti, to which patrons referred as key sources for classical theater.
The story begins with late fifteenth-century revivals of Roman comedies not seen since antiquity, usually performed in temporary wooden structures with stages and risers. The earliest recorded event of this kind occurred in 1486 during the carnival season in the cortile of the Palazzo Ducale at Ferrara. Johnson paints a vivid picture of the performances that took place, with crowds packed around the duke and other spectators seated, standing, or watching from windows. The accounts of celebrations and spectacle in Venice are especially colorful and entertaining. With the erection of public grandstands in Piazza San Marco and elsewhere, Venice became a citywide theatrical backdrop during and beyond the festive carnival season. In July 1530, a floating theater with eighty-seven young dancing women, carried by two boats, toured the city: it was towed up the Grand Canal to the Rialto Bridge and then back to Piazza San Marco. The book finally progresses to seventeenth-century Rome, where public opera was introduced some thirty years after its appearance in Venice. Compared with theaters in Venice, Roman theaters had a more troubled history, given that staging a theatrical performance in Rome required obtaining papal permission, and the frequent turnover of elderly popes caused disruptive changes in policy.
The book reaches its conclusion with Carlo Fontana's Teatro di Tordinona, which opened in January 1671 under the patronage of Queen Christina, horsewoman, dancer, and patron of the arts, who abdicated the Swedish throne to move to Rome. The building's form recalled the more fully developed Italian baroque opera houses of Venice, notably the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo, of which a drawing survives that seems to have served as Fontana's model. The Teatro di Tordinona stood within the walls of the abandoned papal prison, the Tor di Nona, opposite the Castel Sant'Angelo on the Tiber, and represented a curious early example of adaptive reuse. As Johnson observes, theaters have received less scholarly attention than churches, palaces, and villas, but the lack of surviving theaters provides only a partial explanation for this fact. Rather, as this book amply demonstrates, most scholars have failed to appreciate the many motivations—political, intellectual, financial, antiquarian, or a combination thereof—behind the vast investment of resources that fueled theater spectacles.
Perhaps the most significant interdisciplinary relationship addressed in this book is that between architecture and music. Johnson makes fascinating mention of Monteverdi's attention to the exact placement of musicians in the space of the Teatro Farnese at Parma, as well as his collaboration with Francesco Guitti in the development of an innovative design for the orchestra pit. However, it is disappointing that the book incorporates only limited discussion of the complex relationships among architecture, music, and social demands. Further, Johnson presents no information in layman's language, even in an endnote, on the key topic of acoustics. While he cites a recent technical study in noting that Aleotti's earlier U-shaped Teatro degli Intrepidi at Ferrara was acoustically “first rate” (174), it would have been beneficial if he had addressed the changing acoustic conditions within Italian opera houses over the course of the early modern period. For example, the multiple tiers of opera boxes so characteristic of Italian theaters, an innovation of seventeenth-century Venice, created singularly poor acoustics for their occupants. As Johnson puts it, these “private spaces in a public building created a novel social architectural situation, to say the least” (119). With their divisions like tiny sound-absorptive rooms filled with patrons, with festoons of drapery hung in front (as reported by an eighteenth-century commentator)1 and with only small openings facing the main volume of the auditorium (about 40 percent of the total enclosing wall area), opera boxes behaved as acoustically separate spaces (a relationship technically defined as “coupled rooms”). Only for those seated at the fronts of the boxes or on the main floor of the theater did the music sound loud and bright. These acoustic shortcomings were recognized in the eighteenth century, and in certain Roman opera houses the sound improved noticeably when, in part as a response to moral concerns, the partitions between boxes were removed.
One of the joys of this book lies in poring over the illustrations, which reproduce contemporary drawings, both previously unpublished and well known. Many appear here for the first time in color, made vivid and unfamiliar, revealed with sepia ink and tinted washes, such as the beautiful annotated baroque plan of the Teatro degli Intronati at Siena, now in the collection of Sir John Soane's Museum in London. The reader has the sensation of studying archival drawings, some on stained and light-damaged paper. Reproductions of alternative unbuilt designs for a theater for Queen Christina in the Via Lungara at Rome, predating the Tordinona, now in Stockholm's National Museum, are of particular interest. One design includes a peristyle that would have made a spectacular urban statement, as Johnson says, comparable to Gottfried Semper's two opera houses in Dresden. Fascinating, too, is the eighteenth-century copy of a drawing by Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz showing Carlo Fontana's plan for the truncated-elliptical Tordinona and the curious alternative designs proposed by Fontana for the royal box.
The only jarring note in the book is a small one, the brief afterword, a coda that makes the valid if obvious observation that the Italian opera house tradition continues to the present day. The author illustrates this point with Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House (2003–11), a peculiar choice considering the panoply of architecturally distinguished auditoriums built in recent years in Lyon, Valencia, Oslo, and elsewhere. But these are minor quibbles with what is an immensely valuable study as well as a good read.
George Saunders, A Treatise on Theatres (London, 1790), 93.