Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Courtly Matters

Two centuries ago, the business of producing opera was quite different from the one we know today. Composers were sponsored by wealthy patrons and, if favored by members of royalty, could anticipate having their works performed before the most powerful people in the land. They never had to worry about writing grant proposals, getting approval from conservative boards of directors, going out fundraising or having the premieres of their newest works shelved due to financial cutbacks. Back in the good old days, getting an opera produced was a relatively simple matter. If you were a court composer, you wrote on commission and had your works performed before the king in his private theatre. If the king liked what he heard, he kept you well-housed, well-fed and well-stocked with the tools of your trade. If few court theatres are still in use today as opera houses, it is largely because (a) the economics of the art form have grown so outrageous and (b) the current crop of kings are interested in more modern pursuits than baroque singing. Opera queens, needless to say, still enjoy the stuff immensely.

In September, while touring Copenhagen, I visited the Theatre Museum housed within the Royal Court Theatre at Christiansborg Palace. Built in 1767, the auditorium and steeply-raked stage area now contain a fabulous collection of memorabilia from Denmark's theatrical past, including such treasures as Anna Pavlova's ballet slippers and a program from 1821 which lists the stage-struck Hans Christian Andersen as one of the extras performing in a ballet version of Armida.

Because so much of the text accompanying the Theatre Museum's exhibits is written in Danish, it was difficult for me to grasp the significance of many of the exhibits in this collection. However, that night, as I stood outside the museum (which overlooks the Royal Riding Grounds at the Christiansborg Palace) I was treated to a highly theatrical vision of other-worldly magnificence. A group of handsome Danish soldiers were positioned astride their horses (six studs atop six steeds) as they proudly put the animals through their paces. The horses, three brown and three white, cantered majestically about the riding grounds while kicking up dust in the stillness of early evening. The silent masculinity of this spectacle -- which offered a bizarre combination of military grace and the feeling that I was spying into a tiny cul-de-sac in the Twilight Zone -- remains one of the most charming memories of my recent trip to Scandinavia.


Once I arrived in Sweden, however, I found myself attending performances in the strangest places. Within hours of checking into my hotel in Stockholm, I was seated in the Royal Palace's Museum of Antiquities (a beautiful hall filled with sculptures -- both genuine and fake -- which King Gustav III brought back from his shopping expeditions in Italy) for a chamber music concert. Later in the week I attended a performance (featuring three of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos) held in the recently restored Confidencen, which dates back to 1753, out at Ulriksdal's Palace in North Solna.

The highlight of my stay, however, was a visit to the Drottningholm Court Theatre, which I had first read about while in college. Completed in 1766, this theatre had its heyday during the reign of King Gustav III (the subject of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera). From 1810 to 1921, it was used primarily as a storage facility until someone went looking for an old painting and rediscovered a tiny baroque jewel box of an auditorium.

Soon afterwards, Agne Beijer began work on recommissioning the building (which was reopened in 1922) and, since 1946, public performances of chamber operas by Mozart, Gluck and other composers from the baroque era have been a standard summer attraction in Stockholm.

Most Americans know the Drottningholm Court Theatre from Ingmar Bergman's film version of The Magic Flute. However, what they undoubtedly do not know is that, with the exception of some new ropes, the original stage machinery -- designed more than 200 years ago -- is still in use. Today, the Drottningholm is one of the best-preserved 18th-century court theatres to be found in Europe and certainly the only one which still functions according to its architect's original designs.

While touring the facility, I got a great personal thrill from helping to demonstrate the backstage wind machine while our tour guide operated the apparatus which is used to create thunder effects. Walking out onto the steeply raked wooden stage sent chills up and down my spine.


The fact that this 465-seat auditorium is still functioning as an opera house means that its audiences enjoy a unique opportunity to experience the ambience and types of entertainment which were an integral part of 18th-century court life. Because the interior of the theatre was originally lit by hundreds of candles, the electrical lighting arrangements which are now used in the auditorium and on stage have been designed to imitate the original candlelight as closely as possible. During performance, the auditorium remains partially lit (royalty used to talk back to the performers the way many Americans now converse with their television sets) and the instrumentalists wear powdered wigs.

When I attended a performance of Gluck's Paride ed Elena (Paris and Helen) at Drottningholm this summer, Iwa Sorenson's sprightly Amor, Sylvia Lindenstrand's Paris and Carina Morling's Pallas all demonstrated a solid sense of baroque style. Unforunately, the soprano singing the role of Elena (Britt-Marie Aruhn) was not well and, to accommodate her indisposition, the character's principal arias were cut from the performance.

This was one instance, however, where the quality of the performance was sometimes less significant than the overall experience. After all, a chance to hear baroque opera performed in the baroque style in one of the baroque era's few remaining theatres is a bit like stepping back in time.

When I first started to learn about theatre history and set design, the Drottningholm Court Theatre was often studied for its use of painted, layered flats whose forced perspective resembled the works of Carlo Bibiena. To see Adele Anggard's sets for Paride ed Elena (including the cloud mechanism used for the appearance of Pallas as a deus ex machina) functioning so beautifully made all those moments of trying to imagine what it could have been like come alive in front of my eyes.

Although the benches on which the audience at Drottningholm is seated may be harder than hell, the acoustics in the theatre are absolutely magnificent. And, while I enjoyed Bengt Peterson's production immensely, the most magical part of the evening occurred during intermission. By that time, darkness had fallen and the Drottningholm Court Theatre's magnificent Dejeuner Salon was lit by only a handful of small electric candles. As the audience relaxed, their faces were reflected in an old mirror which gave a wonderfully theatrical glow to the event.

If you're heading to Sweden during the summer months, I urge you to attend a performance at the Drottningholm Court Theatre. For those attempting to seek out their operatic roots, the experience is an absolute must.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 12, 1987.

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