115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Visualizing Opera in Early 19th-Century Vienna

Carol Padgham Albrecht, University of Idaho

This paper examines a shift in Viennese opera productions between 1802 and 1806, replacing standard palace and household settings to locale-based subjects, either specific geographical areas or natural surroundings, where the physical location lent itself to vivid depiction through set design and/or costume.


This paper examines a significant shift in programming that appeared on Viennese opera stages between 1802 and 1806. Whereas older productions typically derived from heroic and classical subjects (opera seria), or stock heroines in search of romantic fulfillment within a drawing room setting populated by upwardly mobile fathers, notaries, doctors, governesses, and maids (opera buffa), the newest opera productions, generally from France, featured locale as a prominent, even generative element. This trend began in March of 1802 at the suburban Theater an der Wien with a series of works by Luigi Cherubini. Lodoiska was set in a Polish castle on the edge of a forest, where Tartar warriors help rescue the imprisoned title character. His wildly popular rescue opera Les deux journées, set in provincial Savoy and the Parisian capital, was performed in rival productions at the Theater an der Wien (as Graf Armand, oder die drey unvergeßlichen Tage) and the Court Theater (Die Tage der Gefahr). Der Bernardsberg featured a monastery setting near Switzerland's treacherous St. Bernard Pass, location of Napoleon's crossing in May of 1800. But the trend extended to other composers as well: Dalayrac's Der Thurm von Gothenburg was set in a Swedish castle. Le Sueur's La Caverne, featuring bandits on the Spanish border, attracted rival productions at the Theater an der Wien (Die Höhle bey Kosire) and the Court Theater (Die Räuberhöhle). Both featured a double set, that is, a stage with two levels to represent activity above and below ground. Boieldieu's Der Verwiesenen auf Kamtschatka (Court Theater, 1804), based on Duval's Béniowsky, ou les exilés du Kamtchatka, was set on the Bering Sea in northeast Russia, representing one of the more remote locations, as did the Theater an der Wien's production of Kreutzer's Die Familie auf Isle-de-France, where the destination was the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

 Viennese audiences thrived on the latest novelties, particularly from France. But a significant factor behind this fascination with locale-based operatic subjects had to do with a primal driving element: competition. Visual splendor had always been an important element in Court Theater productions. But when the new suburban Theater an der Wien opened in June of 1801, it was hailed as the most technologically advanced theater in German-speaking Europe, with a huge stage that was home to considerable Pracht, or splendor. Thus the Court Theater had to up its game, as sets were now as important as a good libretto, good singers, and colorful orchestral writing. The new literary art of music criticism was also a significant factor, as Viennese reporters from the Leipzig-based Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung often singled out the visual elements alongside the musical production. Overall this trend toward French locale-based productions thrived until 1806, when after the first French occupation of Vienna, theater administrators found it prudent to look elsewhere for operatic sources.