The Operatic Paolo Veronese

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When I study or teach how scenery and costume design could be done for an opera whose setting might be Renaissance Italy—and the production team actually has the confidence to depict it in its time and place rather than, say, New York’s Little Italy or Las Vegas in 1960 or the Planet of the Apes—my first point of reference is always the paintings of Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). While his name may not be the first one that comes to mind when thinking of Renaissance painters, he was one of the best.

Bernard Berenson, the hugely influential art historian, wrote of him in 1894: "Taken as a whole, he was as much the greatest master of the pictorial vision as Michelangelo was of the plastic, and it may be doubted whether, as a mere painter, Paolo Veronese has ever been surpassed."

Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Artists is the primary source for what we know about Italian Renaissance painters and sculptors, praised the abilities of the 31-year-old Veronese’s decoration (which won him the prize as the best painter in a competition) on the ceiling of the Library of Saint Mark’s in Venice:

“The painting that gave the victory...was the one where Music is depicted; in which are painted three most beautiful young women, one of whom, who is the most beautiful, plays a large bass-viol, looking down to the instrument’s handle, and paying the greatest attention to the sound with her ear and personal disposition and voice; of the other two, one plays a lute, and the other sings from a book. Next to the women is a Cupid without wings, who plays a harpsichord, demonstrating that from Music Love is born, or that Love is always in the company of Music.”

Thoughts of Veronese returned to me recently at a marvelous exhibition of his paintings at London’s National Gallery, not to miss if you are in the British capital before June 15. The exhibition will move to Verona, the painter’s home town, from July 5 to October 5. It nicely overlaps with the annual opera festival in the Arena di Verona, whose monumentality Veronese would admire. 

What impresses about the work of Veronese, apart from his evident sovereignty as a painter, is how monumental are his compositions. I think that Veronese’s awareness of marble, stone and epic scale came from being the child of a stonecutter. His designs have weight and solidity but seldom seem ponderously heavy. The columns, pediments and edifices in his paintings are noble and exalting, not overwhelming and disproportionate in the way that skyscrapers now huddle cheek-by-jowl on New York’s West 57th Street, creating darkness and visual chaos. Veronese is all about glorious, animated order. 

His paintings often seem like stage sets to me with their upward sloping pavements meant to draw in the eye just as the raked floors of many opera sets which afford a more complete view to the audience but wreak havoc on the knees of opera singers. You may look at some of his paintings on an accessible slide show. I will refer to four of these images in this article.

The Supper at Emmaus (on loan from the Louvre) is such a work. Its figures are crowded around a small table. Christ looks upward while other persons—19 by my count—crowd around in a kind of tableau that could be a scene from a Rossini or Verdi drama.

The Supper at Emmaus

Many of the paintings in the show give lessons not only in how to design a costume but the physical carriage with which it should be worn. This is known as atteggiamento in Italian and applies whether in a painting or on a stage. In the exhibition, the portraits of Iseppo de Porto and his son and Livia de Porto Thiene and her daughter (which belongs to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore) provide object lessons in how noble, proud characters would stand and wear their beautiful vestments.

Among the images in the slide show, look at the painting of Lucretia (image no. 2), which could provide inspiration for the costuming and wig for a woman who is both noble and sensual. Perhaps Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro or even Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. The Portrait of a Lady, known as the “Bella Nani” (image no. 8) could inspire the design and gesture for Verdi’s Desdemona. Her magnificent blue dress contrasts with her golden hair pulled back tightly.

The Anointing of David (image no. 9) would make for an ideal neoclassical setting. The composition of the figures in the center could provide an example of how to group a chorus that is there to comment on the activities of the principal characters.

Perhaps the most remarkable painting is the immense The Family of Darius Before Alexander (image no. 6), which is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery. It could inspire designs for an opera set in ancient Greece, Rome or the Levant, such as Mitridate, Re di Ponto; Idomeneo; La Clemenza di Tito; Rinaldo; Orlando Furioso; or Armida. Note the balustrades, arches, balconies, columns, elaborate costumes, horses and, for good measure, a monkey.

The Family of Darius Before Alexander (National Gallery, London)

A much simpler composition, but no less brilliant, is The Dream of Saint Helena that belongs to the National Gallery. She is richly dressed in a lavish interior and could be the model for a queen, especially an imprisoned one such as Mary Stuart. She wears a brocade dress and a jeweled crown and the room has textiles, fluted columns and a bronze statue. A singer could learn a great deal from this figure. Painted in an era well before photography and film, it contains the sort of expressive gesture that is much more pronounced and deliberate than might have been seen in the past hundred years. And the picture’s framing device of a rear window could work as an imaginative setting for an opera that requires dream sequences or the sudden appearances of characters or weather systems.

Which painters and sculptors do you think would provide inspiration for particular operas? In your comments, please name both the artist and the opera you see as being connected to this artist.