Plzeňské sympozia

Milan Pospíšil

Theatre floods

pp. 216–230 (Czech), Summary 228–229 (English), 229–230 (Deutsch)

Floods are some of the least common types of disastrous spectacles on opera stages in the 19th century due to the difficulty of depicting them convincingly. Based on three examples from French, German and Czech opera output, this paper deals with the function of this spectacle in the opera work as a whole, its premiere stage production and reception both in Prague and abroad. In the opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer Le Pardon de Ploërmel (Paris 1859) the flood in the finale of the second act brings about a key turnaround in the plot: the shock of the fall into the flooded river cures the heroine Dinorah of the madness that she has descended into due to her ostensibly unhappy love. For the sake of the authenticity of the natural disaster the stage engineer Franz Joseph Mühldorffer actually used water. This flooding effect was cutting edge technology in Parisian stage production practice, which also became widespread abroad thanks to printed books on production. In the final section of the famous stage work by Richard Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen known as Götterdämmerung (Bayreuth 1876) the flooding of the Rhine has a fundamental dramaturgical function. The ring forged from gold stolen from the Rhine maidens at the beginning of the tetralogy returns to the womb of the river at the end, thus bringing to an end the curse of the ring and restoring the original state, while a new era begins in which the gods no longer hold sway. Despite the engagement of the best theatre painters and technicians, the premiere production of the apocalyptic ending with the fire and the flood was not successful, because Wagner's requirements for a perfect illusion were not realizable at that time. In Bedřich Smetana's Čertova stěna (Devil's Wall, Prague 1882) the appearance of the devil's building, the flood and the collapse of the wall formed the final grand spectacle, round which the entire plot gravitates as the historical-romantic motivation for the legend of the creation of the natural formation on the River Vltava. Production demands went beyond the usual requirements for original Czech opera. Even though the production of such a spectacle was within the capacity of Prozatímní divadlo, the theatre management underrated the stage requirements of Čertova stěna and so performed slapdash work. The technical and production failures of the premiere did considerable damage to the reputation of the work and placed its subsequent life at the theatre in jeopardy.

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