When theatrical scenery was introduced in a 1672 production in Lima’s viceregal palace, it was considered a wonder. A chronicler wrote:
On Thursday, the 11th of the month [of February, 1672], the great play of ‘Noah’s Ark’ began at eight at night and ended very late, with machines, like those used at the Retiro Palace of Madrid, never before seen here. It was attended by His Excellency with all his family and the judges of the audencia... The celebration of this play at the palace continued until Tuesday, the 2nd of March, which was Carnival, and it was seen by the whole city. There were few who did not see it, excepting the Nuns...
Prior to this, Spanish drama had been presented in courtyard theaters called corrales, with little or no scenery in much the same style as that seen in Shakespeare’s Globe. The Spanish New World was a field of golden opportunity for Spain’s rich theatrical tradition. Corrales, with companies producing the latest dramas from Spain, were established in all major cities before the end of the 16th century.
But baroque drama, and especially baroque opera, which was introduced in the Americas about the same time, required a magnificence of presentation that was more comparable to an elaborate liturgy than to a cape-and-sword thriller.
The “machines like those used at the Retiro Palace” were state-of-the-art modern marvels that could change the scene from a palace to a seashore, then to a prison and finally to a vision of heaven, all thanks to the manipulation of the recently discovered art of perspective.
On Saturday, Aug. 8, at 2 pm, James Middleton presents “`Never Before Seen Here’: Baroque Stagecraft in the Spanish New World,” as part of the exhibit Painting the Divine: Images of Mary in the New World. The presentation in the History Museum auditorium is free.
Middleton’s lecture is built around the stagings of La Púrpura de la Rosa, the first opera composed in Lima (1701) and La Parténope, the first Mexican opera (1711). He will explain what we know about the conditions in which these productions were staged and make some educated guesses to bring old music-theater to life in the post-modern age.
James Middleton is an independent scholar specializing in the material and social culture of Colonial Latin America from the Spanish Conquest to Independence (ca. 1521–1821). He has written and lectured extensively in the United States, Mexico and Central and South America, particularly in the area of colonial dress, with recent lecture engagements in Bogotá (Universidad de los Andes), Denver (Mayer Center/Denver Art Museum), New York (College Art Association), and Los Angeles (Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies).
His interest in dress and the decorative arts flows from his earlier incarnation as a designer-director of Renaissance and Baroque opera. As founder and artistic director of the baroque opera ensemble Ex Machina (1986-1997), he staged numerous productions of the early music-theater of the Americas, including the U.S. professional premiere of the first New World Opera, La Púrpura de la Rosa (American Musicological Society, 1994/Indiana University 1996). He also conceived and directed Prohibited by Order of the King, the critically acclaimed recreation of a 1749 theatrical fiesta from Cuzco, Peru, presented at the Boston Early Music Festival and San Antonio (Texas) Early Music Festivals in 1990 and 1991.
He has staged operas and conducted residencies and workshops at Harvard, Dartmouth, Indiana University, Case Western Reserve University, Kent State University, Amherst Early Music, Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, CENIDIM (the Centro Nacional de Investigación, Documentación y Información Musical "Carlos Chávez"), the Universidad de Panamá, and for professional companies in New York, St. Paul-Minneapolis, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Seattle and elsewhere.
He holds a BFA degree in Stage Design from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and an MA in Latin American Colonial Culture from NYU, and is the author of the upcoming Dress in Eighteenth-Century Mexico, from Texas Tech University Press, and of Seventeenth Century Opera Production, in the G. Schirmer Guide to Seventeenth-Century Music G. Schirmer Publications, New York, 1997, re-issued in 2010.
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For more information, contact the New Mexico History Museum at 505 476-5200