The Shift from Oblivion to Paris: Salvatore Viganò

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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Figure 93: Monumental scenic designs by Alessandro Sanquirico for Salvatore Viganò’s production of Psammi (1817). Photos: New York Public Library, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Salvatore Viganò

Outside of France, the Revolution had a different impact on the relation between ballet and pantomime in the form of the coreodramma developed by the Italian choreographer Salvatore Viganò (1769-1821), although the term itself was the invention of his adoring biographer, Carlo Ritorni (1786-1860). A very cultured and wealthy man, Viganò, a nephew of the composer Luigi Boccherini and a brilliant student of Dauberval, achieved stardom as a dancer in Venice and Vienna before becoming the ballet director at La Scala in Milan in 1811. Viganò felt that French ballet, under the heavy influence of Gardel and Revolutionary politics, had become too purified and emotionally stunted as a result of curtailing the pantomimic elements. However, the alternative to French ballet that Viganò proposed, the coreodramma, was slow to develop after he made his first attempt at it in Vienna with Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (1801), for which Beethoven composed the music (Thayer I 1967: 271-272). The coreodramma created a monumental, tragic grandeur that was unprecedented in ballet or pantomime. In 1804, Viganò produced in Milan Coriolano, his first translation of Shakespeare into the new synthesis of ballet and pantomime, but this work and his subsequent four coreodrammi, produced, over a period of a dozen years, responses for which documentation beyond plot synopses is lacking but which nevertheless allowed Viganò to keep experimenting with the new technique (See Ritorni 1838: 81-127; Prunières 1921: 74-80). Then, in 1817, he produced Mirra, an adaptation of Vittorio Alfieri’s 1789 tragedy about father-daughter incest. He followed this success with further triumphs: Psammi (1817), Otello (1818), La Vestale (1818), I Titani (1819), La Spada di Kenneth (1819), among others. In these works, Viganò perfected the blending of balletic and pantomimic movement by linking all movements to rhythmic structures in the accompanying music. At the same time, he greatly expanded the movement vocabulary of ballet by introducing many “expressive gestures” that derived from the study of artworks and the iconography of emotions. Audiences could follow the action of rather complicated tragic narratives without the need of programs or intertitles: “every moment of the action ought to be performed on stage, in order to avoid complex references to facts and events that happened somewhere else; even the relationships between various characters and their psychological nuances were rendered by mime movements” (Poesio 1998: 5). Viganò’s choreodramatic approach created a highly economical movement style that allowed him to compress many narrative details into precise gestural tropes. His performers dance-mimed intense narratives, yet only in a few instances did they actually perform dances, and often these were adaptations of folk dances, like the furlana. Commentators marveled that his Otello was more powerful than Rossini’s opera and even stage versions of Shakespeare’s play. He made Desdemona the focus of action and amplified the role of Iago’s girlfriend, Emilia, which somehow made the piece even darker and more mysterious than audiences apparently expected of the original text while at the same time being a much shorter theatrical experience: the published scenario for this great tragic performance was only seven pages long (Viganò 1818: 5-12; Potter 2002: 63-64). He devised choreodramatic “monologues” and “duologues” that replaced the traditional ballet solos and pas de deux, and these operated in counterpoint with huge choral ensembles that did not move in unison; rather, each member of the chorus had her own, unique set of rhythmically patterned gestures, so that the chorus moved as if it were a great, panoramic spume or gathering hurricane of individuated bodies, “the ever changing configurations of the corps de ballet” (Hansell 2002: 270). As the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley explained in a letter to a friend, Viganò’s productions “are wholly unlike anything represented on our stage, being a combination of a great number of figures grouped with the most picturesque and even poetical effect, and perpetually changing with motions the most harmoniously interwoven and contrasted with great effect” (Dowden II 1886: 201). Coreodramma entailed sumptuous production values at La Scala exceeding those of any other theater in Europe at the time. Working with the great architect Alessandro Sanquirico (1777-1849), Viganò set the action in scenery filled with spectacular architectural details and the powerful application of new lighting technologies (Hansell 2002: 269-270) [Figures 93-94]. 

Figure 94: Monumental scenic designs by Alessandro Sanquirico for Salvatore Viganò’s production of La Vestale (1818). Photo: Gallica (Bibliotheque nationale de France). 

The grandeur of production arose from the layering and interweaving of manifold gestural, musical, and visual details requiring considerable preparation and rehearsal time. No one was more “serious” about pantomimic movement than Viganò. His themes were epic. Psammi, set in Pharoanic Egypt, deals with a conspiracy against a king, with scenes set in a vast palace and within a pyramid and huge choral movement scenes (particularly the “funeral march of Egyptian character” opening the fourth act) that, as in other Viganò productions, captivated the spectator as much as any of the major characters of the story (Ritorni 1838: 151-154). La Vestale opens, Ritorni reports, as “a scene of astonishing breadth suddenly appears, of all new construction, of marvelous richness due to the many objects that fill it. It is divided in two parts. Behind and outside of the common scene […] and on the lower-level you notice the Roman circus of oval shape, […] full of obelisks and statues, that forced the running chariots to turn around the periphery. The bleachers and the galleries are full of consuls, senators, of all the Roman dignitaries, and general spectators of the struggle already begun between the athletes, during which the trumpets announce that the chariot race must follow” (Ritorni 1838: 199-200; Ertz 2010: 353-364). The Irish novelist Lady Morgan (1781-1859) rapturously describes the scene in the fifth act when Julia, the Vestal, is about to be buried alive and wherein subtle details of physical expression harmonize with memorable visual and musical details:

She stands at the altar in the midst of a vast and gloomy edifice, whose ponderous columns appear to be of granite and porphyry. The lateral ailes and pillared vistas of the mysterious fabric are seen stretching into the depth and obscurity of a distant perspective. The pale light of the altar-fire gleams upon the face of the Vestal, as she watches it; she stands deeply absorbed in thought, and in her countenance the most passionate abstraction is perfectly expressed; while the music which symphonizes to her reverie, seems a part of her own sensations. Suddenly bursting into the conviction of her fatal secret, she exhibits all the struggles between nature and grace, passion and reason […] (Morgan 1821 I: 170).

With a libretto only five pages long but containing five acts, La Spada di Kenneth, a more melodramatic work set in archaic Scotland, featured a Druid playing a harp to invoke “invisible” Spirits conjured up by an off stage chorus as the heroine, Elizabeth, bearing a torch, follows her across a fog-shrouded cliff and down into a grotto, a feat requiring extraordinary coordination of pantomimic movement, music, and theatrical machinery (Viganò, La Spada 1819: 11). A vast, Gothic gloom engulfs the action, as in the grotto scene opening the third act: 

Meanwhile, the Druids show themselves preoccupied in their mysterious studies; one of them comes over with the news of public consternation at the duel of Bruzio and Baliolo. Their surprise is augmented with the arrival of Elizabeth heself, who is brought by the servant descending from the cliffs into the cave, and manifests to the Druids her resolution to conquer the sword of Kenneth guarded by them. Useless to distract her are all their grievances, useless the terrible ones, and gloomy voices, rising from the grave to frighten her. The Druids therefore give her the key to the iron door of the sepulcher, and while Elisabeth is about to open it, with all her strength, part of the walls themselves collapse, and reveal the receptacle, where the bust of theburied ancestor Kenneth is distinguished in the midst of the flames with the fatal, contested sword (Viganò La Spada 1819: 11).

In I Titani, Viganò attempted to show, allegorically, how love arises within a prehistoric, primordial world suffused with terrifying myths and chaotic aberrations of nature and is the basis for a humane society, the foundation of civilization. Aside from the human characters, the piece featured numerous allegorical characters: Calamity, the Fates, Sleep, Death, Nemesis, Fraud, Discord, Lasciviousness, and Old Age, in addition to “four huge Giants, with many Titani higher and lower, with the Cyclops, and all the Children of the Night.” The pantomime of the enormous Giants was the achievement of elaborate theatrical machinery (Ritorni 1838: 249-251). The five-act scenario, to the extent that one can derive a coherent understanding of it from the fifteen-page libretto, which Ritorno largely copies into his book, depicts the vast chaos and psychological darkness created by the quarreling of the allegorical figures and the efforts of the primeval human family to bring zones of peace and light to the violent cosmos. The theme of human identity transformed from primitive to civilized had appeared already in Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, but in 1813, Viganò returned to the Prometheus myth with greater resources and a more powerful organization of the material. Mary Ann Smart provides an excellent description of the “re-imagining” which took up six acts in six different settings “without concern for the unities”:

He represents the chaos of the pre-rational human world much more vividly, embodying it in not just the two humans that Prometheus created out of clay (as in 1801) but in a frightening mass of savage, ungovernable humanity. The language used to characterize the primitive humans is also much more raw – the children in 1813 are described successively as “savages,” as “automata,” and as inferior even to animals. Both ballets are structured as a series of oppositions between chaos and reason (or attempts to instill reason); but the Milanese version proliferates these alternations, depicting the civilizing of the humans in a series of small increments, each interspersed with alarming (and theatrically compelling) outbursts of savagery[…] the later ballet grants greater autonomy to Prometheus and the creatures themselves in reaching maturity. The power of music is also a central theme in the Milanese ballet; but here the primitive humans are able to respond to music only after they have received the initial civilizing impulse from their exposure to fire. And while the 1801 ballet concludes with a celebration of the completed education of the human children by the Muses, the 1813 spectacle places the wedding of the now-civilized children of Prometheus earlier and devotes its final act to the torture of Prometheus on Mount Caucasus, his rescue by Hercules, and his pardon by Jupiter. (Smart 2013: 212).

In the 1813 version, Viganò used only some of Beethoven’s original music, which he supplemented with music by the Austrian Joseph Weigl (1766-1846). In subsequent productions, Viganò compiled music from different sources; La Vestale involved works from seven different composers, including Viganò himself. Matilda Ertz describes in considerable detail Viganò’s selection of musical pieces, structures, and harmonies in La Vestale to produce strong emotional contrasts from one scene to the next (2010: 365-409). Viganò greatly expanded the ballet orchestra to take advantage of emotional effects achieved through instrumentation. Smart explains how Viganò’s arrangements of Beethoven’s music in conjunction with that of other composers (Haydn, Weigl) in Prometeo provoked stormy emotional controversy over an Italian appropriation of “Northern” music to construct “an arcane language that encoded secrets of universal history” (2013: 226-230). She quotes the response of an Italian who wrote an enthusiastic little book about the Prometeo production: 

Today’s generation want greater things. They want to be violently moved, ravished – . . . I cried tears of consolation as I watched, and the day seemed long as I awaited the evening, which would allow me to look again upon this spectacle. Imagine all possible beauties gathered in a single tableau, or, better put, a continuous series of marvels (Smart 2013: 227; Ferrario 1813: 10)

But the important point is that Viganò subordinated music to a unique, grandiose vision of movement on the stage in stark contrast to the French inclination to use music to standardize movement and build self-contained dances at the expense of narrative and emotional power. Viganò explored a Wagnerian concept of “music drama” without the voice instead of without dance. The great French author Stendhal (1783-1842), in his Life of Rossini (1824), referred repeatedly to Viganò’s “genius” and “masterpieces,” which created “the Golden Age of Milan” that ended when the powerful choreographer died. Anna Brownell Jameson (1794-1860) wrote rapturously of her encounter with Viganò’s Didone (1821):

I thought the Didone Abbandonata left us nothing to regret. The immense size of the stage, the splendid scenery, the classical propriety and magnificence of the dresses, the fine music, and the exquisite acting (for there is very little dancing), all conspired to render it enchanting. The celebrated cavern scene in the fourth book of Virgil, is rather too closely copied in a most inimitable pas de deux; so closely, indeed, that I was considerably alarmed pour les bienséances; but little Ascanius, who is asleep in a corner (Heaven knows how he came there), wakes at the critical moment, and the impending catastrophe is averted. Such a scene, however beautiful, would not, I think, be endured on the English stage. I observed that when it began, the curtains in front of the boxes were withdrawn, the whole audience, who seemed to be expecting it, was hushed; the deepest silence, the most delighted attention prevailed during its performance […] All [Viganò’s] ballets are celebrated for their classical beauty and interest. This man, though but a dancing-master, must have had the soul of a painter, a musician, and a poet in one. He must have been a perfect master of design, grouping, contrast, picturesque, and scenic effect. He must have had the most exquisite feeling for musical expression, to adapt it so admirably to his purposes; and those gestures and movements with which he has so gracefully combined it, and which address themselves but too powerfully to the senses and the imagination—what are they, but the very “poetry of motion,” la poésie mise en action, rendering words a superfluous and feeble medium in comparison? (Jameson 1826: 51-52)

Another visitor to Milan, the Swiss James Galiffe (1776-1853), also remarked with fervor: “The ballet was the most magnificent, and the most truly classical that I ever saw; not even the theater of Paris could exhibit any thing comparable to Viganò’s ‘Psammi, King of Egypt;’ and the London newspapers, accustomed to blazon forth the eclat of the indifferent performances at their opera in the Hay-market, would have been puzzled to find terms for the expression of the enthusiasm excited by this pantomime. […] Every scene presented such admirable groups, in the ancient Egyptian style, with such wonderful correctness and precision in the details, as to evince a no less profound study of costume, than elegance of taste in the choice of the subject” (Gallife II 1820: 445). Jacqueline Mulhallen gives a wonderfully detailed explanation of how the intensely stirring performances of Otello and La Spada di Kenneth, seen two and three times each, in Florence and Venice as well as in Milan in 1819 deepened Shelley’s ambitions as a dramatist (2014: 508-513; 2010: 153-159). La Spada di Kenneth, Shelley wrote, is “the most splendid spectacle I ever saw [ . . . ] The manner in which language is translated into gesture [ . . . ] the unaffected self possession of each of the actors, even to the children, made this choral drama more impressive than I should have conceived possible” (Mulhallen 2010: 153); and, as Mulhallen observes, Shelley’s spectacular dramatic poem “Prometheus Unbound [1820] can be seen as a response to the visual and aural stimuli of the scenes in La Spada combined with a reading of Aeschylus’s play and the experience of reports and prints of Viganò’s Prometeo,” which Shelley could not have seen in performance (2010: 159). At any rate, Viganò’s choreodramatic aesthetic made a powerful impact on spectators from different national and cultural backgrounds because it seemed like a revelation, a new and exciting path in theatrical production. He had his detractors, including Rossini, whose music Viganò used for effects the composer had never imagined, and they complained that his work was not even dance, although Viganò labeled all of his works “ballets” (See Petracchi 1818: no page numbers). Much of the criticism directed against Viganò assumed a political character. His ballets were a self-conscious challenge to French definition of the art and to French influence over European culture in the aftermath of the Revolution and the Empire, and for that reason provoked highly partisan responses. But the political dimension to his art has resonated well beyond his own time. He envisioned a new way of doing ballet freed from the “tyranny” of the French ballet’s obsession with dances built out of steps and positions. His works appealed to audiences that did not live entirely in the closed, exclusive world of ballet. Writing from a ballet perspective deeply attached to the French system, Jennifer Homans (2010: 650) makes the misleading statement that Viganò’s ballets were “lacking what audiences elsewhere most appreciated: divertissements. Viganó’s choreodrama was thus a local taste—Milanese rather than Italian.” The coreodramma did not disappear because it lacked audiences either within or without Milan. Viganò’s productions required vast resources, financed in large part, according to Stendhal, by the profits from the gambling casino operated by La Scala; when the Austrians reclaimed Milan in 1815 they forbade gambling (Stendhal 1957: 435). Moreover, the productions required great amounts of rehearsal time, because all of the movements within each of these grandiose dramas were not only unique to each character, each person, in the always large cast but unique to the narrative. He also had a brilliant ballerina, Antonia Pallerini (1790-1870), the dominant female figure in nearly all of his Milanese productions, who was exceptionally open to an entirely different approach to ballet stardom and perhaps for that reason enjoyed an unusually long career on stage. The stress of working on such an ambitious scale probably precipitated Viganò’s sudden, premature death from cardiac arrest. Viganò did not establish a school that would standardize his technique into system—pantomime, after all, is unregulated movement. And he never theorized or published his thinking about coreodramma, and so most of the power of his art emanated from the shadowy depths of his singular charismatic artistic personality. Viganò represented a moment when ballet and pantomime, with the other arts, could move in a new and profoundly stirring direction. He was a great artist. He was big enough and mysterious enough for all that his own time offered, but too big, too “excessive” for all the time that has come after him. For over a century after his death, the memory of his spectacular productions completely smothered any alternative idea of pantomime in Italy, which clung to the ballo pantomimo controlled by opera houses. Even the commedia companies remained devoted to voice-driven performance. Viganò brought an unprecedented level of tragic grandeur to pantomime and an equally unprecedented complexity of corporeal movement that was unimaginable in ballet. No one since the Renaissance was more consistently and prodigiously “serious” about pantomime than Viganò, and no one awakened such powerful emotional responses to pantomime as him. He made pantomime a revelation, a transformational experience. He enlarged Hilverding’s idea that pantomime could best represent the kinetic dynamics of groups, crowds, or social sectors, within diverse historical periods, without creating unison, monolithic blocks of humanity: each member of the huge ensemble, every supernumerary, had to develop a distinctive identity within the signifying practice defining the group to which the performer was assigned (cf., Poesio 1998: 5). His narratives focused on mythic themes (PrometeoI Titani) or remote historical subjects (CoriolanoPsammiMirraKenneth di SpadaGiovanna d’Arco), yet the physicality of the action gave the narratives a vivid immediacy, especially because Viganò linked the performance of an action to the signification and provocation of a contrasting or complicating emotion. His five-act libretti moved swiftly in performance and consumed much less time than conventional full-length ballets or operas, because he conceived of narratives as compilations of actions rather than compilations of performer skills. In Giovanna d’Arco (1821, performed 1826, in Naples), Joan of Arc continually shifts from moods of valiant elation to depression and abject unhappiness, as all around her misunderstand her heroic actions in defense of France, while the other characters, including her English adversaries, similarly shift their emotions in response to her indifference toward their largely pragmatic motives. He convoluted his narratives with mysterious, quasi-supernatural effects, but these remained subordinate to a spectacular vision of a tarnished, vulnerable humanity guided by dark “spirits” or allegorized powers that assume human forms and issue from human bodies, perhaps most extravagantly in I Titani (Act III): 

It is Bread that is guided by Love, followed by Fauni and Sileni descending from the alpine hills to release mortals from killing, bringing with them rustic waves [of wheat] to teach the yielding of the land that can only yield more through art and labor. While Bread teaches Hyperion and his children agriculture, Love now encourages one and now others to patiently undergo the inconveniences of this new state of nature. Bread after having accomplished this charitable act towards the miserable mortals, returns in the woods accompanied by them with infinite expressions of gratitude. […] Hyperion remains alone, thoughtful and sorrowful about the present calamity; but turning a look of horror on the infernal gifts of the traitors and barbarian brothers, flinches and trembles to see that from the fatally overturned copper vase a sanguine mood overflows, predicting new and more serious misfortunes (Viganò I Titani: 16).

For Viganò, pantomime offered a completely unique, powerful, and hauntingly grandiose kinetic fresco of humanity metamorphing, changing in response to “fate,” self-consciously creating history. The startling emotional intensity of his productions made it seem possible that pantomime could displace ballet and opera as the “grandest” manifestation of European theatrical culture. He brought pantomime to a point where it could change the course of European theater. He died, however, before he could document his methods and productions sufficiently for others to follow the path he envisioned. As Fabrizio Frasnedi has remarked, “Ballet for Viganò did not have a history, not as ballet d’action, not as a tradition of tragic pantomimic gesture, nor as a strategy of ensemble [montaggio]. Action and passion are, for [his ballo], almost indistinguishable terms. There is no action if it does not give rise to passion […] (Frasnedi 1984: 323). That is, Viganò linked action (rather than movement) to a uniquely motivating emotion, so that action and passion abandoned any regulating, institutionalized system of signification designed to define them and imposed upon bodies. But of course, ballet and opera companies had little incentive to appropriate his vision, regardless of how fascinated audiences were with his productions. As institutions, the ballet and opera companies functioned to protect mediocre imaginations and talents by subscribing to standards, rules, conventions, traditions, and academic systems designed to assure “quality” or “artistry” in performance from one season to the next: they sought a stability of operation that did not depend on the arbitrary distribution of powerful artistic genius. Ritorno called Viganò’s productions “coreodrammas,” because they unfolded outside of the conventional ballet system of rules, positions, steps, and corporeal idealizations, although Viganò always called his pieces ballets, for he saw himself as redefining ballet. Occasionally Ritorno refers to a small section of a Viganò piece as a “danza,” but most of the action he describes as “pantomimo.” But to achieve pantomime as Viganò envisioned it required an extraordinary directorial and managerial imagination, a mind of tremendous intellect and a personality of immense charisma. Viganò developed pantomimic action in relation to a monumental organization of performance variables: scenic architecture, lighting, music, props, costumes, and grandiose theatrical effects, such as a woman pushing open a huge iron gate surrounded by turbulent women holding torches. Pantomime synthesized all these production elements into an enormous emotional storm, a somber, tragic Gesamtkunstwerk. But coreodramma requires access to production resources that ballet and opera companies could not expect their government providers to accommodate, unless, like La Scala, they operated their own casinos, which, even if governments had approved them, would have required managerial talents as rare as Viganò’s. For these reasons, ballet and theater histories have underestimated Viganò’s importance, the power of his theatrical imagination to undermine a complacent belief in an assumed inherent value for ballet and perhaps even opera as opera houses defined them through their elaborate systems for regulating bodily action. In 1984, Viganò was finally the subject of an academic conference in the Reggio Emilia that resulted in the publication of a hefty book of essays on him (Raimondi 1984). But, as Poesi (1998: 4) has observed, the conference and the book were the work of literature and music historians, not dance or theater historians, and he accurately complained that these scholars did not say much more about Viganò than Ritorno had already said. In 2014, José Sasportes and Patrizia Veroli organized in Venice a conference on Viganò dominated by dance historians, who did indeed look beyond Ritorno for evidence of Viganò’s significance as a choreographer. Another large book emerged (Sasportes 2017). But while these scholars provide interesting details about Viganò’s life and method of production, they also reveal an inclination to place him “in context,” to see him as a figure evolving out of various unique historical circumstances that are obviously not irrelevant. The probem with Viganò, however, is that he actively challenged whatever “context” in which others wished to place him. That is what it means to create art that is genuinely “revolutionary.” Viganò’s productions were far more revolutionary in their approach to theater than anything staged in Paris during the Revolution or the Empire or during the many ensuing decades of talk-infested theater, romantic ballet, operatic inflation, and Pierrot. 

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