The Production of Edipo Re at the Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza, in 1585

Teatro Olimpico

A notable experiment in the reconstruction of the ancient classical drama was conducted in Vicenza in the 1580's. A group of scholars, artists and musicians - the Accademia Olimpica - decided to build a theatre in the best Roman style, and to open it with a thoroughly authentic production of Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex". There are extraordinarily precise records of the whole process, from proposals to the practical outcome, and these are very revealing - the problems of "authentic production" are there from the very start, as they wrangle about theatre scenery and translations.
There are excellent modern accounts of these (unfortunately not in English), by Leo Schrade La Representation d'Edipo Tiranno au Teatro Olimpico en 1585 (Paris 1960); and Alberto Gallo La Prima Rappresentazione al Teatro Olimpico (Milan 1973)

Roman theatre
Olimpico theatre
Above left, Palladio's drawing after Vitruvius of the classical Roman theatre: the audience sits on steps arranged in a semicircle, the stage is the same width as the semicircle but not very deep, and backed by a Frons Scenae with three doors. Above right is the final plan for the Teatro Olimpico: the audience area is a little wider and shallower, the actual acting area is still not very deep, but the flat frons scenae with three doors has been replaced by five deep perspective avenues leading the eye back. Palladio had died before his design could be built, and the theatre was completed by Scamozzi. Palladio's original strict Roman plan had been modified to suit the requirements of the time: an awkwardly shaped ground area and a desire for more appropriate scenery. Instead of the three plain arches or doorways, he built a trompe l'oeil vision of the city of Thebes.

frons scenae

Angelo Ingegneri was charged with the actual production, writing a Progetto describing how he planned to do it. Later on he wrote a Discourse on the kind of poetry best suited to drama: Della poesia rappresentativa; and a Treatise on the practicalities of production: Del modo di rappresentare le favole sceniche. These too betray a remarkably steep learning curve: for example, he starts off by announcing that the actors will play in masks and wear buskins, in the best authentic fashion. However, in the Trattata he says that the masks at least were not used, because they did not do justice to the art of the actors. This was not a problem of unfamiliarity - masks were widely used in other kinds of theatrical shows, such as the court intermedi and the professional commedia dell'arte. But there they were used to identify a stock character - as indeed they had been in classical times - and clearly this shows that stock characters were not what the Accademici Olimpici expected from Sophocles.

This production deserves to be thought of as one of the precursors of the dramma per musica. In keeping with the current ideas about Greek and Roman drama, the speeches were declaimed musically (though probably not to a musical accompaniment) and the choruses sung homophonically - Andrea Gabrieli composed the music for them. But it was very much a one-off. As usual with enterprises of this nature, it was fantastically expensive, and although much praised, had no immediate consequences in Vicenza. However, the people responsible, especially for the practical side, travelled to Mantua and to Venice and were certainly involved in later enterprises, such as the theatre at Sabbioneta, built by Scamozzi, where he kept the beautiful auditorium layout, but built a much more versatile and usable stage (see 'Places' section in 17th century images).