A Sovereign Spectacle: Court Theaters of the Eighteenth Century

Susan M. Cole and Erin Doherty. Constellation Productions, 2011. 102 pages. $65.00.

By Amy Muse

A Sovereign Spectacle: Court Theaters of the Eighteenth Century is a sumptuous documentation of research conducted by ConstellationCenter toward the creation, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of a Baroque-style opera house that would be the first of its kind in North America. Four eighteenth-century court theaters—Markgräfliches Opernhaus in Bayreuth, Germany; Rokokotheater Schwetzingen in Schwetzingen, Germany; Drottningholms Slottsteater in Drottningholm, Sweden; and L’Opéra Royal in Versailles, France—all lovingly and painstakingly preserved, all serving as inspiration for the envisioned performance space in Cambridge, are featured in page after stunning page of photographs. Many of the photos appear to have been shot using just the theaters’ own lighting and convey the warm ambiance of attending a performance. They mesmerize and enchant, from wide-angle perspectives of each theater to the closest focus on details: the hand of a statue here, a brilliantly-painted mythological scene on a ceiling there, a series of pulleys and ropes for stage machinery. As director of Baroque opera and historian Gilbert Blin explains in his introduction, these court theaters were “cultural monuments that also reflect the evolution of ideas during the Enlightenment.” The “sovereign” spectacle refers both to the royal function for these spaces to “reflect the princely order” and to their centrality to eighteenth-century life and culture. The accompanying text by Cole and Doherty provides biographical profiles of the monarchs who reigned sovereign over these theaters, the names and dates of the opening productions in each, and some architectural distinctions and cultural uses of the individual buildings. We learn that the embellished rococo of Bayreuth offered the perfect atmosphere of fantasy for the wedding of Princess Elisabeth Friederike Sophie; that Schwetzingen was a former hunting lodge; that the auditorium and stage of Drottningholm are mirror images of one another; and that L’Opéra Royal of Versailles is constructed entirely of wood (better for acoustics) that was then hand-painted to resemble marble. It seems too quotidian to categorize A Sovereign Spectacle as a coffee-table book; a work of art in itself, you might want to display it on an easel instead. 

Markgräfliches Opernhaus in Bayreuth, Germany

Rokokotheater Schwetzingen in Schwetzingen, Germany

Drottningholms Slottsteater in Drottningholm, Sweden

L’Opéra Royal in Versailles, France

Amy Muse is an associate professor of English at the University of St. Thomas and a specialist in eighteenth-century drama.