Distinct shifts in style were taking place within the scenography of late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century opera (Bianconi). The shift that had the greatest affect on scenic design was the change in subject matter. The focus on classical subject matter, such as in Dido and Aeneas, allowed for the involvement of mythological creatures and gods, which meant numerous flying machines to take them to and from heaven. It also allowed for sets without specific place markers, since classical myths could take place in any wooded area. While this had the advantage of letting designers recycle sets from one show to the next, it limited the influence of the set to established iconography. Clouds were indicators of the supernatural and the divine. Woods symbolized mystery, while gardens were extensions of human-imposed order. The “mouth of hell” was a particularly potent image that’s metaphor is rather obvious (Bianconi). This iconography, while quite useful in a classical context, fell short of the needs of opera by the mid-seventeenth century.
The move away from classical to contemporary subject matter placed greater demands on the scenic design and consequently the role it played in the production of opera increased. Being set in specific locations allowed for greater specificity in set design. The meeting of European and non-European cultures provided ample opportunity for creative costuming. By removing the mythological and divine presence in the libretto, librettists allowed stage designers to forgo traditional cloud machines in favor of more unique, specialized effects. Ironically, while the librettists of the time ceased focusing on classical subject matter, their attention to the classical style of theater increased. Following the method laid out in Aristotle’s Poetics, they emphasized the unity of time, place, and action. With those unities came a rejection of what was seen as the gaudiness of Baroque art. Simplicity and reason, not emotion and grandeur, were the order of the day. Together, these thematic and artistic shifts were crucial in scenic design’s movement from an ancillary consideration towards playing a central role in the production.
Vivaldi’s Motezuma is a representative example of an opera making use of the scenic design to support the dramatic action. Written in 1733 by Giusti, it is one of the first operas grounded in contemporary issues. In this case the issue is Cortez’s conquest of the Aztec Empire and his defeat of Montezuma at Tenochtitlan. The opera opens upon a scene of devastation: bodies scattered about a raked wooden platform, with a large Aztec mask overlooking the stage (Motezuma). Immediately the set indicates two things. First, it would have made the audience aware that the story is taking place in an exotic, distant, yet real locale. This sets up one of the most important contrasts in the opera. This place is not Europe, it is somewhere new and foreign: the New World. The details of the location would have been unfamiliar to a European audience. This unfamiliarity was antithetical to the earlier operas, where the choice of classical stories assured that the educated members of the audience, at least, knew the basic story. Few, if any, of the audience members would have had prior knowledge of this opera’s subject matter.
The other important piece of information the set initially conveys is that one side has just lost a bloody battle. In keeping with theatrical practice at this time the violence itself is not shown, but here its results are quite obvious. The bodies declare that this is going to be an opera of conflict, with more devastation to come. Moreover, that the bodies are from two distinct cultures indicates that that conflict will be intercultural (DelDonna). All of this information is available to the observant viewer, so the librettist is able to do away with most of the exposition and focus on the action; confident that the set will answer many of the questions that the first few scenes raise. It is this confidence in scenic design’s ability to convey information that is so important to its increasingly important role.Operas set in exotic locals, like Tenochtitlan, require far more contextualizing information than operas set in Europe. But that contextualization would have cluttered the libretto, so much of the exposition was shifted to the scenic design. That shift, a direct result of the shift in subject matter, gave the scenic design a far more important role in opera than it had previously been allotted.