Illustrated libretti for eighteenth-century opera performances comprise a specific and unusual type of visual art. Since these engravings were made before the performances, they cannot be interpreted as objective documentation—indeed, clear evidence points to discrepancies between these representations and what the audiences actually saw. Rather, they must be seen as conveying the intention of these occasions, in surprisingly subtle ways.
Christine Fischer demonstrates this way of reading libretto illustrations in “Engravings of opera stage settings as festival books: Thoughts on a new perspective of well-known sources” (Music in art XXXIV/1–2 , pp. 73–88). In the above engraving by Johann Benjamin Müller of the final scene in Maria Antonia Walpurgis’s Talestri, regina delle amazzoni (1760), Fischer notes that the wide gap between the female Amazons and the male Scythians—their leaders both with drawn swords—demonstrates their opposition, but the bridge in the background indicates their impending reconciliation. The message below the surface involves reassurance that the composer’s ongoing consolidation of her political power in Dresden will be beneficial to all, and that her rule will be based on a deep knowledge of state affairs and peaceful collaboration with powerful men.