Thursday, 13 July 2017

Exciting New Addition: Annotated Working Scripts of a Theatrical Set-Designer from the 1820s

Omnibus of annotated working scripts of an unidentified production designer of a provincial French opera house. Hardbound Octavo; spine reads "Théatre / 7 / Opéra". Containing: Gioachino Rossini, Jean-Baptiste d'Épagny, & Auguste Rousseau, La Dame du lac (The Lady of the Lake). 1825. First Edition. Hautecoeur-Martinet, Paris / Castil-Blaze, La Forêt de sénart, ou La Partie de chasse de Henry IV (The Sénart Forest, or The Hunting Party of Henry IV). 1826. First Edition. Castil-Blaze, Paris. / Bujac & G. Onslow, L'Alcade de la Vega. 1825. Libraire des Spectacles de sa Majeste: Paris. / Castil-Blaze, T. Sauvage, & Karl-Maria Weber, Robin des Bois, ou Les Trois Balles (Robin Hood, or The Three Bullets). 1825. First Edition. J.-N. Barba: Paris. / Eugène Scribe, G. Delavigne [sic. Casimir Delavigne?] & Daniel Auber, Le Maçon (The Mason). 1825, First Edition. Aimé André: Paris. / Paul de Kock & Frédéric Kreube, Les Enfans de Maître Pierre (Master Pierre's Children). 1825. First Edition. J.N. Barba: Paris. With heavy marginalia, stage and blocking directions, production notes, and handwritten pasted-on redactions.

This bound volume is a potential treasure-trove of insight into the working practices of French opera at the end of the Bourbon regime: it collects the first printings of six opera libretti from 1825–26, all of them the working copies of an identified scenographer or production designer of a provincial French opera house.

Most plays and operas in France premiered in Paris; the official libretto would be printed almost immediately, copies of which would be used by provincial opera houses in the country's other major cities as their working scripts, at least for those (such as scenographers) who needed to work only with lyrics and dramatic action rather than the music. Unfortunately, it has not yet been determined in which city the owner worked. (See the handwritten notes on the frontispieces below giving the dates of the provincial premiers, underneath the printed dates of the Paris premier.)

The six libretti bound together here contain hundreds of pieces of marginalia indicating stage directions, blocking, musical cues, set design, and other production notes. Unfortunately, pamphlets of various sizes have all been trimmed to the size of the bound omnibus, cutting off some marginal notations.

Even the physical nature of the marks betray the many hectic working conditions involved, and the progressive stages of thinking and re-thinking the production's details.

These scripts were clearly used both in the studio or office, and on the set itself; some extensive written marginal notes in pen result from careful planning and contain directions for the stage and set design or other production elements:
Meanwhile, in other places on-set decisions, changes, and notes are scrawled hastily and awkwardly with pencils or broken pens, using brackets and a personal short-hand of symbols, as if made while the owner was in the midst of another task or perched atop a ladder:
Rips, tears, smudges of dirt and grime sometimes remind us of the physical conditions of stage production.

Throughout the scripts, we find numbered blocking instructions, indicating which quadrant of the stage each character moved to at key moments in the production. 
What played successfully to cosmopolitan Parisian audiences might not always fly in the provinces, and even the original productions might have departed from the published version by the end of their run due to audience response.  The copy of The Alcade of de Vega contains heavy redactions that reflect the changes made by the opera house for their production.

These redactions were hand-written in fine, small hands by professional copyists, meticulously cut and and pasted into as many copies as necessary for the cast and crew involved – a labour-intensive, collaborative version of the operation now encoded into word-processors. 

The idea of the composer's and librettist's authority over their production was still fairly new and weakly encoded in the law. As a result, some of the redactions and re-writings are quite extensive, consisting of entirely re-written scenes (as below) and the insertion of songs by other composers.

Other cuts, like the one below, are hastily slashed out with what seems to be either a bad pen or an awkward writing position, and were probably made last-minute or even post-premier under pressure of production conditions or early feedback.

Such redactions were typical. In his Robin des Bois (Robin Hood), Castil-Blaze largely collaged his whole opera together out of music from various other composers, underpinning a new libretto.

Here he was following a standard practice, for musicians had been treated as hired craftsmen until within living memory, and intellectual property was a concept still struggling for acceptance. Castil-Blaze made much of his living adapting, re-orchestrating, redacting, abridging, and splicing music for the Parisian and provincial stage. Attitudes were changing, however, and Hector Berlioz and Carl Maria von Weber, among others, rebuked him for his appropriations in this and other plays; Castil-Blaze responded that he was popularising the music through his interventions. In response to Robin Hood, Weber made a legal arrangement to protect his next opera from a similar infraction, constituting an important precedent for the copyright.
I am happy to transcribe, describe, consult, or (when facilities become available, soon) scan passages of the book for researchers; there may be a slight time-lag depending on my teaching schedule. I can be contacted at (NOT as a blog response, please – I may not see it for months)

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