In the first half of the 20th century, the theater in the Grand Casino in Vichy was one of the most important opera stages outside of the French capital. A renowned creative space, the theater produced and staged its own works. To achieve this, in addition to the theater's orchestra and the performers hired during the summer seasons, the stage set studio provided all the scenery for each new production. A Studio Devoted to Producing Short-lived Artworks.
A Generous Size
The stage set studio was set up in 1898 and located on the second floor of a warehouse situated behind Vichy railroad station. The huge hall (the largest of its kind outside of the capital when it was built) was nearly 200 feet long and 100 feet wide, allowing the huge stage sets to be easily moved around.
An "Incubator" for Artists
A warehouse adjoining the studio allowed them to store the vast quantity of canvases and flats which constituted the stock of scenery for more than 60 different operas when the theater was at its peak, not to mention the material for plays and ballets. A second, smaller warehouse was set up closer to the theater.
Under the management of painters and set designers, the studio was initially overseen by Parisian artists, whose own studios had a near monopoly on creative output, particularly for the Paris Opera, and were considered the model to follow for provincial theaters. Subsequently, from 1907 until the mid-1960s, it was overseen by set designers specially attached to Vichy.
The Genesis of a Stage Set in the First Half of the 20th Century
To create a stage set, a preparatory process consisting of several steps must be carried out prior to the final production of the painted canvases and flats. First, the set designer imagines the set in the form of sketches and notes, scrupulously sticking to the stage directions established for the performance.
The next step consists of producing a painted sketch. This is created using gouache or watercolor paints and brings color to the plans, allowing the final look of the set to be seen on a smaller scale. Although perspective is used, the notion of volume is the only thing missing at this stage.
Faust (Act IV, Scene 2, the ancient temple, Walpurgis night) (1944)Vichy Opera House
To make up for this primary weakness of flat sketches, the set designer will, if necessary, make a model to show the volume, in which each of the cut-out elements represents an element of the constructed set on the scale of the stage.
This model is usually produced using the technique of squaring up: a traced grid covers the drawing and makes it easier to scale up on the canvas to be painted (generally, squares with one-inch sides represent around 3.3 square feet on the full-size stage set).
Once the plans have been approved by the theater's artistic management, work on producing the set begins. The set's large size dictates that it must be painted on the floor.
Finally, the set is taken to the theater and kept in the storage area dedicated to sets (usually either under the stage or backstage), before being set up on the stage floor or hung from the fly loft.
Short Life Span
Due to their nature, stage sets have a limited life span. After they have been used for several runs of a production, ageing sets are usually destroyed. In present day France there is almost nothing left of this fleeting art.
Vichy Is an Exception
Vichy Opera House, however, marks an exception to this rule. While the destruction of the stage set studio and its warehouses in the 1980s and 90s resulted in the simultaneous loss of hundreds of sets which had been preserved until then (most of which dated back to the 1930s and the post-war era), a fraction of the material was — somewhat miraculously — saved.
Saved from certain destruction and stored privately for more than 20 years, some 60 pieces of stage set were sold back to the Vichy Opera Museum in 2013. These flats, possibly the last of their kind in France, are today the most representative examples of the work of the Vichy Opera's stage set studio.
These sets include 11 flats built for Aida. Verdi's famous opera was performed on June 2, 1901, for the opening of the theater in the Grand Casino in Vichy. These original flats, created by Louis Contessa, were later reused and another layer, almost identical to the original image, was painted over it.
Awoken from the slumber to which they were compelled by circumstance, these historical sets were returned to their old home at the Vichy Opera, at least for a time, but modern safety rules no longer allow them to be stored in the spaces set aside for them in the past.
To carry out an initial inventory, all of the flats were moved to a warehouse provided by the local government authorities of Allier.
Some of the largest sets were almost 25 feet tall!
In Need of Restoration
Having been stored in poor conditions for a long period of time, the sets are now suffering from a variety of problems: lifting, gaps, grime, damp stains, tears, looseness, breakage to the flats' frames, splits in cut-out elements, etc.
The use of glue-based paint, which is common in theater set production, results in specific problems for restoration: the grime and damp have penetrated the entirety layer of paint and require complex retouches that create illusory effects (carried out using charcoal) as well as neutral and mat fixatives.
Despite having been stored improperly for many years, the sets surprisingly have retained their vivid colors.
A specific restoration procedure was quickly established. The technical characteristics and the bulkiness of the canvases require them to be detached from their supports and then transported, stored, and restored in rollers on framework specially designed by the restorer.
Today, the largest canvases are detached from their wooden supports and positioned on huge rollers (around 16 feet long and 20" in diameter), which is an essential step toward their future restoration.
Two large sets for Aida have now been restored and are on display at Galerie Napoléon III in Vichy (this gallery is the last remaining part of a former second-class bathhouse built in 1858 and is the only place large enough to accommodate the sets). The panoramic set for Act III depicts a temple on the banks of the River Nile. It is almost 15 feet tall and 25 feet wide.
Story produced by the Vichy Opera Museum and Vichy Culture.
The Vichy Opera Museum preserves, manages, and enhances the value of the historical archives of Vichy Opera House, which are owned by the City of Vichy.
A campaign to restore the historical stage sets of Vichy Opera House has been running since 2016, managed by the Vichy Opera Museum with the support of the local government authorities of Allier, the Auvergne heritage preservation foundation (Fondation du Patrimoine Auvergne), and the Allier heritage sponsorship group (Club des Mécènes de l'Allier).
Restoration workshop: Samuel Cherprenet, À l'Oeuvre de l'art, 03800 Huriel, France.
Museum website: www.operavichy-musee.com
Vichy Opera House website: www.opera-vichy.com