As may have already been said before, I’m amazed by some of the books and scores to be found on our shelves. They raise so many questions: who’s that composer; when and how did we buy that; and why. The book I’m going to look at in this post is definitely a ‘why’.

Fischer  Les Costumes de l’Opéra (publ. 1931)

Two sketches by Jean Berain
Two sketches by Jean Berain

It doesn’t take much knowledge of French to gather that it’s apparently something to do with opera costumes. However it’s not any old stage apparel; the subject is specifically geared to the wardrobe department of the Opera de Paris (the ‘l’Opéra’ of the title). So already a book with a limited readership. Add to this a scholarly, substantial text entirely in French, and my eyebrows are on the rise. Its saving grace is the illustrations and coloured plates which are scattered throughout. But even then, what you glean beyond the pictures is limited to your knowledge of French.

Another thing to bear in mind is French opera has often been as much about the dance as the singing, and this shows in the costume designs. So let’s feast our eyes rather than our ears and take a look.

Jean Bérain the Elder

Two sketches by Jean Berain
Two, more fantastical, sketches by Jean Berain

In today’s straitened circumstances, opera and ballet companies either make do and mend, or design the simplest costumes possible, preferably ones that can be re-used.  Jean Berain , working at the court of Louis XIV (the Sun King), was obviously under no such strictures. The amount of detail and decoration on these costumes is astonishing. And the second pair even more so. Is the woman on the left a witch? Quite how Bérain expected the snakes to be realised is another question.

Try dipping in and out of this recording of music by Lully, Cavalli, Rossi and Lambert for a flavour of the music around at that time in France.

Here’s one of Bérain’s sketches coloured (by hand, presumably) – so much lace and silk brocade, never mind the feathers, and the bow with its quiver.

Femme a l'Arc by Berain
Femme a l’Arc (Female archer), a coloured sketch by Berain

J-B. Martin

[click on the images for a more detailed view]

This now almost unknown designer worked in the middle of the eighteenth century. Both the costumes above are for peasants. Really? This is the pre-revolution period of Marie-Antoinette and her supposed comments about cake. To my eyes, these images are the visual equivalent. I know theatre is make-believe, but the supposed rural simplicity on show is enough to make anyone’s eyebrows shoot up. Rough woollen stockings and clogs would hardly fit the bill at the French court.

Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard

Sketches for 'Zemire et Azor' by Fragonard
Two detailed, annotated costume sketches by Fragonard

By the Napoleonic era, although the costumes have changed, they don’t appear much simpler. These sketches by the French artist, Fragonard are works of art in themselves. Reading about Fragonard, all the emphasis is on his paintings understandably, but surely these are worthy of note as well. I’m fascinated by all the annotations, however the dense, spidery writing makes reading them very difficult. And they’re in French, of course.

Two sketches for Zemire et Azor by Fragonard
Another two sketches for the same work: ‘Zemire et Azor’

 Zémire et Azor is a re-telling of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale. At first I thought it was the opéra comique by the Franco/Belgian composer Getry; however it turns out to be a narrative ballet by Jean Schneitzhoeffer who was on the Opéra’s staff. This French composer registers little nowadays except for another ballet, La Sylphide (in its original Paris version).

There’s nothing much by Scheitzhoeffer available easily, so here’s some music by Adolphe Adam, roughly the other composer’s contemporary.

The exotic, Arabian setting was the perfect excuse for Fragonard to let his creativity loose. How authentic they were is perhaps another matter. Be that as it may, it is one of Fragonard’s illustrations which is my favourite:

Coloured costume sketch by Fragonard
Coloured sketch by Fragonard, also for ‘Zemire et Azor’

My guess is this is the costume for Azor, the ‘Beast’ of the tale, though the reds, and reddish purples are attractive.

I’ve had fun constructing this post and as usual, learning new things.