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Giselle and the Paris Opera

Fellow travellers — By Octave

On October 18th 2015, 24 men and women, all staff of the Paris Opera, revived the centuries-old tradition of transporting painted backcloths on foot: they carried the scenery for Act 1 of the ballet Giselle from the Berthier workshops to the Palais Garnier. José Sciuto, deputy artistic director in charge of workshops, recounts his experience of this exceptional event. 

“Our season includes both new productions and works from our repertoire: in other words, certain works are billed time and again and become part of the Paris Opera’s heritage. An emblematic work like Giselle is obviously just such a work. This romantic ballet, first performed at the Paris Opera on 28th June 1841, has been revived many times in many different productions. In 1991, for its 150th anniversary, Patrice Bart readapted the choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot and the sets were redone by the Italian scenographer, Silvano Mattei, one of the greatest backcloth painters, using original designs by Alexandre Benois. If Giselle is still performed and appreciated today, it is largely thanks to the Paris Opera.

With the passing of time, many things have changed: first of all the type of sets used for operas and ballets. At the beginning of the last century and during the 19th century, most sets were painted canvas backcloths using trompe-l’oeil effects and theatres were equipped to accommodate and stock them safely. At the Palais Garnier, for example, we have what we call “cuves à toiles” situated backstage. Beneath a trapdoor measuring the entire width of the stage, there is a large space in which the rolled up backcloths are stored. This allows us to get them out and install them very quickly: a couple of stagehands attach them to ropes and others fly them up to the level of the stage. Just as it does today, at that time the Opéra had several productions on the go at once and it was important to be able to change the scenery every day. During the sixties, we began to use solid scenery with an architectural structure, which meant fewer painted backcloths and more three-dimensional objects. Naturally, we have to stock these items differently, either in cases or containers, of which we have over a thousand.

If scenery storage has evolved, then so has transport. I suppose at the time, backcloths were transported rolled up because of the paint. The medium used in the paint was made from animal gelatine which cracked if the cloth was folded. That’s why it was better to roll the backcloths, so as not to damage them; they were transported on foot because few carts had the capacity to carry the backcloths, which measured over twenty metres in length. However, since the second half of the 20th century, painters have used vinyl or acrylic resins which adhere very well, even when diluted, and which are more flexible. This means we can fold our backcloths and store them in containers or on palettes in cases. Once they are hung on stage, the creases drop out. The evolution of ballet scenery is the combined result of various technical developments in artistic techniques, storage and finally transport. For more than a century, however, we have continued to use the old methods of storage for scenery like that for Giselle.

Transport de la toile de Giselle aux ateliers Berthier en 1905
Transport de la toile de Giselle aux ateliers Berthier en 1905

With the passing years, the backcloths for Giselle, which have been used time and again, have deteriorated and, in readiness for the May 2016 revival, we have repainted the cloths for Acts 1 and 2. Gisèle Rateau, Thierry Desserprit and Jean-Philippe Morillon, all painters employed in our workshops, have had the noble task of reproducing the originals. A copy of a photograph taken in 1905 showing one of these historic backcloths being carried on men’s backs has been on the workshop wall for as long as anyone can remember and is part of the landscape. Edouard Gouhier, the Technical Director in charge of the Palais Garnier and the Berthier workshops, seeing our three painters at work, had the idea of transporting one of the new backcloths in the time honoured fashion of a century ago. On 18th October last year, 24 men and women, all volunteers from among our stage hands and workshop staff, took up the challenge and transported the canvas measuring 27 metres by 17 from the workshop to the Palais Garnier. The event was a source of much surprise amongst local inhabitants all the way from the Porte de Clichy to the 9th Arrondissement and provided tangible evidence of the human and material investment that our work involves.

Transport de la toile de Giselle aux ateliers Berthier en 2015
Transport de la toile de Giselle aux ateliers Berthier en 2015

To my mind, this initiative also embodies the values that have prompted me to be a part of this adventure: firstly the passing on of skills, which is at the heart of what we do. The work of our painters, like those who painted that backcloth, is a skilled craft that will endure. Lots of stage sets require painting involving different materials, textures and patinas, but painted backcloths are becoming increasingly rare. It is only in large houses like ours, where the repertoire is rich enough to sustain craftsmanship of this kind, that painters get the opportunity to execute such work. This tradition is a warm tribute, then, to the crafts of the set decorators and to all the stagehands and technicians who bring their work to life, providing a light-hearted opportunity for members of staff whose paths ordinarily would not cross to work together. This collective endeavour has highlighted the solidarity between the different craftsmen of the Paris Opera.

We took the backcloth in through the main entrance of the theatre and carried it through the auditorium to the stage. The technicians attached it to a flybar and it was then ‘flown’ above the stage. Watching the backcloth gradually unrolling in the middle of that great, darkened space was a poignant experience. As a former scenery painter, I was very moved.”


José Sciuto was interviewed by Milena McCloskey

The set for Giselle makes its grand entrance in keeping with the affection born for it by Paris Opera craftsmen and audiences alike. Photographer and producer, David Luraschi, has immortalised this singular journey through the streets of Paris in his film Giselle: The Walking Landscape available now on the 3e Scène

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