A production remembered

Olympia in La Traviata

A production remembered

By Octave 01 October 2018


© Eléna Bauer - Opéra national de Paris

Olympia in La Traviata

Benoît Jacquot confessed in 2014 “When I was asked to direct La Traviata, which is above all a literary and cinematic work, I immediately and instinctively thought of Manet,”. Just like Verdi’s heroine, the subject of Manet’s painting Olympia, is a “fallen woman”, a woman of loose morals. The work created a scandal when first shown because of the way it is lit from the front, as if the spectator were illuminating the painting himself to reveal the subject’s flesh in all its triumphant beauty. The director of the opera paid homage to the painter by hanging Olympia majestically over Violetta’s bed in the first act. A copy or the original? Rather than attempting to spirit a masterpiece out of the Musée d’Orsay, one of the Paris Opera painters took up the challenge and reproduced Manet’s celebrated portrait of a courtesan.

Thierry Desserprit is a scenery painter and set decorator at the Paris Opera. He was trained at a school of decorative painting where he learned the techniques of trompe-l'œil and patinas, in short, all the techniques used in creating the illusion of reality in a décor. He gradually specialised in theatre décor, in which a particular technique known as “Italian painting” is practised. This consists in painting on large canvasses stretched out on the floor, standing and walking on them as you work. Over the years he went from workshop to workshop, of which there were many in Paris at the time, and gained considerable experience, then joined the Painting Workshop at Opera Bastille about twenty years ago.

“In the Painting Workshop, some people work more on “environments”, that is, three dimensional sets. I work essentially on canvas backdrops. There are six permanent painters and we employ temporary staff if the production requires them. The teams working on the backdrops are small because you can’t have that many people working on the same canvas and there has to be a symbiosis between the painters. Sometimes we paint smaller items and accessories. In that situation, the painter works on his own, as was the case for the reproduction of Manet’s Olympia which was hung over Violetta’s bed in La Traviata. Before that, I’d been overseeing the trompe-l'œil work for the set, for example, the fake marble for the staircase in the second act, a replica of the grand staircase in the Palais Garnier.   

© Elisa Haberer / OnP

“When reproducing a great masterpiece, we sometimes use computer graphics. The head of the workshop first produced a rough impression of the work using computer generated imaging and this formed the basis of my work. Here, the use of computers was doubly necessary because the director wanted the faces in the painting to resemble those of the soloists performing the roles of Violetta and her maid. The preliminary digital image generated what I call the “carcass” of the work, printed onto the canvas, giving an indication of the forms and the placing of the colours, like a watermark. My task was to rework this image in paint and restore its pictorial quality through the use of colour, texture and chiaroscuro. It was also important that the treatment of the faces correspond to the original painting in terms of light and colour in order to maintain overall coherence. I drew on a large number of documents on Manet’s style as well as analyses of the painting and close-ups of various details in the image in order to reproduce it as faithfully as possible. I painted the picture in oils using an easel, in accordance with painting tradition.

“Under the stage lights, there is no comparison between the quality and beauty of a painted canvas and a printed reproduction which lacks the depth of paint. The art of painting remains very much alive at the Paris Opera and it is to be hoped that it will flourish in the same way in other opera houses allowing set decorators to continue to enjoy the rich possibilities offered by our craft.”   

Interviewed by Milena Mc Closkey

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