Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016...4:29 pm

LIGHTS, [camera], action!

Jump to Comments

Sometimes, working with the vast resources of the Ward Collection brings up more questions than it answers. Recently while scanning some libretto volumes for “key content,” I ran across some intriguing illustrations in Le theatre italien de Gherardi, a collection of 55 comedies and scenarios performed in Paris by the Comédie-Italienne (one of the precursors of the Opéra-Comique) from 1681 until 1697, at which point the troupe was expelled from Paris. The illustrations are remarkable in many ways, but what struck me most was the use of candles. Almost every image had candles hanging from the ceilings, directly over the stage itself.

TS 8000.61 v. 4

TS 8000.61 v. 4


Sometimes a single candelabra, but more often many, as seen above. The challenges of stage lighting have been on my mind before. This Lully score shows splatters of candle wax on several pages, and is not the first score I’ve seen so adorned. When one reads about productions like Destouche’s Issé, which featured the sun itself (allegedly created by 1,300 candles!!!) it’s clear that the French knew from candles. I’ve discussed this with frequent Houghton researcher Jed Wentz, and rumors apparently fly about contracts from the Italian Opera in London during Handel’s time, that show the viola players had to change candles, which might be why the arias in the middle of the acts tend to be without violas.

TS 8000.61 v. 2

TS 8000.61 v. 2

Is this why individual acts in French operas from this time tend to run under half an hour? Did candles influence the popularity of entr’actes? Another question for me: these candles are overhead: how well would one see faces on these stages? Was the audience sitting so close that it didn’t matter? See what I mean about all of these questions? Just a little something to ponder while sleeping off all that turkey. Happy Thanksgiving.

[Thanks to Andrea Cawelti, Ward Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]

Comments are closed.