The Bibliothèque nationale de France’s BnF Gallica digital collections are a treasure trove. Seemingly endless in their scope, they contain many overlooked gems. One such gem may be found in Charles Bétout’s costume designs for Henri Maréchal’s 1907 opera, Le Lac des Aulnes (The Lake of the Alders/Alder Lake). Gallica BnF describes the work as a “fairy ballet in two acts and five scenes.” The designs are created with with plume, aquarelle, and gouache. The opera itself was featured at the Opéra de Paris-Palais Garnier, 25 September, 1907. Luckily for the curious, the work is in the public domain.
Before examining the richly detailed designs, some background on the opera itself. Princeton University Library’s Blue Mountain Project Historical Avant-Garde Periodicals for Digital Research holds a digital copy of Revue Musicale, Volume 7 No. 23 from 1 December 1907. The Revue contains a written feature on the opera and its plot. It’s writer is a bit of a tough critic, even going so far as to call the costume design unharmonious. Regardless, it gives us some semblance of the opera’s plot and style. Roughly translated from French, it reads:
“The subject of this ballet is the rivalry of two magicians, one of whom takes the “children” of the first (butterflies, dragonflies, spirits of the air, etc., etc.) to compose his enchantments and his potions. But he has a daughter; his opponent has a son, and you can guess that this one is in love with that one. This love first attenuates, then complicates the hostility of the two wizards, one of whom, reduced to impotence, breaks his wand and rushes into the lake of Alders. Twilight of magic (as Wagner would say) and advent of love, such is the symbolic title that one could give to this poem. The whole thing seemed a little gray to me. In the first act, I noticed that the decor lacks unity; it seems to be made of pieces and pieces: the color is not of a harmonious tone, and, from the orchestra chairs, one can follow the maneuver of the two electricians who, without taking care to conceal their lanterns project somewhat brutal spots of color on certain parts of the scene. The second act, from a decorative point of view, is very superior. These observations could apply exactly to music. M. Maréchal’s score – Grand Prix de Rome in 1870 – is well written, but without original and striking character; it is of a rather slow inspiration, without sufficient romanticism, and which stays halfway, instead of reaching the charm of great fantasy. It makes frequent use of a theme of Schubert (ballad of the King of the Alders) which harmonizes little with the rest. In the second act, there are excellent things, among others a “choreographic episode”; but it was not necessary to announce on the program that this episode is “fugue”‘
Here is a photo of the French-language clipping from Revue:
As for Henri Maréchal himself, Oxford Music’s Grove Music Online lists his birth on January 22, 1842, and death on May 12th, 1924. He lived and died in Paris. Biographic detail is readily available on Maréchal. Oxford notes that:
“After studying literature, he began his musical training in 1859; later he studied with Massé and Chauvet at the Conservatoire. In 1867 he became chorus master of the Théâtre Lyrique and in 1870 won the Prix de Rome. He gained recognition with his ‘sacred poem’ La nativité in 1875, and the next year established himself in the theatre, where his real ambitions lay, with Les amoureux de Catherine, which reached its 100th performance in 1889 and was still being performed in the 1920s. In 1876 he wrote La taverne des Trabans, which was awarded the Mombinne prize but was not produced until 1881. He wrote six further operas, a ballet and incidental music and works in many other genres.”
Back to Bétout’s costume design. It seems appropriate to move roughly with the narrative described in Revue. First, then, are the designs for the feuding magicians – striking in their portrayal of posture and intensity:
As Revue notes, the first magician takes for his own need the elemental spawn of the second. Their depictions are striking and uniquely rich. Here they are in no particular order beginning with one of Huit papillons, or eight butterflies:
One of the more elemental-style designs features one of Six salamandres, or Six salamanders:
Undines abound as well in a gaggle of Huit, including Coryphées – the lead dancing performers within a ballet corps:
Sylphs and Undines are not the only magical figures present. Other characters in the opera include two additional Coryphées in the form of two witches – Douze sorcières:
Rather androgynous male witches also feature prominently in the opera designs:
The earthiest and most vegetal figures are Les filles du roi des Aulnes and Le roi des Aulnes — The daughters of the Alder King, and the King himself, all adorned in flora:
Bétout’s designs enrapture the viewer into a kind of pagan operatic trance. Alas, some reviewers of the era did not find the piece to be as vivid in sound and movement. Scholar Caddy Devinia echoes the words of critic Pierre Lalo, who said of the opera’s intelligibility:
“Could we not imagine simpler action, better suited to pantomime, the meaning of which could be more easily perceived? . . . The number of intelligible ballets is extremely small.”
For Lalo, the score was simply there. He continues:
“Is it [the music] bad? No. Is it good? No. It is proper, conscientious, restrained and moderate. It endeavours to follow the action closely, to express its events exactly. It is by a musician who knows his trade . . . and all that would be perfect, if only this music was alive. The misfortune is that the music is not at all alive.”
Do not let the laments of Lalo or the unharmonious critiques of Revue detract from the sheer appreciation that comes from imbibing these images. Like sipping absinthe in turn-of-the-century France, they intoxicate and provoke reverie.
The designs may be viewed in full via Gallica BnF.
• All images via Bibliothèque nationale de France. [Le lac des aulnes : vingt maquettes de costumes / par Charles Bétout]. Bétout, (Charles (1869-1945). Dessinateur). Gallica BnF. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.
• Caddy, Devinia. Ballet at the Opéra and La Fête chez Thérèse in The Ballets Russes and Beyond: Music and Dance in Belle-Époque Paris. Cambridge Core. May 2012. pp 22-26. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139028189.003. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.
• Princeton University Library. Revue Musicale, La, Volume 7, Number 23, 1 December 1907. Blue Mountain Project Historical Avant-Garde Periodicals for Digital Research. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.
• Trevitt, J. Maréchal, (Charles) Henri (opera). Oxford Music Online – Grove Music Online. https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.O903056 Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.