The Original Staging of Carmen: The 1875 Mise en Scène
28 June 2021
This article acts as a preface to the English translation by Richard Langham Smith of the original Carmen staging book which can be found in full here.
This mise en scène (staging manual) for the premiere of Carmen at the Paris Opéra-Comique (3 March 1875) is the principal source for the staging of the opera as it was performed in its first run: the document that first turned the literary and musical sources into an opera. It is equally important to its companion sources – the various scores and the libretto, published just before the premiere – in that whereas the musical and literary materials only give us enough information for an ‘Italienne’ 1 with hints of the onstage movements, this document puts the opera on the boards.2 The various scores amplify both the directions in the libretto and also this document, in some cases detailing the emotions conveyed by particular sung phrases, and the way the characters move. This mise en scène – the product of months of rehearsals and exercises, (répétitions and études, according to accompanying documents) – represents the authoritative first staging of the opera, noted down and approved by the metteur en scène and under the supervision of the director of the Opéra-Comique, Camille du Locle.
Charles Ponchard and Carmen’s first Mise en Scène
In this case, its metteur en scène was Charles Ponchard (1824–1891) though Noël and Stoullig add that ‘M. Camille du Locle’s mise en scène was of the highest distinction: both the costumes and the scenery were charming. You could have believed they were real tableaux by Zamacoïs or Fortuny’.3 It was not unusual for theatre directors to exercise some control over stagings. For example, the second re-staging of Carmen was made by Albert Carré himself, who had assumed the role of director at the Opéra-Comique.4
Subsequent commentators differ in their estimations of Ponchard as a metteur en scène; for example, Mina Curtiss estimated him as ‘a constructive element in this diverse company. He was a retired tenor with years of success behind him, a sensitive and distinguished artist. Ponchard studied thoroughly each work under production and was able to offer valuable suggestions both to the composer and to the librettist’.5 Hugh Macdonald, takes a different view, although along with other commentators perhaps too readily claims that Ponchard was himself old-fashioned as a stage director. Drawing upon Ludovic Halévy’s memoirs of 1905, he quotes Halévy’s recollection that the chorus were accustomed to ‘standing still in neat lines, their arms dangling loosely at their side, their eyes fixed on the conductor and their thoughts elsewhere’.6 While Halévy’s memories of the difficulties with the chorus are unquestionable, it is far from certain that Ponchard was responsible for their reluctance to move on stage: he had only been responsible for two stagings at the Opéra-Comique before Carmen, the most important being another opera with a Spanish setting, Massenet’s Don César de Bazan in 1872. Curtiss may have some credibility as it may have been Ponchard’s adherence to the new realistic ways of production which caused the friction, apart from their inability to cope with Bizet’s slippery chromaticism.
Régisseurs and Realism
This mise en scène needs to be read with these changes in the nature of operatic stagings in mind. One of the most illuminating sources is Arthur Pougin’s Dictionnaire historique et pittoresque du théâtre et des arts qui s’y rattachent, in particular the entries on ‘Mise en scène’ and ‘Régisseur’. 7 The terms for the various régisseurs had evolved through the nineteenth century and the tradition of editing and publishing a written, authoritative mise en scène had been established by Louis Palianti (1810–1875) who, like Ponchard, had begun his association with operas as a singer. Several contemporary sources concur on the responsibilities of the various régisseurs in an established theatre whose repertoire included opera: among them is a substantial article on ‘Régisseur’ in the Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe siècle.8 Pougin summarises their roles: ‘Usually there are at least three régisseurs in a theatre: the régisseur générale and the metteur en scène, independent of each other and whose responsibilities are quite distinct. A third régisseur is under the orders of these two’.9
By the date of publication of this retrospective dictionary of 1885, Pougin was clearly allied to the new fashion for realistic production exemplified – perhaps for the first time – by the production of Carmen at the Opéra-Comique ten years earlier. A section in the entry on ‘Mise en scène’ stresses continuous movement as the over-arching principle of this style of production. ‘Even in an intimate scene’, writes Pougin, ‘without ceremony or any sort of fracas, the staging is often very difficult to get right. In real life, two people can chat for a half an hour in a salon without moving, and without making any movement. But it’s not the same in a theatre where immobility is impossible, but where movements must not be too sudden, nor too brusque nor too frequent’.10
This balancing act, Pougin implies, was one of the many tasks of the régisseur, and he takes this further in the subsequent entry on ‘Régisseur’, particularly on the second régisseur who was the metteur en scène, in the case of Carmen, Ponchard. Pougin emphasises the wide responsibilities of his role, compared to that of the régisseur général :
While the authority of the régisseur général is exercised over everything and everyone, so that the heads of each service are obliged to obey orders immediately, that of the metteur en scène is clearly defined and limited to the boards of the stage itself. But there, his authority is total and everyone must obey him. […] This is no light task and a good metteur en scène is a precious attribute to any theatre.11
In the entry on ‘Mise en scène’ itself, Pougin had pointed out the other skills necessary for a good régisseur :
It is clear that you cannot produce men as you do women, a squad of soldiers like a group of nymphs, knights in armour with lances like a group of peasants in casual clothes with random movements. On the other hand, the movements of an important personality in ceremonial costume – a king in his palace – cannot be treated in a similar way to a bourgeois in his sitting room. Finally, a hundred or two individuals rioting in the confines of a prison cannot move in the same way as a revolt in a spacious public place, open on all sides.12
The source is in the form of a neatly handwritten manuscript – probably scripted by a professional – reproduced by a method known as autographie where each copy looks deceptively as if it is a unique manuscript – the Bibliothèque de l’Opéra catalogues the copy in their reserve as dating from 1888 but this no doubt an accession date, not the date of its completion. The copy I have used is the example in the collection of the Association de la régie théâtrale (A.R.T.) now in the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris (BHVP) recently re-catalogued as 4-TMS-03741 (RES) but previously bearing the code C 27 (4).13
Staging Conventions in 1875
The whole system of staging an opera in France in 1875 could hardly have been more different than today’s practice. Terms such as ‘Director’ or ‘Producer’ did not exist, nor any idea of a ‘concept production’: these differences are essential to any understanding of the nature of this mise en scène which was distributed with the musical matériel (scores and parts) by the music publisher, in Carmen’s case, Choudens. While the musical materials comprised the orchestral and vocal forces to be employed, the mise en scène would be placed in the hands of the régisseurs employed by the particular provincial or overseas theatre mounting the opera. The roles of these régisseurs varied according to the theatre’s size and wealth, but one would have been the metteur en scène whose role was to evolve and, with assistants, follow the mise en scène and put the show on stage, as far as was possible following the document but within the resources of the particular theatre under his control. However, although the ideal would seem to have been to follow the definitive mise en scène to the letter, in practice variations must have been incorporated due to many factors: the whims of the régisseurs, available funds and the limitations of the stage facilities of each theatre, not to mention the acting abilities of the singers.14
Authorship and Dating
Neither Pougin, nor the author of the Larousse article of 1875, mention another function of the metteur en scène: the production of a printed, or otherwise-reproduced staging manual, also entitled a mise en scène – sometimes referred to as a livret de mise en scène. (See Figures 1 & 2). Immediately before the premiere of Carmen, a tradition of compiling these had been established at the Opéra-Comique by Louis Palianti (1810–1875) who, like Ponchard, had begun his career as a singer. He had been appointed as sous-régisseur in 1836 and was promoted to régisseur in 1849, continuing to sing as well as serve as metteur en scène.15 He was also an archivist and chronicler of performances and editor of many printed mises en scène. Ponchard, stepping into his shoes just before his death in 1875 – for Carmen – thus assumed the ultimate responsibility for the production of this document, probably aided by the souffleur (usually translated as the ‘prompter’ but in fact responsible for much more than prompting). The printed mise en scène evolved during the often-lengthy preparation period for the mounting of a new opera which might have extended to six months. In this case – and in the case of several other mises en scène – a handwritten description of stage movements and actions was produced probably by a professional scribe, and in the case of Carmen, published by a Paris printer and marked Imp[rimerie], Bouhy. This would be finalised after several performances of an opera, fixing the movements, ideally once and for all, in the light of staging experience. It would be essential for changes to the cast, and ultimately for export when the opera moved abroad or to the provinces. The duties of the régisseurs of the major Parisian theatres included the authorship of distributable versions of these mises en scène. The document was an essential part of the opera, unchallenged until Carré’s re-staging of the opera in 1898, and even then, the first staging was a rootstock on which Carré built his new version, a sort of benchmark Carmen which ran at the Opéra-Comique until the 1960s, while beside it new traditions and re-imaginings of every kind had sprung up all over the world.16 In the case of this mise en scène for Carmen, an exact dating of its reproduction is not possible, neither are precise details of its evolution. Each theatre had its own systems of management and for the Opéra-Comique – one of the grands théâtres of Paris – we have considerable knowledge of its operation.
A Further Source of Didascalia (‘Didascalie’)
Used more in French than English, ‘didascalia’ is the literary term for all the indications in dramatic texts which are indications rather than spoken text stage directions above all, but also indications of mood and in the case of sung text, the manner of singing, and occasionally instrumental directions. Bizet’s manuscript contains almost none of these, however the copy used for the Opéra-Comique early performances was marked up with many such directions and the original Choudens vocal scores also contained indications with detail as to musical intention, dynamics, mood, emotion in which lines were sung, etc. The mise en scène adds a whole new level of didascalia, and these together with the other sources merit a much more thorough study than this introduction can give.
To single out the most important information yielded by this source – among others – this is the earliest and most informative source to elucidate the meaning of the abandoned (but recently re-established) ‘Scène et Pantomime’ in Act I which was originally performed at the Opéra-Comique and printed in the first printed vocal score before it was omitted from the later version containing recitatives added by Ernest Guiraud. Although the libretto includes the text of this scene it does not mention that the old man and his wife are English. This addition explains the comedy of the situation, already rehearsed in a popular staple of the Opéra-Comique, Auber’s Fra Diavolo which similarly contains a scene where an English wife of an older man flirts with an attractive young Spaniard.17
The documents in the collection of the A.R.T. raise further questions about the staging sources for the opera as there is another source which also designates a ‘Scène de l’Anglais’ but specifies that it was in the ‘ancienne mise en scène’. This dates from much later, possibly recopied for the 1938 Opéra-Comique revival. It was, according to Odile Gigou, a previous curator of the collection of the A.R.T. collection, a re-copied document of a detailed source – delineated as a ‘livret de mise en scène’ – in the form of a copy of the printed libretto, cut up, and with each page pasted into an unlined notebook in which indications for actions have been neatly copied. Indications at precise moments in the libretto are numerated and tied to comments (about movements, attitudes, lighting, etc) in the notebook.18
Evan Baker, From the Score to the Stage: An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013)
Rémy Campos and Aurélien Poidevin, La Scène lyrique autour de 1900 (Paris: L’Œil d’or, 2011)
Hervé Lacombe, Les voies de l’opéra français au XIXe siècle (Paris: Fayard, 1997)
Françoise Pélisson-Karro, Régie théâtrale et mise en scène (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2014)
Nicole Wild and David Charlton, Théâtre de L’Opéra-Comique Paris : Répertoire 1762–1972 (Sprimont: Mardaga, 2005)
Stéphane Wolff, Un demi siècle d’Opéra-Comique, (1900–1950) (Paris: A. Bonne, 1953)
- This is the French term for what is now generally referred to as a ‘Sitzprobe’.
- For a resume of the librettos and scores, see the Preface (pp. vi–xxxv) to Carmen, Opéra-comique in four acts, vocal score, ed. Richard Langham Smith (London: Peters Edition, 2013), or for fuller details, Hugh Macdonald’s online Bizet Catalogue at http://digital.wustl.edu/bizet/ref/
- La mise en scène fait le plus grand honneur au goût artistique de M. Camille du Locle : costumes et décors sont charmants. On dirait de vrais tableaux signés Zamacoïs ou Fortuny.’ Noël and Stoullig, Annales du théâtre et de la musique (Paris: Charpentier et Cie, 1875), p. 108.
- See Michela Niccolai, ‘Carmen Dusted Down: Albert Carré’s 1898 Revival at the Opéra-Comique’, in Richard Langham Smith and Clair Rowden (eds.), Carmen Abroad: Bizet’s Opera on the Global Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp. 64–79.
- Mina Curtiss, Bizet and his World (London: Secker & Warburg, 1959), p. 321.
- Hugh Macdonald, Bizet (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 211. ‘Les choristes avaient l’attitude de chanter les ensembles bien alignés, immobiles, les bras ballants, les yeux fixés sur le bâton du chef d’orchestre et la pensée ailleurs’. Ludovic Halévy, ‘La millième représentation de Carmen’, Le Théâtre, 145 (January 1905), pp. 5–14.
- [François Auguste] Arthur P. Pougin, Dictionnaire historique et pittoresque du théâtre et des arts qui s’y rattachent (Paris: Firmin-Didot et Cie, 1885), pp. 522–527 and pp. 642–643.
- Entry on ‘Régisseur’, Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe siècle (Paris: Pierre Larousse, 1875), p. 854.
- ‘Car il y a d’ordinaire au moins trois régisseurs dans un théâtre : le régisseur général et le metteur en scène, indépendants l’un de l’autre et dont les attributions sont très distinctes, et le troisième régisseur, qui est sous les ordres des deux autres’. Pougin, Dictionnaire historique et pittoresque, p. 642.
- ‘Pour une pièce même intime, sans apparat et sans fracas d’aucune sorte, la mise en scène est souvent fort délicate à régler. Dans la vie ordinaire, deux personnes pourront causer pendant une demi-heure dans un salon sans bouger, sans, pour ainsi dire, faire un mouvement. Il n’en est pas de même au théâtre, où cependant les mouvements, dans une situation de ce genre, ne doivent être ni trop accusés, ni trop brusques, ni trop fréquents.’ Ibid., p. 522.
- ‘Tandis que l’autorité du régisseur général s’exerce en tout temps, sur tout et sur tous, que tous les chefs de service se trouvent placés sous ses ordres immédiats, celle du metteur en scène et circonscrite et limitée aux planches du théâtre ; mais là elle est complète aussi, absolue, et chacun lui doit obéissance. […] Ce n’est pas là une mince travail, et un bon metteur en scène est un homme précieux dans un théâtre.’ Ibid., p. 642.
- ‘Il est clair qu’on ne fera pas évoluer des hommes comme des femmes, une escouade de soldats comme un groupe de nymphes, des chevaliers bardés de fer et armés de lances comme une troupe de paysans aux habits légers et libres de leurs mouvements. D’autre part, il est certain que les mouvements d’un grand personnage en costume de cérémonie, comme un souverain dans son palais, ne sauraient être les mêmes que ceux d’un bon bourgeois agissant dans son salon. Enfin, cent ou deux cents individus, figurant une scène de tumulte dans la cour d’une prison, ne pourront se mouvoir de la même façon qu’il simule une révolte en plein air, sur une place publique, dans un décor large, spacieux et ouverte de tous côtés.’ Ibid., p. 522.
- These documents may be accessed in a catalogue compiled by Pauline Girard and Michela Niccolai at: https://ccfr.bnf.fr/portailccfr/servlet/ViewManager?menu=public_menu_view&record=eadcgm:EADI:FRCGMNOV-751045102-8OR&setCache=all_simple.PUBLIC_CATALOGUE_SIMPLE_MULTI&fromList=true&source=all_simple&action=public_search_federated&query=PUBLIC_CATALOGUE_SIMPLE
- For a fuller discussion of this question see Richard Langham Smith, Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ Uncovered (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2021), pp. 245–274.
- This matter is discussed by Isabelle Moindrot, ‘Mettre en scène : une pratique collective’, in Hervé Lacombe (ed.), Histoire de l’Opéra Français du Consulat aux débuts de la IIIe République (Paris: Fayard, 2020), pp. 712–745.
- See our multi-author volume Carmen Abroad.
- See my chapter, ‘The Forgotten Englishman’, Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ Uncovered, pp. 161–189.
- See H. Robert Cohen and M. O. Gigou, Cent ans de mise en scène lyrique en France (New York: Pendragon Press, 1986).