the Opera, the Dollhouse, and the Wallpaper
the Opera, the Dollhouse, and the Wallpaper
The miniature is by definition fantastic. Its use is nullified by its scale, and so the miniaturized must operate by a different logic than that which governs us. It requires our poetic imagination to become habitable. There is a sort of enchantment in the miniature which is both emotional, and magical. Miniaturization is a formal technique which allows us to escape our world and enter a dream space.
I would like to discuss how choices in set design scales can reveal the interior workings of operatic characters. I will address miniaturization through two concepts: wallpaper, and the dollhouse, as they relate to Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortilèges, and Rossini’s La Cenerentola. For L’enfant, I refer to Laurent Pelly’s 2012 production at Glyndebourne,1 and La Cenerentola’s 1981 film production staged and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.2
L’enfant is a morality opera, centering on the personal transformation of a little boy through sortileges, a word which lives in the neighborhood of spirits, enchantments, magic spells, and divinations.3 Childhood and the miniature go hand-in-hand, as Susan Stewart wrote on the topic: “... The child continually enters here as a metaphor, perhaps not simply because the child is in some physical sense a miniature of the adult, but also because the world of childhood, limited in physical scope yet fantastic in its content, presents in some ways a miniature and fictive chapter in each life history.”4 (p. 30). A reduction in dimensions does not produce a corresponding reduction in significance.
One question which doesn’t surface often in L’enfant, is why this child is such a tyrant. Instead, this question is swept away by the humor of the oversized stage settings. And yet it remains unanswered. One might read this opera as an external scale intervention to make the boy grow internally. But there is another read which contends that he is “small” and petty because his behaviors are attempts to exert control over his world. Anyone facing the immensity of this set would immediately feel alienated from it. Which begs the question: how is the space between miniature and monumental any different from a child’s experience of the world? Both center on reconciling the divergent scales of one’s interiority to the outside. By definition, l’enfant is small, and in his eyes, his surroundings are both oversized and overbearing. He was born into a world which was not scaled to his body. For that, the monumentalization of his surroundings didn’t just solve his bad behavior, it caused it to begin with.
The opera ends with a demonstration of internal growth. With that gesture we are led to believe that he has reconciled the smallness of his interior, with the largeness of his external world, thus releasing him from this nightmare of scale. But the boy does not grow to match the scale of his environment, neither does his environment shrink to become less alienating. This opera presents a resolution, but not a solution. There are two reasons he doesn’t grow before our eyes: the first is that this operatic space is psychological and not physical. The second is that humans can’t shrink or grow on command. Even if these actors could magically shrink, they would no longer be visible to the audience, which negates the operatic spectacle.
Our protagonist moves from one extreme to the other, and in that inversion, the setting never feels proportionate. Which means the miniature and the monumental all hinges on an anchor point: us. We define them in reference to our own scale.
Another consequence and complication of this human-sized midpoint is shown in the wallpaper scene. This is one where the boy’s wallpaper comes to life to chastise him for having torn a section off the wall. By this point the boy has been accosted by chairs, a grandfather clock, and tea kettle and cup duo.
For the wallpaper, the set designer Barbara De Limburg used an established genre: the toile de jouy. It’s characterized by depictions of pastoral or idyll scenes of the French countryside, typically printed in black or blue on a white backdrop. These visuals were escapes to simpler lives, and were commonplace in aristocratic interiors as the style rose to prominence in Rococo France. De Limburg chose a design that’s responsive to the libretto, which references colorful pastoral animals.
Yet there is an unwitting consequence of using a scaled toile de jouy pattern: the houses. Even when scaled to the body, the houses in these idyll scenes remain in miniature, creating a chasm between inhabitable, and the optical space. This gap mirrors that between us and the miniature, creating the optical polemic of the miniature even though the previously miniature is now human-scale. These are the characteristics of dollhouses. Even the shepherds seem too large to inhabit these houses.
The wallpaper scene also reveals a tender betrayal; the chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses converges to sing: “The little monster has torn our tender idyll to shreds. A shepherd here, a shepherdess there. We who first made the brat smile. This ungrateful child, who slept watched over by our blue dog.” These were the sheep he counted to lull himself to sleep every night. Only someone acting in pain and desperation would harm a source of comfort, which affirms the internal crisis that our enfant is experiencing.
The stage wallpaper choice also provides some tension with the libretto, which takes voice in the miniature. The characters enter the boy’s space through the opening created by the tear. They bid farewell to their torn off mates, lamenting how they kept “Striking a pose with your arm outstretched…” They move about the space of the stage while trying to maintain poses consistent with life in a two-dimensional plane. This interpretation challenges the idea of dimension and surface. These literally flat characters have grievance and an interiority to match. They no longer hold use in a decorative role. Stewart analyzes the traditional role of decoration for a bourgeois household, writing: “There is no point in the detail in bourgeois realism aside from its function within the world of signs, its message that it is the trace of the real. The ornament does not dress the object; it defines the object.” Thus the wallpaper is no longer itself, for it is no longer purely decoration. It’s relationship to signification in the world has changed, and transformation happened when these flat characters escaped the artifice.
In other ways the wallpaper serves as an anchorpoint for determining the scale of the remaining set. Since these characters are portrayed by actors, the scale of the wallpaper must increase from a few inches to several feet to make the scene function. And to maintain some internal logic of scale, the rest of the set had to follow suit. Of course there are some failed attempts to keep this scene modestly staged, but soon they won’t get more than a passing reference in a footnote. 1234
What happens if we reverse direction, and we enter the tear in the wallpaper? We enter Rossini’s La Cenerentola: a world equally fixed on aristocrats and artifice, which is exactly where Don Magnifico and his daughters are trapped.
Ponnelle’s universe opens onto a large set centered on an impressive house with vines growing over the façade. The house is old and established, implying that the occupying family is equally “established” in their ancien regime status and wealth. To reveal our principle players, Angelina draws the fabric façade into itself like vertical curtains. It is here that we have a partial view into the home, including the atrium, with two bedrooms on either side, where we first meet Clorinda and Tisbe.
Clorinda stands in a ballet position, and wears only the undergarments which structure formal dresses appropriate to the late 18th century. In this state of undress we see the literal structures which undergird her façade. Even here she speaks delirious self-praise on her ability to dance. There is nothing of substance or sustenance in her room; we see a mirror with a chair stationed in front of it, flowers on the chair, frilly dresses tossed about, pointe shoes, and a screen behind which to change outfits quickly. Clorinda can not sit on account of the flowers. Any human needs beyond playing dress-up are missing. If there is a bed it is positioned such that we can’t see it behind her changing screen. She stands like a tiny ballerina in a music box, only springing to life when the cover is lifted and she can be seen.
Tisbe is similarly stationed in front of a mirror, this one hand-held, as she smears gobs of cream on her face to appear more “distinguished.” In her room we see a bed, countless fashionable hats and hat boxes, dresses similarly hung and strewn about, a bizarre wooden mannequin, and many oval frames in which only silhouettes appear.
It is clear from the outset both Clorinda and Tisbe are stock characters. Some productions use prosthetics5 to make their baseness immediately legible to the audience, thereby drawing from opera’s roots in the masked commedia dell’arte. As soprano and mezzo-soprano respectively, both operate as taunting voices, often meshing and diverging, trilling about like show birds during mating season. Perhaps it is their vocal nearness which drives their need to distinguish themselves from each other, which in turn makes them both unbearable.
Then we meet the head of the household, Don Magnifico, whose bed is nearly the width of his room. As the household is constructed, there are five visible rooms: the girls’ bedrooms on either side of the atrium; Don Magnifico sleeps in the room above Clorinda’s; the one above Tisbe’s acts as storage. We see neither kitchen, nor Angelina’s quarters, though they are both implied.
We can’t escape how this home layout substitutes Angelina’s room for a storage space. They have filled her space in their lives with material wealth which serve both as a reflection of their value(s), but also their necessary frugality. This is all they have to work with. As Don Magnifico put it, “My children, half this house has fallen down, and the rest is in danger. Let’s shore it up. Use your wits. Speak politely.” All of this makes the evident visual: they are out of money. Marrying up is their only hope.
Ponnelle’s set is one of disrepair. The mythic carvings which hold up the engaged columns have lost their faces, and are no longer “distinguished.” Prominently displayed busts are similarly disfigured. Only one of the two staircases to the second floor is intact. The other is in shambles, with no obvious attempt to fix or clean the mess. Leaning against the wall where steps once were is a grandfather clock which does not chime. Large chunks of the ceiling and roof are missing. This detail becomes more pointed later in the opera, when Don Magnifico wields an umbrella while laying in bed to stop the rain falling on his head.
To understand this staging as a doll-house, is to understand its inhabitants as dolls. It’d be convenient to liken Tisbe to the wooden mannequin in her room, but there is more at play here. Dolls of course are all about artifice; whether they be stuffed or solid, their ability to function relies on keeping the outside outside, and the inside inside. Affirming these principles are the portraits which adorn Tisbe’s room. They are flat. Anonymous. Nothing more than the outline of people in decorative hats. Similarly, dolls do not have interior workings. They are governed by external forces. They stand in as icons for stock roles, and we project onto them our concerns. We force them to play out roles we have internalized from the human-sized world. The same is true for Clorinda and Tisbe, who are guided by pursuits in artifice while weathering our admonishing gaze .
Susan Stewart wrote that “...the dollhouse has two dominant motifs: wealth and nostalgia,” and argued that they “were meant to stop time and thus present the illusion of a perfectly complete and hermetic world.” p. 62 If the “ornament does not dress the object,” but “defines it,” what is more of an existential threat to a doll than that of a disintegrating façade? That existential crisis is doubled when this problem calls for internal deliberations in the face of external forces. Simply translated: if you don’t marry a prince, you shall lose all sense of yourself by losing the trappings of wealth. In La Cenerentola, The hermetic seal between internal and external is ruptured. In that rupture, the doll is animated, and faces the horror of its own complex interiority. Returning to a space prior to this rupture is the guiding motivation behind Don Magnifico and his daughters. In this sense, he is nostalgic for the time he was a doll. But even were he to marry his daughters off well, he could never return to a state before this internal awakening. Nostalgia is such because it yearns for the inaccessible. While Stewart’s intention was to critique the owners of dollhouses, I find her words apply equally well to the Magnifico family.
There is something about Ponelle’s production which is lodged between the life-size and the miniature. In some ways, ninety percent scale emphasizes smallness in a way forty percent couldn’t. It’s the state of the nearly inhabitable which draws attention to this in-between, and thus resists the simple classification of “miniature.” So we are caught in the doubled space of the inhabitable and the optical; just like the wallpaper’s inhabitants could not fit inside of their homes, the Magnifico family are cramped in rooms which are as wide as they are tall.
The divide between the optical and the inhabitable persists in the prince’s castle: it is just as illusory and just as inhabitable as those in the toile de jouy. Maybe this is what awaited the boy on the other side of the wallpaper.
Type designer Jonathan Hoefler remarks on integrating absurdity to compensate for our optical skews,writing: “We convince the eye to see things clearly not by creating rational drawings, but through irrational ones, by introducing strange distortions that outwit the eye: to shape not what we see, but what we think we see.”6 What do we think we see here? The stage we see seamlessly integrates the optical with the physical, and to do that the designers flattened the dimensional to make it look more real. Each wing of the stage has been given a smaller and smaller façade, which ultimately culminates in a painted background at the back of the stage. The beauty of it is, I don’t know where the background stops and the set begins. Suspended disbelief returns us to the poetic inhabitation of the miniature. The façades function as space, in space.
La Cenerentola concludes that goodness shall always triumph, and that through a series of traps and happy accidents, the prince determines Angelina is good inside and out. He cares least about the surface. Angelina starts as someone whose outsides reflected neither her interior, nor her status. She is not a doll. That’s one read. One might also see this scenery and realize that La Cenerentola does nothing more than bring to life the forces present in the toile de jouy. She is playing her part, and while she has a rich interior, she never escapes the guiding forces of trope and our presumptions. Like our stage setting, she is dimensional, but flattened, and in her setting, her flatness appears more dimensional.
Both operas are opportune sites of examination. These two are neither the first nor only productions to make use of miniaturization and wallpaper. Yet the tear right down the middle between L’enfant, and La Cenerentola generously allows our curious eye something new between them. They also serve as humbling invitations to escape lives of artifice. Maybe that’s all a miniature is.
1.“L’enfant et les Sortilèges,” Glyndebourne. Dir. Laurent Pelly. Youtube.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjWLxmqYCo&t=673s. Accessed 05.13.20
2. “La Cenerentola.” Dir. Ponnelle, Jean-Pierre. 1981 Youtube.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeVezYX1m6M&t=7262s. Accessed 05.13.20
3. Reynolds, Margaret. “Colette's Libretto: a Fantasy of Childhood for Ravel's Opera of Enchantment.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 July 2012, www.theguardian.com/music/2012/jul/27/colette-lenfant-sortileges-libretto.
4. Stewart, Susan. “On Description and the Book,” “The Miniature.” On Longing. Duke University Press, 1984, 1993
5. “La Cenerentola,” Glyndebourne. Dir. Cox, John. Warner Classics. Youtube.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkPJeZo4qE8&t=7174s. Accessed 05.13.20
6. Hoefler, Jonathan. “Typographic Illusions.” Typography.com
https://www.typography.com/blog/typographic-illusions?utm_source=Email&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=Headline&utm_campaign=Typographic_Illusions_2020_05_05. Accessed 05.13.20