By Mercedes Viale Ferrero
The sets for Cristoforo Colombo were conceived and sketched by Ugo Gheduzzi, and the costumes by Adolfo Hohenstein. Both artists played a prominent role in the story of theatrical visions in the period spanning the 19th and 20th centuries. Gheduzzi was born in Bologna in 1853. In 1874 he joined the team of scenographers at the Teatro Regio in Turin, which was led at the time by Augusto Ferri. Gheduzzi’s talent was evident as early as 1879, when his sketches for Aida showed his own personal – and in some respects innovative – take on the canonical models put forward by music publishing companies. He subsequently became the head set designer at the Teatro Regio and Giulio Ricordi asked him to design the sets (by producing prototypes to illustrate his vision) for two important “world premieres”: Cristoforo Colombo by Franchetti (Genoa, Teatro Carlo Felice, 6 October 1892) and Manon Lescaut by Puccini (Turin, Teatro Regio, 1 February 1893). In both cases the costume designs were drawn by Adolfo Hohenstein, who was born to German parents in Saint Petersburg in 1854. He was roughly the same age as Gheduzzi but unlike him he had no specific theatrical training. Hohenstein first arrived in Milan in 1879, after crossing the Alps on foot. He made a name for himself in the emerging field of poster design. He travelled from Milan to Indochina, where he frescoed the homes of local princes. He returned to Milan in 1884 and began designing posters again, while also moving into scenic painting by taking a job on Puccini’s Edgar (1889). In 1893 he found himself working on the costume design drawings for Manon Lescaut and both the sets and the costume design drawings for Verdi’s Falstaff. The timeline shows that Giulio Ricordi endeavoured to give Cristoforo Colombo solid visual support by hiring two artists who had already proven their worth. At the same time, this job served as a launch pad to yet more important commissions for Gheduzzi and above all for Hohenstein. The two worked together again on more than one occasion. Gheduzzi brought Hohenstein’s sketches to life for the “premiere” of Puccini’s La Bohème at the Teatro Regio in Turin (1 February 1896) and he also elegantly put Hohenstein’s ideas into practice for Puccini’s Tosca, which reached the Teatro Regio on 20 February 1900, approximately one month after the first performance in Rome. They then went their separate ways. While he was working on the sets and costume designs for Franchetti’s Germania (Milan, La Scala, 11 March 1902) Hohenstein met his future wife in Bonn. He moved there in 1903 and worked there on posters, paintings and decorative ceilings until his death in 1928. Gheduzzi remained in Turin, where he worked as a skilful landscape painter as well as a set designer for the Teatro Regio and other theatres. He also worked on spectacular initiatives outside theatres, such as “backdrops” for celebrations and shows, and the set for an outdoor performance portraying The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the city’s enormous stadium (1923). He died in Turin in 1925.
Although they had learned their trades in different ways, Gheduzzi and Hohenstein shared a taste for seeking out new experiences. In this respect, Cristoforo Colombo was a stimulating but risky undertaking. By definition it was a celebratory work, which was something that had fallen out of fashion since Otello had shown that the conventional “hero” figure was a thing of the past, as was the moral crisis at the heart of the traditional opera. In addition, the setting for Cristoforo Colombo was both historic and exotic. According to the prevailing aesthetic outlook shared by artists, critics and the public at the time, it should have accurately reconstructed the locations in the era when the events occurred while also presenting a vision of a new world and the sense of dépaysement following its “discovery”. In other words, it was necessary to create two different types of “local colour”. This was something that everyone demanded at the time but which was impossible to define with any degree of precision (a few years later, there were complaints of a lack of “local colour” in Puccini’s La Bohème). It would be an overstatement to say that Gheduzzi and Hohenstein managed to overcome all difficulties in Cristoforo Colombo, but they certainly produced results that were highly effective in visual terms and showed great structural inventiveness.
The story opens in the “Vast courtyard of the Monastery of San Esteban in Salamanca”. It presented Gheduzzi with a tough task because there were numerous courtyards, cloisters and interiors of Spanish monasteries in the most common operas in the repertoire, ranging from the Monastery of Saint James in La Favorite and the “retreat near Castellor” in Il Trovatore, to the inside of the Monastery of the Madonna of Angels in La Forza del Destino and the Monastery of Saint Just in Don Carlos. Gheduzzi managed to avoid being influenced by these iconographic precedents and provide a dignified response to the needs of the scene. The interest lies not so much in his prudent stylistic reconstruction as in the layout, which features multiple points of access for people moving on stage, during action which is concentrated in the foreground. Only gates break up the dividing wall running parallel to the proscenium, which marks the boundary between the space available to the performers and the “vast” area painted in perspective on the backcloth.
The second scene is “Santa Maria in the ocean”. In terms of the stage plan, the layout is the same: action downstage and a painted panoramic backcloth. However, in this case the focus is on the stunning effects produced by the light of the sky and the sea. It draws the eyes of the audience to the background, behind large sails like huge fluttering flags. It is nothing like the traditional portrayals of similar subjects, such as the scene in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine in which there was a “cross section of the ship” with “the first deck and the inside of the second”. The sea was nothing but a supplementary element, whereas in Gheduzzi’s design it plays an essential, prominent role. The artist seems to have struggled more with the sketch for the third scene: “In Xaragua, on the shore of the sacred lake”. Although it may not have done at the time, today it looks a bit too similar to a leaflet for a beach resort. This side of it was toned done in a model of the scene that Gheduzzi put together in a preparation process that he often used. A number of theatre models of this kind can still be seen today. “In Medina del Campo. Royal oratory” is the setting for the last scene. Once again the background grabs the attention due to the strong contrast between the dark shadows of the chapel and the bright strips of sky shining through the lancet windows. In this case, the attempts at historical styling help to create great dramatic tension.
In some respects, Hohenstein’s task ran on parallel lines. He had to create two different types of costumes: one for the European characters and one for the indigenous people of the “New World”. We know that Hohenstein followed the examples set by accomplished figures: he found inspiration for Falstaff in the illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays drawn by Gilbert and engraved by the Dalziel brothers, while for La Bohème he mostly drew on the work of Gavarni. It is yet to be established whose lead he followed for Cristoforo Colombo, but Luigi Illica made some suggestions which appear to show that he may have looked at works in the Old Collection at the Passerini-Landi Library in Piacenza.
Deciding on the appearance of the protagonist also proved problematic. From the 1830s onwards, Christopher Columbus had been a popular subject in the world of the arts. He had been portrayed in a number of operas and numerous paintings. In one work Pelagio Palagi had depicted his departure and in another he had shown his return to Spain from the “New World” with “a group of natives”. Giuseppe Sogni also produced a painting of him setting sail, while Gallo Gallina portrayed him arriving in what were thought to be the “Indies”. A few years later, Anatoly Demidoff commissioned Delacroix to produce two paintings of episodes from the life of Columbus for Villa San Donato near Florence. Yet more pictures of the navigator are mentioned in exhibition catalogues. A significant portion of the Columbus iconography was reproduced in widely circulated lithographic prints, so it would be extremely difficult to identify Hohenstein’s sources if they lie in these historical tableaux. One thing that the pictures do reveal is that Hohenstein (like Alfredo Edel before him) drew not only the costumes but also the characters in poses that reflected their personalities, feelings and circumstances, in a way that almost seemed to give performance tips. This is exemplified by the contrast between the proud, imperious Columbus in the second act and the tormented Columbus in the epilogue, who is portrayed with great dramatic emphasis and a sense of human warmth. The latter is totally lacking in the pictures of the Spanish characters, including Queen Isabella. Her exaggerated displays of devotion herald the caricatural tone of Hohenstein’s drawings for the procession in the first act of Tosca.
In contrast, Hohenstein – perhaps taking inspiration from Edel – presents the indigenous women as extremely sensual beings, while the unsettling, picturesque portrayals of the indigenous men seem to have been created specifically to cater to the demand for “local colour”. What were the sources for this exotic excursus? There were collections of specialist encyclopaedic materials such as Il costume antico e moderno by Giulio Ferrario and Les usances […] de tous les peuples by Dally (an Italian version of which had been published), but by 1892 they were rather dated compared to more recent lithographs and chromolithographs that portrayed – not always accurately – the peoples of the lands visited by Columbus. In any case, photographs of singers taken between 1870 and 1890 seem to show that by the time of the operas of Carlos Gomes, it had already been established what sort of costumes were thought to have been worn by generic “American” peoples. This is shown by Ludovico Giraud as Peri in Il Guarany and Innocente De Anna as Iberè in Lo schiavo (Parma, Archives of the Teatro Regio). After more than a century (112 years to be precise) in the Ricordi Archives, the set design for Cristoforo Colombo has now resurfaced. We are delighted to be able to share the good news about the recent rediscovery, which will be the subject of future studies.