Replete with piped-in operatic music, the show immerses the viewer in the world of make-believe set in North Africa, the Middle East, India, China, Japan and even Russia by some of the greatest composers for the operatic stage: Gioacchino Rossini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Fromental Halevy, Giacomo Puccini, and Richard Strauss.
These musical titans were responding to a European craze for all things "Oriental" that began in the 17th century and continued to well into the 20th century, infusing the decorative arts with exotic imagery reflected in clothing styles, architecture, furniture and home accessories design, fictional subject matter and theatrical extravaganzas.
"For opera, the Orient could mean anything outside Europe," the show's chief curator, Stephen Edidin, said at an exhibition preview.
"The imaginary East that these artists created onstage ultimately influenced the history of design offstage throughout Europe and the United States up to the present day, yet many of the artists are virtually unknown to the general public. Divas onstage are remembered while those who designed for that stage are forgotten."
The show resurrects many forgotten design talents with set and costumes designs, set models and actual costumes from La Scala's collection, supplemented by loans from the Metropolitan Opera Archives and the rare books and manuscript library at Columbia University. It can be viewed at the new midtown galleries of the Dahesh, a museum dedicated to academic art, until May 30.
The star of the show is Alessandro Sanquirico (1777-1849), hardly a household name. He was an architect and landscape designer, decorator and inventor who headed La Scala's scenographic department for 15 years, creating sets depicting scenes in Egypt, Babylon, Corinth and Carthage by drawing on archaeological sources. He was particularly gifted at creating realistic perspective and lighting his sets imaginatively with oil and gas lamps.
One of his most beautiful sets, for Meyerbeer's "The Crusader in Egypt," depicting a galleon arriving in the minaret-studded port of Damietta, is represented by a delicately hand-tinted lithograph. Another lithograph of his set for Rossini's "Semiramis" is accompanied by dazzling Babylonian costumed designed for the production by Filippo Peroni, who specialized in Oriental styles.
Rivaling Sanquirico's genius for set design is Cecil Beaton's mastery of costume design, evidence by many examples of his sumptuous creations for the Metropolitan Opera's 1960 production of Puccini's "Turandot," which Beaton (1904-1980) also directed.
Of special note is the British designer-photographer's ravishing orchid gown for the Chinese princess of the title worn under a scarlet cape with a huge train bordered with encrusted gold decoration. It and other padded, appliquéd and elaborately draped costumes by Beaton are exhibited on mannequins, and there is also a display of his costume sketches with swatches of fabric clipped to them.
Viennese stage designer Joseph Urban (1872-1933), who came to American in 1911 and worked with Broadway showman Florenz Ziegfeld, began to design for the Metropolitan Opera in 1917 and created some 50 productions. A display of his watercolor set designs includes a fabulous Oriental garden scene for Halevy's "The Jewess." Alongside are his daughter Gretl's costume sketches for the Met's 1926 production of "Turandot."
Other La Scala artists of note represented in the show are Peter de Winter, who designed Rossini's "The Siege of Corinth" in 1828, Giovanni Zuccarelli, who designed Carthaginian sets for Nicolò Massa's "Salammbo" in 1886, and Giuseppe Palanti, who costumed Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" in 1904 and Strauss' "Salome" in 1912.
Also well represented are Attilio Comelli, who costumed Alexander Borodin's Russian-Tartar spectacular, "Prince Igor," in 1914, Antonio Rovescalli, who designed the Japanese interiors for Nicola Mascagni's "Iris" in 1923, and Luigi Caramba, who costumed "Turandot" in 1926.
The show is rounded out by a generous display of books about sets and costumes and a volume of Chinese music from which Puccini borrowed four melodies for "Turandot," wood models of the exterior and interior of La Scala, photos of great opera stars of the past in costume at the original Metropolitan opera house and an exhibition of 25 Orientalist paintings and prints from the Dahesh's permanent collection.