Painters and fashion designers make unlikely bedfellows. That hasn’t stopped the Paris Opera from presenting them side by side.
“L’Etoffe de la Modernite,” or the Fabric of Modernism, tells the story of how the style of opera costumes changed at the beginning of the 20th century.
In the 19th century, big stars traveled with their own wardrobes. Adelina Patti, the reigning diva in the century’s final decades, appeared with diamonds sewn into La Traviata’s bodice and hired detectives to mingle with the chorus to keep an eye on them.
For the costumes of lesser mortals the aim was historical accuracy. The most influential model, imitated all over Europe, was the German court theater in Meiningen where uniforms were authentic down to the last button.
Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes changed all that. When they first appeared in Paris, in 1909, they startled the audience not only with their brilliant dancing; the Parisians were even more impressed by the colorful, non-naturalistic settings and costumes designed by Leon Bakst and other painters.
The sensational success of the Ballets Russes was not lost on Jacques Rouche, who directed the Paris Opera from 1914 to 1945.
He invited painters such as Maurice Denis, Giorgio De Chirico, Andre Masson and Fernand Leger to work for ’La Grande Boutique’ (Verdi’s name for the Paris Opera). Bakst, after his split with Diaghilev, was appointed artistic consultant of the Opera.
Rouche’s successors continued his practice: In 1959, Marc Chagall designed the costumes and sets for Ravel’s ballet “Daphnis et Chloe.”
In 1924, Diaghilev had persuaded Coco Chanel to design the costumes for Darius Milhaud’s ballet “Le Train Bleu.” The Opera was slow in following his example.
The first fashion designer whose name appeared in a program of the Palais Garnier was Yves Saint Laurent in 1965. He paved the way for Christian Lacroix, Kenzo Takada and others.
The most original among the 80 or so sketches in the show are not necessarily those by the big names. I was particularly impressed by Paul Colin’s witty bat for a 1939 production of Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les Sortileges” and Jacques Dupont’s designs for a 1968 “Turandot” looking like ink-blots in a Rorschach test.
The sketches are complemented by some 30 costumes including those for Serge Lifar’s “Giselle” and Rudolf Nureyev’s “Romeo et Juliette.”
Among the accessories, you can find the wig of the faun in Debussy’s “L’Apres-midi d’un Faune” whose 1912 premiere with Nijinsky in the title role had outraged the prigs.
Stage costumes have a magic of their own as the Paris Opera learned, to its consternation in 1999 when collectors bought 10,000 items at affordable prices.
Such was the crush that the gendarmes had to be called in to control the crowd that threatened to storm the tent on Place de la Bastille, just as their predecessors on the royal prison on July 14, 1789.
“L’Etoffe de la Modernite” is at the museum of the Palais Garnier through Oct. 14.
(Jorg von Uthmann writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on history.