“Russian operas, at the dawn of the ballets russes”

December 12, 2009 - may 16, 2010

On the occasion of the centenary of the Ballets Russes (1909-1929), the CNCS has chosen to participate in the commemorations with the presentation of an exhibition of costumes for operas by Russian composers, mounted by Diaghilev or by Parisian theatres during the first quarter of the 20th century. At the same time, in Paris (BNF, Bibliothèque - Musée de l’Opéra), Monte Carlo (Nouveau Musée National de Monaco), Stockholm (Dansmuseet), Munich (Theatermuseum), and soon in London (Victoria and Albert Museum), numerous exhibitions are commemorating the centenary and highlight the action of Serge Diaghilev in all realms of artistic creation.

In 1908, the year before the arrival of Nijinsky and Pavlova, Russian opera, thanks to Diaghilev, had already conquered the public with Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky at the Palais Garnier, with Chaliapin in the title role, and with costumes by Bilibin. Albert Carré, director of the Opéra Comique mounted Snegourotchka (The Snow Maiden) by Rimsky-Korsakov in a sumptuous production inspired by illustrations by Bilibin, and created under the aegis of Princess Tenichev. Siberia, opera by Giordano was created in 1911 at the Palais Garnier, with costumes from the Bolshoi Theatre by Golovin, using the archaeological expertise of V. Sizov, for the 1901 creation of Ivan the Terrible by Rimsky-Korsakov in Moscow. In 1913, the year of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), Diaghilev came back to opera, this time with a new production of Boris Godunov and Kovantchina, another historic Russian opera, also by Mussorgsky, and with costumes by Fedorovsky. The vicissitudes of stage history made it that these four productions are actually within the CNCS collections, via the patrimonial collection of the Opéra national de Paris. The sumptuous, shining, golden and embroidered aesthetic of Bilibine and Bakst for Snegourotchka (The Snow Maiden) and Boris Godunov, contrast with the one, very modern, of the costumes painted with bright colours and geometrical patterns of Fedorovsky for Kovantchina, and also with the quasi ethnographic costumes of Ivan the Terrible. This exhibition presents 130 costumes of these four productions, for the first time for most of them, together with costume sketches, work documents, iconographic sources of inspiration and photographs. A program of films in the CNCS auditorium complements the exhibition.

 

The exhibition “Russian operas, at the dawn of the Ballets Russes” presents 130 costumes made for the masterpieces of Russian opera (Boris Godunov, Kovantchina, Ivan the Terrible, Snegourotchka) presented in Paris between 1908 and 1913, for the most part by Diaghilev, then reused until the middle of the 20th century at the Opéra de Paris. Costume sketches, work documents, iconographic sources of inspiration and photographs are also included.

These costumes, ranging from historic magnificence to an unequalled modernity, all come from the Opéra National de Paris, where they arrived through the flukes of history, the successes of productions and the failures of businesses, thanks to purchases from theatre houses (such as the Bolchoi) or from companies (such as those of Serge Diaghilev and Sir Thomas Beecham). They are preserved today either in the collections of the Bibliothèque-Musée de l’Opéra, BNF, or at the CNCS or also at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco. The entire range of opera characters, historical or from legends, of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov are represented in this collection: tsars, boyars, guards, and above all the common people of Russia, the great protagonists of Russian opera.

 

Diaghilev’s passion for music “which saturated his being”, started in childhood, and is found in all his projects, whether in his first, failed adventure in the service of the Imperial Theatres, or in the editorial range of the art magazine, World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) which he then launched. His actions crystallised, starting in 1907 with the series of historic Russian concerts, then with the sumptuous production of Boris Godunov, the first seasons of Russian operas and ballets. In his initial project, Diaghilev wanted to present mainly operatic performances. Performances devoted only to ballet, supposedly having little appeal for the Paris public, came as adjuncts to the operas. Over time, events obliged him to reduce the place of opera in his programs. Important and minor historical events, financial difficulties, the loss of support from the Imperial theatres, the closing of the borders during World War I and the events leading up to the Russian Revolution led him to concentrate on ballet. This became his main activity until his death in 1929. His continuing celebrity in our times is linked most often to the area of dance.

 

However, the scores which he commissioned during a twenty-year period occupy a place of major importance in the history of 20th century music. It would be unfair and incomplete to reduce the extraordinary development of Russian operatic music in Western Europe in the first quarter of the 20th century to Diaghilev’s actions alone. At the dawn of the Ballets Russes, many others - impresarios, theatre directors and lyric artists played a large role. Politics also played a role, with the development of excellent relations between France and Russia, coming to its apotheosis with the triumphant visit of Tsar Nicholas II to Paris. This aspect of Diaghilev’s work and influence in the field of operatic productions has never been fully treated, at least in the aspect which interests us here, that of theatrical aesthetics. The exhibition presented by the CNCS can be seen as a base for this research, since practically none of the costumes have been exhibited before. This first exploration shows the extent to which Russian music and aesthetics, as revealed by Diaghilev, were alive on the Paris stages at the beginning of the 20th century, largely extending beyond the unique container of ballet to which they are often restricted.

Commissariat de l’exposition et direction artistique

Martine Kahane

CNCS’ director and exhibition curator

As General Librarian, Martine Kahane spent thirty five years of her life building up the memory of the Opéra de Paris. To start with, she managed the Museum Library of the Opera (a branch of the Bibliothèque...

CNCS’ director and exhibition curator

As General Librarian, Martine Kahane spent thirty five years of her life building up the memory of the Opéra de Paris. To start with, she managed the Museum Library of the Opera (a branch of the Bibliothèque nationale de France), before creating and managing the cultural department of the Opéra National de Paris, at the request of Hugues Gall, then director of the Opera. She is at home at the Palais Garnier, the19th century is her favourite period, Degas’ « Little fourteen-yearold dancer » is her favourite work of art, all this leading to more than twenty exhibitions and as many publications on Charles Garnier’s architecture, the costume workshops and the Paris Opera Ballet, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the sculptor’s model.

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Delphine Pinasa

CNCS’ delegate director

Art historian, Delphine Pinasa completed her university training by professional experiences at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and then at the Opéra national de Paris, in charge of...

CNCS’ delegate director

Art historian, Delphine Pinasa completed her university training by professional experiences at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and then at the Opéra national de Paris, in charge of the museum costume collection starting in 1993, and then at the Costumes patrimonial service in 2001. Since 2005, she has been working for the CNCS and was appointed delegate director in 2006. Curator of several exhibitions in France and Japan, she has published several articles and books in relation to costume history and the Opera de Paris costume workshops.

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Giuliano Spinelli

Designer of the exhibition

Born in Bologna in 1970, Giuliano Spinelli, after artistic studies completes his training at La Brera academy in Milano, where his works are regularly selected for exhibitions and awarded, as for example the Mozart laboratorium at the lyrical...

Designer of the exhibition

Born in Bologna in 1970, Giuliano Spinelli, after artistic studies completes his training at La Brera academy in Milano, where his works are regularly selected for exhibitions and awarded, as for example the Mozart laboratorium at the lyrical Theatre in Milan. He leaves the Academia in 1994 and starts working on exhibitions and TV sets, and then devotes himself more and more to scenography. He builds up experience by working as production assistant on several operas productions in Italian theatres, including Rome’s Opera, the Massimo Theatre in Palermo and the new La Mirandola theatre in Modena. He has signed the design of fifteen more shows. Since 1998, he has worked with Ezio Frigerio, for the design of 25 more show for the most prestigious international theatre. Under the direction of Roman Calleja, in addition to La voce humana, he has signed the design of Copenhagen by Michel Frayn.

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