Erté's lasting gift

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An exhibition of Erté’s drawings and costumes for Glyndebourne’s 1980 production of Der Rosenkavalier capture the essence of his art and ensure an enriched experience this summer for Festival goers writes Julia Aries, Glyndebourne’s Archivist.

Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss’s ‘most feminine opera’ according to producer John Cox, has enjoyed three very different productions on the Glyndebourne stage. Originally mooted by Fritz Busch before the war (he knew Strauss and had asked him about a reduced orchestration for the small Glyndebourne theatre), the first production was eventually staged in 1959, as the opening production of Glyndebourne’s 25th anniversary season. It marked the end of artistic director Carl Ebert’s long and very impressive reign at Glyndebourne, and it was also the last opera here to be designed by Oliver Messel, who had first started designing for the company in 1950. The period and nature of the opera lent itself perfectly to his Rococo style, and many of the critics considered his design some of the best work he had done for Glyndebourne.

In stark contrast the third, and more recent production, started life in 2014, and was revived at the beginning of Festival 2018. A colour-saturated fiesta, it departed from the traditional mid-18th-century setting of Strauss’s romantic comedy in a stage setting designed by Paul Steinberg which jumbled together period features from the 20th century with quirky and surreal results, aided by Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes and director Richard Jones’s trademark control of the crowd scenes. Judging by the audience response to the current exhibition at Glyndebourne, it is the 1980s production that remains a favourite in the memory of many of our Members.

Erté with John Cox. Photo: Guy Gravett

In 1979 John Cox, Glyndebourne’s Director of Productions, approached Erté’s agent to ask if the redoubtable artist, then aged 86, was still active and interested in designing Glyndebourne’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier. Perhaps best known for his elegant, often Art Deco-inspired, designs which had graced over 200 magazine covers, the fee Glyndebourne could offer the artist equalled only the amount he charged for one poster and so his agent, Eric Estorick, was dismissive – but Erté, it turned out, had waited all his life for the chance to design this one opera, and accepted. During the ensuing discussions, he raised the idea of updating the opera to the middle of the 19th century, thereby providing a starker outline and darker colour pallette for the male costumes, with highly romantic female dress and elaborate livery and uniform to maintain fantasy and decoration.

The results of his labours have returned to Glyndebourne 38 years after they were first unveiled. This large collection of Erté’s original designs has been generously loaned, by their current owner, Elizabeth Meshkvicheva, to Glyndebourne for display during the current Festival season, following a successful exhibition at Bonhams in London last year. Festival goers can enjoy seeing designs from Acts I and II in the Mildmay Restaurant, and designs, costume and props from Act III in the Archive Gallery until the end of August as well as a collection of limited edition gifts in the Glyndebourne Shop.