Legendary impresario Serge Diaghilev is associated above all with the Ballets Russes, but his first love was music and it was opera that he initially brought to Paris.

In 1908, a year before the dance company stormed the French capital, he mounted a dazzling production of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" at the Palais Garnier opera house, which launched Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin's career.

France's national centre for stage costumes in the sleepy town of Moulins has chosen to focus on Diaghilev's role in bringing Russian opera to the West as its contribution to centennial celebrations of the Ballets Russes.

For the exhibition, which runs until mid-May, it has dug into its archives and unearthed hidden treasures, which have not been seen in public since they were last on the stage, explains Martine Kahane, the centre's director.

Correctly identifying them involved painstaking detective work.

"It was like unscrewing a matryoshka, one of those Russian dolls," says Kahane.

For example, costumes used in productions of "Boris Godunov" at the Paris Opera over the years were all jumbled together. Braiding, buttons, and trimmings and the type of material were all forensically examined for clues.

It was only by deciphering the stamps and labels sewn into the lining, often handwritten in Russian, that Kahane and her assistants could firmly establish their provenance.

The insides of costumes contain details of where they were made, for which roles and in which operas, and in the case of major roles, who wore them.

"Chaliapin, who was a very tall man, would have had all his costumes specially made," says Kahane.

The costumes of lesser players, who play such a pivotal role in Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov's monumental dramas of Russian history, were actually handmade by peasants in remote villages in the winter months when they could not work the land.

The exhibition has dozens of examples of colourful peasant women's dresses and headscarves in printed cotton, with simple stencilled floral or geometric patterns, in red madder or indigo because it was cheap, and Russian men's baggy shirts, with patchwork squares set into the sleeves to make them wider.

Because opera is so expensive, costumes have to be used time and again to save money. Diaghilev imported costumes made in Moscow in 1901 for Rimsky Korsakov's "Ivan the Terrible" for his own production in 1909 and they were still being used right up to the end of the last century.

Financial difficulties eventually forced Diaghilev to concentrate on ballet, but in 1910 he found a rich patron in London in the pharmaceutical tycoon Joseph Beecham, whose son Thomas became the renowned conductor Sir Thomas Beecham.

With his backing he staged annual opera seasons at London's Drury Lane Theatre to great acclaim until 1913, when the outbreak of World War I cast its shadow over Europe.

What with the war and the Russian Revolution, Diaghilev was never again to have the funding to bring over from Russia the little army of orchestra, chorus and soloists for his lavish opera productions.

When the Beecham Opera Company went bust in 1920, the canny director of the Paris Opera Jacques Rouche went to the fire sale and acquired scenic material from Beecham-Diaghilev productions, notably costumes designed by the artist Leon Bakst for "Boris Godunov", which are now in the Moulins archives.

As well as costumes, the exhibition has photos, memorabilia and sketches of the original designs to complete the picture of this little known aspect of Diaghilev's contribution to disseminating Russian culture.

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