Yves Brayer’s style was influenced by his years in Italy: his taste for opulence and grandeur and his appreciation of how figures can bring an architectural backdrop to life can be traced back to this period. The interest he developed in ‘décor’ at that time made his later move into theatre a perfectly logical step.
In 1942, Jacques Rouché – the Opéra de Paris’s new director, credited with restoring the Opéra to its former glory – gave Yves Brayer his first opportunity in theatre, commissioning him to design the sets and costumes for the ballet Joan von Zarissa, set to music by Werner Egk. Serge Lifar, then at the height of his fame, created the beautifully expressive choreography. Lifar also took the leading role – a 15th-century Flemish-Burgundian Don Juan – dancing alongside the full complement of danseuses étoiles from that period: Yvette Chauviré, Solange Schwartz and Lycette Darsonval.
Undaunted by the vast expanse of the Opéra’s stage, Brayer filled the space with striking sets in simple colour schemes and frequently added outsized elements to underscore the theatrical setting, to powerful effect.
Just a few months later, Brayer was back at the Opéra as designer for El Amor Brujo, with Teresina and Serge Lifar in the lead roles. Manuel de Falla’s remarkable music conjured up for Brayer the idea of a fairy-tale cave, looking out over a city that comes into view bathed in light as the ballet draws to a close.
These first two experiences in the theatre introduced Brayer to a whole new world: ballet. The scenes to which he was privy on the stage, in the wings and at rehearsals inspired a great many watercolours as well as a number of paintings.
He worked at the Opéra de Paris on several more occasions, under different directors. He designed the premiere of Claude Delvincourt’s opera Lucifer in 1948, the reprise of Florent Schmidt’s Tragédie de Salomé in 1954, and returned to ballet with the premiere of Jeanne Leleu’s Nautéos, also in 1954.
When the Opéra de Nice organised the Festival de Cimiez, they engaged Brayer as designer for a series of three ballets, including the premiere of Darius Milhaud’s La branche des Oiseaux, based on a libretto by André Chamson, and Daniel Lesur’s Le Bal du Destin, choreographed by Janine Charrat.
Yves Brayer only ever worked on two plays, however: Mithridate at the Comédie Française and George Dandin on Fernand Ledoux’s South American tour.
Brayer typically reached for his paintbrush when creating the initial mock-ups for his set designs. These mock-ups were veritable miniature works of art in their own right, bearing all of Brayer’s hallmarks: his verve, use of colour and fluid lines. His costumes were the ideal complement to his scenography, in the same way that the inclusion of figures can bring a landscape painting to life. His designs were unmistakably the work of a painter.
Brayer knew Spain well, and this earned him several commissions. As well as El Amor Brujo, mentioned above, he was also chosen to design an homage to Manuel de Falla at the Holland’Festival in Amsterdam in 1953, including La Vida Breve and El Retablo de Maese Pedro. He returned to the same festival the following year to work on Carmen. André Jolivet picked Brayer to work on the design for the production in Lyon of his opéra bouffe set in Spain: Dolorès (ou le Miracle de la Femme Laide). That same year, Brayer truly showcased his Spanish credentials by designing six sets and a host of costumes for Goya, an opera commemorating one of his favourite painters, with music by Tony Aubin and libretto by Raymond Escholier. Brayer’s innate understanding of all aspects of theatre décor was once again on display in this production at the Opéra de Lille, with impressive recreations of street scenes in Madrid and of Goya’s Quinta del Sordo estate.