La Traviata ─ the little red dress

Everyone knows La Traviata. Whether you’re an exuberant opera fan or not, the tuneful music that sets the story of the consumptive courtesan, Violetta, is as recognizable as the Ten Commandments are to a man without Faith. From countless television commercials, to the iconic chick flick, “Pretty Woman”, it’s hardly a secret that Verdi’s 1853 hit left an indelible stamp on the opera world as well as in pop culture.

Going to the opera ─ a scene from “Pretty Woman”

Typically, I strongly prefer to experience an opera set traditionally before ever dipping my toe into the pool of a modern interpretation. But although an abstract production, I still wanted to see La Traviata when it came to theaters. Willy Decker’s stark sets and tuxedoed chorus members stripped the scenes to minimalist proportions. Languoring in a curve of the corrugated circular stage sat an enormous face clock with a latent theme. Was the intent ─ to allegorize Violetta’s time running out ─ effective ? That’s debatable. Unless previously enlightened, the concept was rather abstruse to grasp ─ at least it was for me. However, there was one upside to the bare bones production and that was the adorable little red dress worn by Violetta during the vibrancy of the opera.

Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta in Willy Decker’s La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

Since debuting at the prestigious Salzburg Music Festival in 2005, the production’s scarlet flouncy floral brocade dress has been worn by leading sopranos around the world. From Anna Netrebko to Natalie Dessay, the pictorial research was readily available. Hitherto, my only sewing projects amounted to a yukata sewn for Madama Butterfly and a mop cap for my Hebrew slave costume for Nabucco. To take on a complex dress, I needed a real pattern. And after months of scouring and rumination, I found it !

It’s even red ! McCall’s 6834

With a full pleated skirt and the promise of Palmer and Pletsch fitting, I was elated to begin sewing McCall’s 6834 as my Traviata pattern. But obviously, some alterations needed to be made to elevate the style to the Violetta Valéry standard.

Michael Fabiano as Alfredo and Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta in La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

First adjustment ─ the front and back neckline. My goal was a “rounded square scoop” neckline for the front and so I fiddled with whittling down the existing pattern to how I intended it to look. But I needed help, especially with the curve of the back, so I pulled out an old sleeveless dress pattern from my mother’s bulging pattern box and used its pieces for the design of the straps and necklines. So far, so good !

See & Sew by Butterick 6398 / Circa 1988

The dress was a near replica of the one worn in the opera. So uncanny was the resemblance that a nearsighted lady, slowly forging her way towards the concession stand during intermission, came close to bumping into me where she halted and gasped, “You look just like Violetta !” The greatest of all compliments was received.

Because this was my first commercial sewing pattern project, I made many mistakes. My sizing was off and goodness, the rosy polyester satin frayed terribly ! The fibers continued to shed and tickled my bare legs with every step. Carefully, I toddled around the theater in my shiny crimson pumps, allowing a twirl every now and then.

Pondering life’s toughest questions: which party to attend next and with whom ?

The evening encore outing was a moderate success, however I look forward to seeing a more traditional Traviata in the not-too-distant future. Whether in a flouncy red cocktail dress or a grand antebellum ball gown, one thing remains constant: the emotional power and beloved recognition of Verdi’s timeless opera, La Traviata.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

La Traviata ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1853)
Live in HD air date: March 11, 2017
(Encore seen: March 15, 2017)

Cast:
Violetta Valéry ─ Sonya Yoncheva
Alfredo Germont ─ Michael Fabiano
Giorgio Germont ─ Thomas Hampson

Credits:
Conductor ─ Nicola Luisotti
Production ─ Willy Decker
Set and Costume Designer ─ Wolfgang Gussmann
Associate Costume Designer ─ Susana Mendoza
Lighting Director ─ Hans Toelstede
Choreographer ─ Athol Farmer
Live in HD Director ─ Matthew Diamond
Host ─ Isabel Leonard

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