Roberto Devereux

From the sextet of wives belonging the brutishly fickle Henry VIII to the bloody tug-of-war between Catholicism and Protestantism, the Tudor period in history is a meaty bone of tumult and fascination. The drama of the time must have captured Donizetti’s mind as well: his trilogy of Tudor operas is a tour-de-force for singers and a favorite haunt for acting potential. And so, here I was, at the finale of my first opera season, with the opportunity to see a spectacle of costumes and make-up prowess.

Sondra Radvanovsky in a promotional photo for Roberto Devereux / Metropolitan Opera

The buzz around this performance of Roberto Devereux was Sondra Radvanovsky’s daring run at the Tudor Triple Crown ─ she performed all three of the Donizetti Tudor queens in one season to riotous acclaim. However, I found more appeal in the light Italian strings of the overture than the flapping voice of Radvanovsky. Furthermore, the duets and trios were the hallmark in this opera, especially with the creamy-toned Elīna Garanča and the drama surrounding her character (caught between her husband and her forbidden love for the Queen’s favorite suitor).

More than anticipated, the make-up was sensational, undoubtedly its very best on Sondra Radvanovsky’s aged Elizabeth. The perfectly coiffed paprika peruke was doffed at the opera’s end to reveal a withering white fray of “natural” hair that was a remarkable feat of theatrical trickery.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux / Metropolitan Opera

Moving onto the costumes, I knew this opera would feature extremely intricate pieces that were beyond my scope of sewing skills. I did, after all, just teach myself to sew almost 6 weeks earlier for when I needed an outfit for Madame Butterfly. What was I to do ? An offhanded observation of Tudor portraits easily pointed out the garment of ubiquity, the ruff. Oh, yes, I MUST have a ruff, but a different kind of ruff… “Tudor Couture on the Cheap !”

Something that was crafty and unique was in order and the first thing I wanted to tweak was the color of the ruff. Instead of a glaring white starched collar, I imagined a more earthy accessory to compliment the neutral colors of the outfit I had planned to wear. Configuring the ruff was crucial: who would want to wear an all encompassing collar, especially when sitting in one of the high backed chairs of the theater ? No, that wouldn’t do. Rather, I opted for an open ruff, one that swooped around the back neckline and left the chest exposed.

Much better.

Now for the construction… Since sewing was out of the question, I devised a plan to use a large cardboard pizza round and cut away part of the front for the neck and chest opening, which worked well. But the most extraordinary feature of the ruff was the actual “ruffle” material: unbleached coffee filters ! With their curly edges and cost effective efficiency, the coffee filters were perfect when artfully folded and glued onto the pizza round. Both the top and bottom of the cardboard round were layered with the filters and attached using hot glue. All that was left was to glue two inward facing clothespins to the undersides of the ruff near the front points and I now had an accessory worthy of the Tudors.

Alas, I misjudged the back protrusion ─ throughout the day in the theater, I was forced to sit with my head bent downward and forward because of the ruff’s extended back edge. By the curtain call, I had a crick in my neck.

With my first opera season in the books, I unclipped the paper ruff and admired its beauty and ingenuity… but not its discomfort.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Roberto Devereux ─ Gaetano Donizetti (1837)
Live in HD air date: April 16, 2016

Cast:
Queen Elizabeth ─ Sondra Radvonovsky
Roberto Devereux ─ Matthew Polenzani
Sara, Duchess of Nottingham ─ Elīna Garanča
Duke of Nottingham ─ Mariusz Kwiecien

Credits:
Conductor ─ Maurizio Benini
Production ─ Sir David McVicar
Set Designer ─ Sir David McVicar
Costume Designer ─ Moritz Junge
Lighting Designer ─ Paule Constable
Choreographer ─ Leah Hausman
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Deborah Voigt

Samson et Dalila

It’s a well-known fact that opera is a breeding ground for steamy passages of heart-searing love and passion. Whether through a gripping duet of vocal intensity or timely choreography, an attendee of the opera ─ especially a shy one ─ should be prepared for some “seat squirming”. And so, I braced myself for an assumptive afternoon of red hot heat in a retelling of one of the most notorious couples of biblical proportions: Samson and Delilah.

Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna in Samson et Dalila / Metropolitan Opera

This new production was hyped because of its starring cast. When Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna were teamed together for Carmen in 2009, the fireworks were undeniable, so it has been said by many. Now, almost 10 years later, the two rejoined the stage in hopes of rekindling their chemistry.

Roberto Alagna and Elīna Garanča in Carmen / Metropolitan Opera

Although I had not seen the performance of Carmen with Elīna and Roberto, I wasn’t overwhelmed by what I saw in Saint-Saën’s Samson et Dalila. Both performers did well on their own, but I wasn’t moved by their “passion”. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or maybe those same anticipations were more deflated by the cartoonish sets and costumes. Samson’s hair, which was not nearly as long as I had hoped, dangled over a swath of heathered jersey knit and the neon lamé and garish design features on Dalila’s gowns were almost an insult to the rich potential for styling this opera. Pooh !

Elīna Garanča as Dalila and Roberto Alagna as Samson in Samson et Dalila / Metropolitan Opera

Musically, my favorite moment came during the Bacchanale, which sizzled with Middle Eastern flair and energy. The corresponding ballet, however, was far more revealing than what my unprepared eyes had estimated. Remember what I said about seat squirming ? Well, it happened here.

The Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila / Metropolitan Opera

Reputed as a Philistine femme fatale, the excitement to dress as Dalila bubbled within me like a hot spring in an arid desert. However, with a new production, costuming can be a peculiar challenge since the non-existence of past performance photos brings about a crap shoot risk: will the costumes in the opera mimic those worn in the released promotional still shots ? It’s a gamble, but one of an intense ruminating kind. For Samson et Dalila, the promotional media looked to be geared toward a 1970’s disco glam/modern vibe with Elīna Garanča appearing to look like a sultry screen siren.

With that approach, I was thunderstruck by an idea after seeing a model dress on the Corset Academy website:

Courtesy of the Corset Academy

The dress reminded me of the raspberry pink halter neck gown worn in the promos and I had a dynamic plan for the design of my own: bright fuchsia satin and funky orange lace for the side panels.

Several mock-ups were created to manually model the curved lines of the side panels; the finalized muslin pieces were then cut and placed on the satin and lace for sewing. But during the fitting of the lining, I learned something had seriously gone awry: the dress was skin tight and I could barely move ! The next 10 days were spent letting out the seam allowances with mediocre results. Finally, it dawned on me that the only way the dress was going to fit was if I cut “expander” panels and sewed them to the back vertical edges of the dress. Crisis averted !

“Expander” panels sewn to back edges of dress

Although the cleverly concealed error wasn’t my ideal method of creating a dress, a hindsight look into the process taught me that I shouldn’t stuff my mock-ups too tightly ─ the cotton muslin became stretched and therefore rendered a faulty reading on the measurements. Lessons learned during sewing are invaluable for future creations.
In the end, I was elated with the design of the dress and how it hugged my body like a slippery satin snake. My mother styled my hair in “Desert Goddess” fashion, which was inspired by Olga Borodina’s Dalila from the Met in 1998.

Plácido Domingo and Olga Borodina in Samson et Dalila, circa 1998 / Metropolitan Opera

While my wrist was weighted in gold and leather bracelets and my shoes sparkled with the glints of Arabian sands, the real showstopper to this ensemble was the presence of glittering Swarovski crystals (over 500 of them !) that adorned the circular insets on the lace. Pictures cannot prove their luminescence, but the crowd at the theater noticed…

Up close detail of the lace and crystals

Dalila: a sense of worldly glamour with the seduction of a lioness. Samson et Dalila: a lion cub outfitted in plastic rhinestones.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Samson et Dalila ─ Camille Saint-Saëns (1877)
Live in HD air date: October 20, 2018

Cast:
Dalila ─ Elīna Garanča
Samson ─ Roberto Alagna
High Priest of Dagon ─ Laurent Naouri
Abimélech ─ Elchin Azizov
An Old Hebrew ─ Dmitry Belosselskiy

Credits:
Conductor ─ Sir Mark Elder
Production ─ Darko Tresnjak
Set Designer ─ Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer ─ Linda Cho
Lighting Designer ─ Donald Holder
Choreographer ─ Austin McCormick
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Susan Graham

Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss’s galloping social comedy of class and sex was a double shot of caffeine that left me both breathless and exhilarated. Although originally set in the 1700’s, the latest Met redux advanced the story to 1911, the year that the opera first premiered while coinciding with the cusp of World War I and the disappearance of the Habsburg empire.

Günther Groissböck (center) as Baron Ochs and Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier / Metropolitan Opera

Uniquely, this was to be the farewell of Renée Fleming and Elīna Garanča, both retiring their respective roles as the worldly and wistful Marschallin and her adolescent lover, Octavian. It’s really a pity ─ both were superb, but especially the latter, who had me completely under the spell of her masculine alter ego. Their affair may have been short-lived, but their legacy will live on !

Elīna Garanča as Octavian and Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier / Metropolitan Opera

Equally scintillating were Günther Groissböck as the hilariously oafish Baron Ochs and Erin Morely as the dainty debutante, Sophie. In fact, I would venture so far as to deem the cast as nearly immaculate: I couldn’t imagine better singing actors to play each role, especially in regards to the stratagems and horseplay of the opera. My sides were splitting !

Erin Morely as Sophie and Günther Groissböck as Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier / Metropolitan Opera

Since Edwardian was the style à la mode, I did my best to try and capture the time period using what I had one hand. My mother’s red Christmas dress, worn in the late 1980’s, offered a classic silhouette that could surely mimic the matronly Marschallin. To tie in the ecru lace collar along the neckline, I crocheted a pair of gloves to further my ideal of the graceful Edwardian lady.

The makings of a lady

The hat, oh! the hat…

How many times are the fashionable ladies of the early 20th century pictured without some enormous feathered and flowered chapeau nesting upon their updo ? Hardly ever ! I needed something spectacular to set off the conservative frock. So I snatched an old Panama laying around from years ago and padded the crown with wads of cotton to eliminate the outer indentions. Then, I sandwiched the brim of the hat with two large cardboard “donuts” and applied copious amounts of duct tape to secure the layers from shifting.

A swath of vibrant scarlet velvet was tucked into the newly expanded brim and reshaped crown. Out of the same velvet I stitched a gigantic bow and attached it to the back of the hat…

A bouquet of red roses (Walmart’s Finest) and gold Christmas bow were all that were needed to christen my hat for Edwardian greatness.

Elegant and ostentatious… just like the ladies of the Edwardian era and Strauss’s brilliant Der Rosenkavalier !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Der Rosenkavalier ─ Richard Strauss (1911)
Live in HD air date: May 13, 2017

Cast:
The Marschallin ─ Renée Fleming
Octavian ─ Elīna Garanča
Sophie ─ Erin Morely
Baron Ochs ─ Günther Groissböck
Faninal ─ Markus Brück
An Italian Singer ─ Matthew Polenzani

Credits:
Conductor ─ Sebastian Weigle
Production ─ Robert Carsen
Set Designer ─ Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer ─ Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designers ─ Robert Carsen, Peter Van Praet
Choreographer ─ Philippe Giraudeau
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Matthew Polenzani