Agrippina

The opera that catapulted Handel to stardom in 1709 certainly didn’t appear to possess any of the typical semblances of its Ancient Rome setting. TV news reporters, business suits, smartphones, and rather raunchy physical comedy could all be taken in during the Live in HD performance of Sir David McVicar’s staging of Agrippina.

So why did I decide to attend ? After all, I don’t like modern productions… or do I ?

A scene from Agrippina / Metropolitan Opera

A course taken on 18th-Century Opera from edX the previous summer softened my ossified resolve on the idea of attending a Baroque opera in a Y2K setting. It was worth a shot… and that shot was fired with poignant accuracy─ I laughed harder than I have ever laughed at any opera, nearly falling out of my seat on innumerable occasions ! The antics were well-timed, especially from Joyce DiDonato’s saucy Agrippina and her hellion son, Nerone, played to utmost perfection by a tattooed, skinny jean wearing, cocaine snorting Kate Lindsey in a trouser role.

Kate Lindsey as Nerone and Joyce DiDonato as Agrippina / Metropolitan Opera

As a scintillating counterpart to the opera’s R-rated comedy, the singing was sublime. With many scenes being accompanied only by the deft strings of maestro Harry Bicket’s harpsichord, the singers were exploited for their talent and technique alone, which was all the more appreciated after the insightful edX course.

The question remains to be asked: was the radical redux of the Met’s oldest opera in the repertoire worthy of my stalwart traditionalism ? Resoundingly, yes ! Call it sacrilege if you please, but if Agrippina had been staged in its original setting of the infancy of A.D. history, I think it would have been an absolute snoozefest ! Sorry, Handel.

Joyce DiDonato and Matthew Rose in Agrippina / Metropolitan Opera

Realizing the modern-dress style of the opera could very well lead into a fashionable sewing project, I envisioned a specific mode ─ an overall perceived attitude ─ for the styling of my outfit: Italian couture. Fittingly, Agrippina is centralized in Rome and while Ancient Rome is a completely different entity from the country of Italy in existence today, I still couldn’t resist aligning the two nations in my quest for haute couture.
Perusing pictures and watching video clips from previous renditions of the same McVicar production (extant since 2000), I chose to model my outfit after the Agrippina standing on the stairs in the picture below.

Sarah Connolly as Agrippina, circa 2009 / Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona

Up close, the blazer was not just one solid color; it was subtlety patterned in a diamond motif. Satin first popped into my mind until I spotted the perfect fabric, which arrived in one of my monthly swatch club mailers from Fabric Mart Fabrics.

Taking the plunge: Wool, Dry Clean Only, $20/yard… Agrippina pushed my boundaries in more ways than one !

To sew my very first blazer, I used a PDF pattern from Lekala. Although not without flaws, I learned in strides how coat construction comes together. Styled with a “business bun”, Whiting and Davis purse (my mother’s), cat eye sunglasses, and gobstopper pearls (thank you, Aunt Countess !), I was poised to take on the world in sleek, corporate couture fashion.

The classic, Chanel-esque cocktail dress, which employed pattern and alteration techniques from the Corset Academy, was the perfect base garment for my “cutthroat corporate” ideal. Here was my inspiration dress:

Circa 1995 Chanel silk slip dress / via 1stdibs.com

The ponte knit dress was customized with a mesh upper lining and built-in underwire bra…

Did I mention this was an Italian couture outfit ? Everything, from the damask weave crepe challis wool of the blazer to the black ponte knit of the cocktail dress, was sourced from Italy.

Even the gold shank button was from The Boot !

Italian couture and a ruthless Roman matriarch… a match made in heaven ? You be the judge ! The taste for high-end fashion and the delicious vocalities of Handel’s breakout opera left me as hungry as the titular Empress herself, salivating over her next scheme.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Agrippina ─ George Frideric Handel (1709)
Live in HD air date: February 29, 2020

Cast:
Agrippina ─ Joyce DiDonato
Nerone ─ Kate Lindsey
Poppea ─ Brenda Rae
Ottone ─ Iestyn Davies
Pallante ─ Ducan Rock
Claudio ─ Matthew Rose

Credits:
Conductor ─ Harry Bicket
Production ─ Sir David McVicar
Set and Costume Designer ─ John Macfarlane
Lighting Designer ─ Paule Constable
Choreographer ─ Andrew George
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Deborah Voigt

Tosca

With a static setting of June 17-18, 1800, how does a stage director erect an enlivened production of Puccini’s Tosca ? When tasked to the capable hands of Sir David McVicar, the opera, no matter the setting, is bound to be a hit. That prediction held true: the Met’s enthralling new production of Tosca was bold and dramatic, pious and perilous.

A scene from Act III of Tosca / Metropolitan Opera

Although the McVicar production was a huge success, it’s almost unfathomable to believe that the entire principal cast and conductor originally slated to perform bowed out before the first curtain ever ascended. However, the new players were arguably just as effective with tempestuous Sonya Yoncheva and swarthy Vittorio Grigolo igniting passion as the lovers Floria Tosca and Mario Cavaradossi.

Vittorio Grigolo as Mario Cavaradossi and Sonya Yoncheva as Floria Tosca / Metropolitan Opera

Everyone loves a good romance. But for me, the highlight of Tosca is the riveting Te Deum, a processional of hallowed majesty and lascivious scheming. If I had to choose a small handful of favorite lines from all the operas ever written, Scarpia’s blasphemous and ironic pronouncement (“Tosca, you make me forget God !”) would be ranked in the top three. The sacrilegious statement simultaneously occurs with the conclusion of the chorus’ magnanimous hymn of praise… In the middle of a cathedral. During High Mass. Priceless.

Željko Lučić as Scarpia (far right) during the Te Deum of Tosca / Metropolitan Opera

Previously mentioned, Tosca is set in 1800, often referred to as the Regency/Napoleonic era in history. I’ll be frank ─ never have I thought the extremely elevated waistlines of empire gowns to be flattering on any woman. The style invariably reminds me of two things: nightgowns and maternity clothes. But, alas ! It was the required look for the opera so I began to contemplate my own gown. While there are a multitude of commercial sewing patterns for Empire/Regency gowns on the market, I chose Butterick 6074 because it appeared more historically accurate and brought the added value of five different pattern options in one envelope. I made a variation of version A.

Butterick 6074

Nearly every detail of my Empire ensemble was modeled after the simplistic gowns (they must always be called gowns, I learned) worn during the infancy of the 19th century. The sheer train and sleeves, drawstring neckline, and accenting Greek key ribbon at the waistline were all characteristics of the most popular gowns of the day. Pearls and a hair ribbon accessorized my look as well as a shawl from the Orient.

Aiding me in my research were the very helpful articles from Fashion-Era.com and the University of Vermont. These two online resources were invaluable as I often referred to their guidance. Curiously, the gauzy whitework gown worn in Act I of the opera was fairly accurate ─ especially when speaking in terms of theatrical costumes ─ albeit, the short gathered tulle ruffles around the neckline were a mere artistic deviation.

Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca and Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi / Metropolitan Opera

What most people wouldn’t know is that in addition to the floor length gown, I also had to sew a chemise and set of short stays (the corset of the period) to obtain the proper “column” silhouette that was so ubiquitously envied during the Napoleonic Era. In addition to shaping the figure into that of a Grecian statue, the height of the bustline was also raised by the stays. Who would have thought that a few stubby lengths of nylon cable ties and some strategic bust gores could give such heavenly lift ?

Regency chemise and short stays

Despite my general distaste for women’s clothing of the early 19th century, I gained an… appreciation… for the Empire style and learned the reasoning behind its popularity during the time. Undoubtedly, the greatest advantage to my costuming is the breadth and retention of knowledge that is acquired during my extensive research. While the gowns of early 1800’s were soft and demure, the military battles and civic rivalries during the period made for fiery reading. Perhaps drawing upon history, that same combustible drama was clearly emanated in the verismo verses of Tosca.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Tosca ─ Giacomo Puccini (1900)
Live in HD air date: January 27, 2018

Cast:
Tosca ─ Sonya Yoncheva
Mario Cavaradossi ─ Vittorio Grigolo
Scarpia ─ Željko Lučić
Sacristan ─ Patrick Carfizzi

Credits:
Conductor ─ Emmanuel Villaume
Production ─ Sir David McVicar
Set and Costume Designer ─ John Macfarlane
Lighting Designer ─ David Finn
Movement Director ─ Leah Hausman
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Isabel Leonard

Adriana Lecouvreur

It has been quipped that in order to perform Adriana Lecouvreur successfully, real-life divas must be cast. Art must imitate life and despite thrilling drama and chest-heaving music, the current stock of bona fide divas is rather sparse. Therefore, Adriana Lecouvreur remains mostly on the shelf of the operatic repertoire. However, the Met assembled a perfect bill of spectacularly strong singers for the star-studded Live in HD broadcast. The heat was on !

Piotr Beczała as Maurizio and Anna Netrebko as Adriana Lecouvreur / Metropolitan Opera

Sir David McVicar’s elegant production embodied the powder and pomp of 18th century French theater. With a bust of Molière gracing the stage like a god watching and listening in silence to his progeny perform, one could almost immediately grasp the nucleus of the opera: no one is faithful to anyone in love.

A scene from Adriana Lecouvreur / Metropolitan Opera

A love triangle with deadly stakes, my brain was twisted in two trying to unravel the deception of it all. But probably the most anticipated of all the action was the impending battle between Anita Rachvelishvili and Anna Netrebko. This was to be Round 2 of the Anna vs. Anita vocal boxing match ─ the first occurring in Aida just a few months prior.
“They bit, they glared, gave blows like beams, a wind went with their paws;” to quote from the famed poem by James Leigh Hunt… I loved every moment of it !

Anita Rachvelishvili as the Princess of Bouillon, Ambrogio Maestri as Michonnet, and Anna Netrebko as Adriana Lecouvreur / Metropolitan Opera

While the plot twists and intrigue of the opera were at times difficult to untangle, my 18th century gown was anything but a chore, which surprised even me !
Using the Simplicity 4092 pattern that included pocket hoops for support of a proper silhouette (a terrific perk to Andrea Schewe’s delightful design), I made the featured gold version on the envelope (B), and began working on my Rococo-inspired gown as the very first project on my brand new Baby Lock sewing machine and serger.

Simplicity 4092 / Designed by Andrea Schewe

But the real secret to such a regal gown without breaking the bank on luxurious silks and brocades is that I used extra wide width polyester curtain fabric, which significantly cut down on the costs of materials. (Can someone say, “Scarlett O’Hara” ?) According to the pattern instructions, the gown called for close to 5 yards of fabric. However, with the 3+ meter width of the green and gold floral damask upholstery material I used, I only needed to purchase 2 yards (2 yards @ 120 inches wide ≈ 6 yards) in addition to 1 yard of a contrasting cream material for the stomacher and underskirt. Instead of spending over $100 on standard width material (54-60″), I rounded my totals to just under $33, minus the shipping costs ─ what a steal !

My alterations were few: I lowered the neckline slightly in order to achieve the peeking bosom look of the era as well as slimming down the sleeves to fit more snugly. Bows were a must and frilly trims, too. But the bow pattern that was included in the packet was much too “cartoonish” in its original format for my taste, so I reworked those to better suit the width of the front stomacher. They were so cute !

And check out the pocket hoops ! Although not as wide as traditional panniers, they provided just the right “oompf” to the pleated skirts of the gown.

Perfectly fashioned in the 18th century style, my mother had the task of arranging my hair. Didn’t she do a great job ? It reminded me of Belle from the ballroom scene in “Beauty and the Beast”.

This was a fabulous gown worn to an equally glamorous opera with captivating historical backstories ! Marie Antoinette would’ve been proud.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Adriana Lecouvreur ─ Francisco Cilea (1902)
Live in HD air date: January 12, 2019

Cast:
Adriana Lecouvreur ─ Anna Netrebko
Maurizio ─ Piotr Beczała
Princess of Bouillon ─ Anita Rachvelishvili
Michonnet ─ Ambrogio Maestri
The Abbé ─ Carlo Bosi
Prince of Bouillon ─ Maurizio Muraro

Credits:
Conductor ─ Gianandrea Noseda
Production ─ Sir David McVicar
Set Designer ─ Charles Edwards
Costume Designer ─ Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer ─ Adam Silverman
Choreographer ─ Andrew George
Associate Director ─ Justin Way
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Matthew Polenzani