La Traviata: The Real Violetta

With the satellite repaired at my local haunt, I returned to the theater to punch my ticket for La Traviata, an opera, which, while not a favorite of mine, is one that cannot be denied no matter how many times it is shown in the theaters ─ the music is just too good ! After all, who can resist a bubbling brindisi and soaring arias ?

Nadine Sierra as Violetta / Metropolitan Opera

Although there were some initial issues with the picture quality and crackling sound in the cinema, the performance waxed better and better, culminating in one of the greatest finales I’ve ever seen incarnated in the opera. The tears were real. The emotion was all-encompassing… I love a good death scene and this was it ! Bravi, Nadine and Stephen !

Nadine Sierra and Stephen Costello in La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

Twice had I seen La Traviata in the theaters before this current jaunt and as I was beginning to think of ideas for my latest outfit, I had one prohibition: I did not want to wear another red dress ! My opinions about Michael Mayer’s revival production haven’t changed much from my first time seeing it in 2018 and Susan Hilferty’s costumes, although beautiful, were not something I wanted to replicate for my own closet. Rather, I was inspired by the original Violetta, the one immortalized in Alexandre Dumas Jr.’s novel, La Dame aux Camélias.

Marie Duplessis, converted to Marguerite Gautier and Violetta Valéry in written and theatrical texts, was the real-life Parisian courtesan who lived and died during the 1840’s. Over the summer, I read La Dame aux Camélias and was caught between frustration and pity over Marie’s hapless fate. I wanted to recreate her. And so, I began researching the time period and everything central to women’s fashion.

Early Victorian Style: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, circa 1840’s

Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 1 was my treasure trove for resources and my aim was to use one of the extant designs as the basis for creating my dress.

A gown from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 1

Although enlarging the corresponding pattern pieces in the book to their proper scale (800%), an initial mock-up proved that more alterations would be needed in order to have the dress fit my figure. Time was like quicksand through the hourglass and the thought of applying modern day adjustments was a hopeless endeavour. Another thought popped into my mind: draping !

I had never draped in my life, but it seemed like the more expeditious route to pursue. What did I have to lose ? Using the magnified patterns as a guide, I attempted my first draped garment. My results were appealing.

Transferring the darts and adding seam allowances to the muslin pieces made for quick work, but more fitting issues arose as the bodice was cut too short and the waist was left too loose for my corseted figure. Oh, well ! It wasn’t too shabby for my first attempt at a couture technique.

With a hairdo that had my mother revolting in horror, I was ready to enact my tribute to Marie Duplessis, the “real” Violetta.

In addition to draping, I also tried my hand at cartridge pleating for the skirt, piped the armholes and waistline, and used a hook and eye placket to close the back. So 1840’s !

The creamy white satin was stunningly gorgeous, but by far my favorite part of the outfit was the wooden camellia magnet corsage that my cousin, Rosemary, fashioned for me.

Thank you, Rosemary !

With naturally preserved salal leaves, the bloom completely set off my outfit. Rosemary has a tremendous business creating real-look softened wood florals for weddings and events. And she ships worldwide, too, so be sure to check out her site ! https://www.rosemarysgardenflorals.com/

I loved wearing this outfit along with all the Maria Callas/Scarlett O’Hara vibes it brought me. Through a sickly, “kept” woman, I learned much about the 1840’s and opera’s greatest heroine. Marie Duplessis: the real Violetta.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

La Traviata ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1853)
Live in HD air date: November 5, 2022

Cast:
Violetta Valéry ─ Nadine Sierra
Alfredo Germont ─ Stephen Costello
Giorgio Germont ─ Luca Salsi

Credits:
Conductor ─ Daniele Callegari
Production ─ Michael Mayer
Set Designer ─ Christine Jones
Costume Designer ─ Susan Hilferty
Lighting Designer ─ Kevin Adams
Choreographer ─ Lorrin Latarro
Revival Stage Director ─ Sarah Ina Meyers
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Renée Fleming

Lucia di Lammermoor: A “Mad” Bridal Tradition

Manners, manipulation, mysticism, and morbidity permeate Sir Walter Scott’s gothic novel of thwarted romance like a damp fog over the rugged Scottish Highlands. After an article recently published for suggested opera reading, I dove into a delightful immersive study of reading opera’s literary forerunners. “The Bride of Lammermoor” was near the top of my list since its theatric counterpart was due up for the Met’s 2021-2022 Live in HD season.

I loved the novel. Even with its gloomy pallor, I found myself pleasurably enveloped in the formality and class distinctions of the early 18th century Scottish setting. But how would the opera, slightly amended in its story and characters, fare against the benchmark book ─ especially with a radical, modern day-set production ?

Nadine Sierra in a promotional photo for Lucia di Lammermoor / Metropolitan Opera

Uncharacteristically for me, I was rather indifferent towards Simon Stone’s half opera/half movie production. Many parts of the story felt plausible in the present day Rust Belt setting while other stunts left me nonplussed. While both the action of the opera on stage and the cinematic video screen projection above were cleverly produced, I felt they would have been more effective as separate entities rather than interpolated within the same space (sensory overload !). Unquestionably, the singing was explosive ─ bel canto has a penchant for fireworks !

A scene from Lucia di Lammermoor / Metropolitan Opera

The outfit for Lucia was obvious: the famed “bloody” wedding gown from the Act III mad scene is so ubiquitously tied to the opera (regardless of the decade or production) that it’s almost clichéd.

Splattering scarlet paint over a delicate display of satin and lace wouldn’t allow me many opportunities for wearing the designated dress again, although the thought was tempting… especially since the gown worn in the new Met production looked uncannily similar to my mother’s actual wedding gown from 1987.

Fear not; I wouldn’t do that to my mother’s dress (or anyone else’s, for that matter). With a modern production and no prior hint to its styling, I decided I would take a more interpretative approach to the blood-stained garment while still keeping an oft-chanted bridal tradition.

Something Old

Gloves were originally not going to be part of my outfit, but yet as I studied the John Everett Millais painting, I realized it was fitting.

“The Bride of Lammermoor” by John Everett Millais (1878)

These gloves were given to me by a friend and neighbor, who used to wear them out and about in Wisconsin, as was the proper thing to do at the time. Thank you, Miss Johanna !

Something New

Because there was no possibility of saturating a real wedding gown in blood (or the likes thereof), I wanted to have something that was evocative of blood without actually looking like it. I’ve had my eye on a Vogue pattern for sophisticated bolero jackets for several years and knew I would use it to my bloody advantage. Initially aiming to sew the ¾ sleeve version with the pleated ruffles, I altered my plans when I came across an irresistible fabric deal: corded nylon lace with sequins ─ $2.99/yard. I bought five yards.
Changing styles was seamless since the bell flounce sleeves of View D reminded me of the 18th century, which directly mirrored the time in which the original story was set. (Note: I had my mother style my hair based off the images on the pattern envelope… so haute, so mad !!)

The way that the pattern was drafted, I needed to alter the length of the sleeves in order to have the flounce sit higher on my arm and not look so much like a 1970’s disco queen. Eight inches were subsequently removed from the sleeves, which gave me that 1700’s feel.

Something Borrowed

The dress I wore is very special because it played a starring role in someone else’s life. Charmingly, the white satin A-line gown employed to represent Lucia’s wedding gown was not intended for a bartered bride, but rather… a debutante !

My friend, Borden, wore this same gown in the early 2000’s when she made her debut. And after many years, it still looks great. Thank you, Borden !

Something Blue

And what would the bridal tradition be without Something Blue ?! Well, there was no question as to what that would be…

Bought for $16.99 at a resale store (thank you, Miss Michelle !), my royal blue and rhinestone studded stilettos steal the show wherever they make an appearance ─ from the “Pavarotti” documentary to Anna Netrebko’s Viennese concert. ‘Fabulous’ doesn’t even begin to describe their glamor.

My last opera of the 2021-2022 Live in HD season hit all the right notes. Indeed, it was a bloody mad time !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Lucia di Lammermoor ─ Gaetano Donizetti (1835)
Live in HD air date: May 21, 2022

Cast:
Lucia ─ Nadine Sierra
Edgardo ─ Javier Camarena
Enrico ─ Artur Ruciński
Raimondo ─ Christian Van Horn

Credits:
Conductor ─ Ricardo Frizza
Production ─ Simon Stone
Set Designer ─ Lizzie Clachan
Costume Designers ─ Alice Babidge and Blanca Añón
Lighting Designer ─ James Farncombe
Projection Designer ─ Luke Halls
Choreographer ─ Sara Erde
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Anthony Roth Costanzo

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