Art Deco Rigoletto

Even if you’ve never seen the opera Rigoletto, you are most likely familiar with the Verdi work by its famous, hummable aria, “La donna è mobile,” heard everywhere from TV commercials to Italian restaurants. While I had the chance of watching a Rat Pack, neon-bedecked, “Vegas” Rigoletto during the Met’s free streaming at the time of their shutdown, I still felt the need to see the opera “in person” at the theater, this time set in the Weimar Republic of the 1920’s. Talk about a departure from 16th century Mantua !

Michael Mayer’s “Vegas” Rigoletto
Bartlett Sher’s “Weimar” Rigoletto

What struck me the most about the new Bartlett Sher Rigoletto were the parallels to Sher’s Met production of Otello: blocky sets that felt closed off to the audience and gave the appearance of hazardous movement among the singers (watch out for the columns !). Another exasperating comparison was the inability to distinguish the lead characters from the rest of the crowd. Both the Duke in Rigoletto and Otello wore the clothes of their compatriots, with little, insufficient distinction. The costumes for the men looked to be the same in both productions ─ perhaps the budget was snug ? Overall, I felt the Weimar production was too garish and dark and was left questioning… “What’s wrong with 16th century Mantua ?!”

I always knew what I would wear before I ever had a 20’s themed opera to attend. A few years back, a friend gave me a vintage black cashmere sweater with a cream fur collar and rhinestone buckle at the waist. The tag indicated its pedigree: “100% Cashmere, Made in Scotland.” It was an instant love affair. Musing over the garment brought to mind the Silent Film era and its actresses I had seen in movies. My vision of a pale pink charmeuse gown and a black wool cloche was the surest way to bring the sweater’s former glory back into the limelight. A flapper would agree…

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks
Anita Page

Since I knew that I was going to wear a cashmere sweater, the last thing I wanted was a long sleeve dress. That narrowed down the field of patterns. Ultimately, Folkwear’s Tango Dress fit the bill of a sleeveless, Art Deco design for my Silent Film Star look. Mary Pickford, here I come !

Folkwear’s Tango Dress

Silk charmeuse and a gorgeous wool suiting tangoed their way to 1920’s perfection ! This was my first time making a real hat, not one out of cardboard or headbands. A silk taffeta band decorated the supple cloche. With expensive fabrics and elegant finishes, these garments and accessories definitely classified themselves as ‘Couture’ pieces.

The hardest part was working on my 1920’s “slouch.” (Ouch !)

Bundled in the warmth of the sweater, I was set for the cold January day. Only my feet were chilled. To fashion a Mary Jane style shoe, I safety pinned sewn strips of black linen to the inside of my regular black pumps. Effective, cheap, and temporary ─ no need to buy new shoes !

Nearly everyone I meet fawns over the fan purse I crocheted specifically for this opera. And the best part ? The cotton lining material is printed with opera glasses ! How neat is that ?!

An Art Deco Rigoletto allowed me to venture into a decade that has never suited my fashion tastes. But as with most bouts of historical costuming, I gained an appreciation and greater attraction to the bias-cut drop waist dresses of the time. I can’t say that the same treatment applied to Rigoletto was as appealing.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Rigoletto ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1851)
Live in HD air date: January 29, 2022

Cast:
Rigoletto ─ Quinn Kelsey
Gilda ─ Rosa Feola
Duke of Mantua ─ Piotr Beczała
Maddalena ─ Varduhi Abrahamyan
Sparafucile ─ Andrea Mastroni

Credits:
Conductor ─ Daniele Rustioni
Production ─ Bartlett Sher
Set Designer ─ Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer ─Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer ─ Donald Holder
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Isabel Leonard

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