There are some press trips that you just don’t say no to. Try as I have done to limit my travel schedule this year, opportunities that involve the following… Rome, Valentino – both the founder of the house Valentino Garavani and his successorsMaria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli (who Garavani repeatedly refers to as his “guardian angels”), the opera La Traviata and Sofia Coppola… are somewhat irresistible.
And so I found myself in Rome for the fourth time again within the last year, to witness the premiere of La Traviata at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, directed by Coppola, featuring costumes by Garavani for the lead character Violetta, with Flora and the Chorus outfitted by Chiuri and Piccioli, all constructed in the Valentino atelier and also financially supported by the Fondazione Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti. That’s a lot of dreamy cross-field collaboration going on there.
During the press conference before the premiere, Garavani and the director of Rome’s opera house Carlo Fuortes described the project as “a dream come true”. “When I met Mr Valentino and Mr Giammetti and we talked about La Traviata, I saw their eyes light up,” said Fuortes. “In our business you have to catch this type of light.” With Garavani’s help, the directing services of Coppola were secured, another coup for the opera house. “I didn’t really know what to expect but when Mr Valentino approached me, I couldn’t really say no,” said Coppola. “It really motivated me to take a chance and do something that was scary and unfamiliar for me.”
It might be unfamiliar territory in terms of directing for Coppola, the culture of opera is within her family with great uncle Anton Coppola being a noted conductor and composer. “She was able to adapt to the typical Italian way of doing opera and in a way it’s like she was coming back to her origins as an Italian director,” said Fuortes, in reference to Coppola’s Italian heritage. For Garavani, the obsession with La Traviata began when he was a young boy. He was so enamoured with the project, that he managed to sketch out the four lavish costumes for Violetta (one for each scene in the opera), in just four hours. “You will see that I gave the dresses a touch that reminds us of the time of the opera, but also a high fashion touch.”
From the perspective of Gavarani’s ‘angels’ – Chiuri and Piccioli, their approach to opera comes from the vantage point of an outsider, with both only really getting to grips with the art three years ago through working on their S/S 14 haute couture collection, which was inspired by famous operas and used the Rome opera house to paint the backdrops to the set. “As an outsider, you can approach La Traviata with all its traditions and history, with fresh eyes and a new perspective,” said Piccioli.
Indeed, the injection of fresh energy, from having Maison Valentino behind the costumes as well as Coppola taking a character like Violetta and in her words, “finding a part of myself in her”, suddenly makes the idea of going to the opera – an art that still by and large struggles to connect with a younger audience – infinitely more appealing. “Opera can be seen as something contemporary,” said Giammetti. “The freshness and fragility of this woman is evoked through the dresses. It’s not redundant or stuffy in any way.” Chiuri and Piccoli also believe that this version of La Traviata can incite a fresh sort of excitement for those whoa are new to opera. “We want to encourage curiosity,” said Chiuri. “If you put a fashion house and a director like Sofia with La Traviata, that makes people curious. Curiosity is what will bring the younger generation to the opera.” The non digital nature (no waving of the mobile phone allowed during an opera) of the event could also be an added boon according to Piccioli. “There’s something special about it being live. In our digital world, there’s a bit of a distance and here you are so close to what you’re seeing.” Clearly the lure of Valentino and Coppola behind the project has proved to be successful as they have already recouped EUR1.2 million in ticket sales against the EUR1.5 million cost of production, where opera productions are often loss-making ventures.
It’s an impressive culmination of creative entities that falls in line with Maison Valentino’s position as a Roman fashion house, whose output in recent seasons has of course taken direct inspiration from the opera and the performing arts. It’s also a cultural exercise that adds a different dimension to Valentino’s haute couture, as it was emphasised that every costume was in effect, a piece of couture, fitted to a “real” performer’s body and made not out of fabrics that mimic luxury but ones that actually are the real deal. Piccioli and Chiuri had the responsibility of fitting over 120 costumes for the cast. “In a way, it was like real haute couture where you’re attuned to their needs,” said Piccioli. “They’re chosen for their voices, not for the way they look and so it’s more intense in a way to fashion.” Furthermore, it’s one of the few opportunities for us to see Garavani’s aesthetic blueprint sitting alongside with what Piccioli and Chiuri have created at the house. His dresses for Violetta are unsurprisingly more grandiose and extravagant when contrasted next to the softly tiered tulle frocks and pastel Grecian gowns created by Piccioli and Chiuri.
The train of Violetta’s opening act gown by Valentino Garavani
The back of the red cape worn by Violetta at Flora’s party, where she is denounced by Alfredo
The white dress worn by Violetta at her country house where she is happily in love with Alfredo
Valentino Garavani adjusing sleeve of the nightgown ensemble, worn by Violetta in the final act of the opera
Dress by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli worn by Flora in the opening act
The second dress by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli worn by Flora in the party scene
On a tour around a largely empty atelier (in comparison the my last visit in July), some larger-than-model dress forms, padded out with strips of fabric and marked by black ribbons for measurements were dotted around, both to illustrate the demand that Valentino experiences for its haute couture (as it is currently finishing off its SS16 pieces for clients) as well as the extra work taken on for La Traviata. The house’s connection with the opera were further stressed in a temporary exhibition of Valentino’s S/S 14 opera-inspired haute couture collection in the windows and shop floor of their Rome flagship store. Resurrecting pieces like the on-theme La Traviata gown, made up of an embroidered tulle skirt that bears the score of the opera, or the lavishly embroidered Adam and Eve dress, only contributed to the connection between the house and this production.
As a mild enthusiast of ballet and opera with a specific interest in the music (I’m a product of a very stereotypical Chinese upbringing, with my not so very virtuoso grade 8 piano skills), my knowledge of La Traviata was pretty elementary, having only seen the filmed Franco Zeffirelli version. The story of course will be universally known by most (if you’ve watched Moulin Rouge for instance) and the Giuseppe Verdi score – particularly Violetta’s waltz – will also resonate, but for me, the primary point of difference with this version of La Traviata would lie in the costumes. Coppola enthusiasts might have been expecting some sort of a twist but even before the premiere, it was asserted that this version of La Traviata would largely be a classical interpretation with some contemporary touches. “I wanted to keep the focus on the beautiful music and beautiful costumes and bring the spirit of this young woman and make an opera that people can relate to and enjoy,” said Coppola.
And so, what played out was a faithful but strikingly stylish La Traviata, with perhaps the vulnerability of Violetta (played by Francesca Dotto), enhanced and brought out by Coppola’s direction and sensitivity towards young female characters, who are judged by society. There were moments in the interaction between the staging and lighting that seemed to be solely focused on highlighting the costumes, particularly Garavani’s creations. Violetta’s layered peacock-esque teal train as part of a black gown, that made dramatic movements as she walked, Nathan Crowley’s surreal white marble staircase in the opening act. Her high-collared cape and gathered taffeta dress in Valentino red stood out against a sea of black at the Spanish-inflected party scene. And finally as day broke just as Violetta’s consumption would claim her life, sunlight shone through the sleeves of her nightgown with roses embedded into the leg of mutton sleeves. Chiuri and Piccioli’s contributions made their mark too, as even in a throng of female chorus singers, you could see that every tulle dress had a different detail or construction about them, be it in pastel shades in the opening act or entirely in noir at Flora’s party. These weren’t identikit cast costumes and certainly helped to lighten the time period, from what is supposed to be a late Victorian-set opera.
Like their Mirabilia Romae show, this staging of La Traviata adds yet another Rome-rooted chapter to the history of Valentino. The sincerity from all collaborators concerned made the occasion perhaps more about a gesture of goodwill and passion, rather than aiming for artistic subversion. If you are lucky enough to see it, you’re in for a visual feast, one that tells you more about Valentino’s positioning and its prowess in haute couture, than the re-examination of an operatic masterpiece.
Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, looking resplendent in a SS16 haute couture opera coat
Giancarlo Giammetti with Pieraolo Piccoli and their buddy opera binoculars
Most of the photographs courtesy of Valentino