As the curtain rises on the Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s tragedy, Lucia di Lammermoor, muted grey, black and brown, timeworn surfaces and strong shadows cast by harsh white light suggest a bleak, cold, desperate world. The opera relies on the authenticity and mood created by the scene to draw the audience into the impoverished 19th-century world of the bereaved Ashton family and the doomed heroine, Lucia. Costumes are to performance what clothes are to people: they project a powerful visual to inform the outside world, or audience, with a clear impression of personality. To learn more about the personality of Lucia, FLARE had the exclusive opportunity to watch the dress rehearsal and slip backstage to glimpse the costumes up close.
Based on the historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) by Sir Walter Scott, the opera takes place on the moors of Scotland but is sung in Italian. Fifteen-year-old Lucia Ashton—played by riveting soprano Anna Christy—is in love with Edgardo Ravenwood, a member of a rival clan. Though the Ashton family still mourns the death of their matriarch, Lucia’s abusive brother, Enrico, becomes enraged when he finds out about her secret affair and tricks his sister into marrying another man, which drives her to madness.
The costumes were originally designed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel for the English National Opera in 2008, and were rented by the COC for this performance. During a phone call from London, Reiffenstuel (who has spent 21 years in the costume business after a stint at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design and the London College of Fashion) spoke with FLARE about the inspiration and process for making her designs come to life.
“We set the scene in roughly the 1840s, 1850s: Early Victorian,” she says. “It plays somewhere where it’s cold and windy. A very depressing background. The clothes are abstracted through colour. I stuck to very dark shades for the chorus. Dark shades of tweeds and wools, dark linens. Nothing too flash. Nothing too fancy.”
Though she rarely uses film as an inspiration, in the case of Lucia, she was drawn to the Academy Award–nominated and BAFTA award–winning costumes from Jane Campion’s 1993 film, The Piano. “Although it’s set in a more tropical environment, there’s something really lovely about the lack of frilly detail. It’s quite sombre, but the costumes are beautifully cut. The focus was on the shape and also the colour: very dark and muted. I thought they were beautifully exercised.”
Photography was becoming popular in the Early Victorian period, so Reiffenstuel spent a great deal of time looking at images and visiting libraries and museums to learn about the construction of the hoops and petticoats. “After you’ve got the basic knowledge, then you take off,” she says. “You do the characterization. You draw your principals.” Once the budget was set, she met with the costume department to discuss the sketches—everything from the fullness of the skirt and sleeves to the heft of the fabric—and cut out a few prototypes. Then they contacted dealers from all around the world to source swatches. “I make every decision myself, down to the last button,” she says.
The costumes arrived at the COC after a run at the Washington National Opera. The practice of renting costumes from previous productions is quite common in the opera world, and a design can live for decades, transported from company to company, so long as it is carefully preserved. We visited the wig room, where a woman was carefully brushing and styling hair on a mannequin, then stepped into the costume room, where shirts and dresses were being steamed to keep them in pristine condition—a process that happens after every single performance. In the dressing rooms, we touched the rolling racks of hoops, dresses and capes—each hung by singer in anticipation of opening night. When the COC’s other shows open for the season, the racks will have to be moved in and out of the change rooms depending on which show is performing on any given day.
Even when an opera is rented, adjustments have to be made in house for each production. “We compared the measurements of all those short, tiny English people and all us healthy, strong Canadians,” says COC costume supervisor Sandra Corazza. “We knew we had to make one dress because we had a woman who’s over 5’11.” When two of the cast members became pregnant during the rehearsal period, several designs had to be adjusted to put the heavy weight of the hoop and petticoats onto the shoulders instead of the belly. “It was a real struggle [to find photographs],” says Corazza. “Pregnant women from the time didn’t go out. I actually found some stuff on Pinterest—photographs of maternity clothing.”
Finding appropriate fabrics for new pieces can also prove a challenge, as many textile shops in Toronto have closed down. For Corazza, dyeing natural fibres is often the answer: “You find a fabric that’s not quite right, but if you dip it in a bit of grey, that will kill it enough.” She also uses antique buttons, capes and muffs to add an air of authenticity—which means that many of the items have been patched, re-patched and re-lined within an inch of their life—or sources fabric from mills that reproduce vintage textiles specifically for theatre companies.
The costume department uses several little tricks to create the right period feel without the extra expense or time commitment. Many of the men have vintage watch chains tucked into their pockets with no watch on the end. All of the women in the chorus wear bonnets over wigs dressed with braids and ringlets to cut down on prep time backstage. Corazza also keeps a box of old fabric scraps from previous shows and whenever she needs to build a small piece—such as a cravat—she riffles through her box.
Since the costumes move around from city to city, a designer is never really finished with her designs. Brigitte Reiffenstuel and her assistant were still involved with the Toronto production, and when Corazza designs a show, she travels to assist with adjustments for subsequent performances. “Nobody knows the show like the person who built it,” says Corazza. “You know why things were chosen. You know what the intent was.” In the case of Lucia, Reiffenstuel’s vision is still intact five years after the original production, and with the proper care, will continue to travel the world for productions to come.
Lucia di Lammermoor runs from April 17 to May 24 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. Click here for tickets.