Art & Culture

Viva la Diva

Valentino Garavani, Sofia Coppola and the two designers behind the Valentino brand came together to create a heartbreakingly beautiful production of Verdi’s La Traviata.

According to Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino Garavanis business partner of almost 60 years, Valentino’s father so encouraged his son to become a tenor that, even now, Valentino is liable to burst into song when the mood strikes. “It is very embarrassing,” says Giammetti. “Frankly, I don’t know where to put myself.”
This is not a version of events Valentino recognizes. “I did not want to become a singer. But it’s true my father was passionate about opera. He took me to see my first one when I was 13.” It pains Valentino to recall this, but the diva was immensely round. Never mind. “Perhaps because I was so young, it really entered my soul.”
 
That was in 1945. La Traviata. What goes around comes around. Because now Valentino has designed the costumes for poor, tragic Violetta, the consumptive courtesan at the heart of Verdi’s billowy masterpiece, in a new production directed by Sofia Coppola, which recently opened at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome.
There are many firsts in this venture, not least Coppola’s. The highly lauded auteur has never previously directed on stage, let alone opera. “She is scared,” Valentino tells me with a satisfied wink, as if to say she should be. “This is a serious undertaking.”
 
We are sitting alone in the stalls of the opera house’s Teatro Costanzi, Valentino and I, while Coppola marshals her team on stage and the Telegraph’s photographer sets up his portrait. Soon the theater will be filled with sets designed by Nathan Crowley, whose credits include Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
It is a stellar ensemble, and three weeks before opening night, rehearsals are finally underway. Costumes are whisked hither and thither. “Are you telling me that you have seen the black gown with the turquoise train?” Valentino’s distinctive hooded eyes flicker in mock distress. “You are not supposed to!”
“I’ve already explained that many people will see this dress before the first night,” says Giammetti. “Francesca [Dotto, who sings Violetta] has to rehearse in it. But you know designers. They like the grand reveal.”
 
Sofia Coppola is still formulating her reveal. At 44, dressed in a gray T-shirt, black trousers and black patent Valentino Tango shoes, she cuts a girlish figure. Like Valentino and Giammetti, she found the prospect of interpreting La Traviata in a fresh way irresistible, “Opera. Rome. Valentino – how could I say no?” For Coppola the bait is “creating something that I would want to see – to show the beauty of the story and the costumes. For me, they’re a main focal point, with this very fragile but strong woman at the heart. But yes, it’s scary. I don’t know a lot about opera. Luckily, my dad’s [Francis Ford Coppola] uncle, Anton Coppola, is an opera conductor and composer. He’s 99, but he sat me down and talked me through the whole thing.”
 
Giammetti and Valentino have never before produced an opera. Nor has Valentino much experience outfitting opera singers, although he has designed for the New York City Ballet. For that he must have had to make enormous accommodation for the dancers’ movements. “It was the first time Peter Martins, the choreographer, had to adapt the choreography to the clothes,” notes Giammetti, wryly. Similarly, this will be the first time that Francesca Dotto has worn 4-inch heels on stage. “She was a little concerned to begin with,” concedes Valentino, “but she has been practicing, and with heels there is no doubt she looks more statuesque.”
 
For all the firsts, Valentino and opera are deeply entwined. There is that 13-year- old boy. There are the many outfits he designed for Maria Callas. There is the time he went to see Carmen in Barcelona and “everything was red – the women in their evening dresses, the singers, the velvet seats in the theater”. It was the most vivid expression of glamour he had ever seen. ‘Valentino red’ became his adopted color, appearing in every collection thereafter, although rarely on the designer himself. Today, for instance, he is wearing an impeccable pale-gray check suit and silk tie. He may be retired, but he does not do smart casual.
Besides, what is retired? At the age of 84, he leapt at the chance to design for La Traviata. “It is so romantic, so seductive. And the music…” Both he and Giammetti agreed that they needed to bring a soupçon of modernity to proceedings, which is why they immediately thought of Coppola, whom they had met when she attended Valentino’s shows, and whose 2006 screen adaption of Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette had deeply impressed them. The doomed French queen may yet live again through Coppola’s interpretation of Violetta. “I feel I’m a little familiar with courtesans because of her,” she says.
 
Verdi himself wanted his opera, based on Alexandre Dumas’ scandalous La Dame aux Camélias, set contemporaneously – in 1853, when he wrote it – but was overruled and persuaded to set it at some time in the 17th century. Valentino’s (and Coppola’s) vision is decidedly 19th century. “Not slavishly. The hair and the jewelry might not be accurate to 1850. But it is certainly not set in 2016,” says Valentino, wrinkling his nose just perceptibly. “I am not criticizing other costume designers, but I have seen Violetta in a plastic raincoat.”
 
His Violetta wears a drop-shouldered, tiered crimson silk dress; and the aforementioned black gown with its 10ft-long, layered tulle train (3ft of which are currently being trimmed from the sides, and the remainder will be lined with satin so it will glide rather than catch on the stage carpet). Come the final scene, cometh the most beautiful of her dresses: an empire-line 'negligée’ in blush-pink tulle, with puff sleeves composed of silk roses veiled beneath small clouds of net. “I thought of Violetta, dying alone on that huge bed… and I thought how ravishing she would look in the palest of pale pinks.”
 
What is extraordinary about this production’s designs is that, while the majority have been made in the opera house’s workshops, Violetta’s four costume changes and Flora’s two (the latter designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, the duo who now head Valentino) have been hand-sewn in the couture workshops at Palazzo Gabrielli-Mignanelli, the maison’s Renaissance HQ. This is exceptional for theater: thousands of hours of work. The enchanting white point d’esprit tulle dress that Flora wears early on was five months in the making, or about 400 hours. Will those fairy stitches be visible even in the front row? Doubtful, but perhaps the ethereal delicacy will be sensed.
 
Chiuri and Piccioli also created the costumes for the 80-strong cast and eight dancers: 120 costumes in all, plus replicas of each dress for the female leads and their understudies, none of whom, laughs Chiuri, were the same size. 
“They are wonderful,” says Valentino of his two protégés. “I adore them – and you know they are so respectful of me.”
It’s true that the handover of power at Valentino has been more harmonious than perhaps any other in fashion history. Nevertheless, La Traviata is a huge undertaking, on top of designing eight collections a year, and one wonders whether some arm-twisting was involved. 
 
“Absolutely not. We really wanted to do it,” says Piccioli. “To work with Mr. Valentino again… We were by his side for 14 years, and it was always fun. We would try and push him to do something a bit more modern and cool. And he would refuse. We learned so much.” “Sometimes,” says Chiuri, “we would even win.”
Neither had seen an opera until two years ago. This is not what the world imagines of Italians. “In Milan and Parma I think it is different. They are born to opera,” says Chiuri. “But in Rome, our generation was more interested in rock and roll. And, to be honest, I felt there was a problem with the women in opera. They’re always dying.” Now, both are hooked, and intrigued as to how to make opera seem, as Piccioli puts it, “less dusty” to new generations.
Their instinct is to make costumes that are as light as their gossamer couture. “In any case,” says Piccioli, “you can’t use corsets, because the singers must be able to move their diaphragms. At the same time, you need to create a sense of interest even when they are standing still, which is a lot.”
And then there is the lighting. “That could change the look of everything,” says Chiuri. “We haven’t seen the full effect yet. Maybe…” (here she pauses stoically) “we will have to change everything.”
 
While the weightlessness and luxuriousness of the costumes are undeniably contemporary, this, notes Piccioli and Chiuri, is not fashion. “We are telling a story and using the clothes to help explain the characters and heighten emotions.” The costumes, we can be sure, will be as swooningly beautiful as the music. However, I doubt whether even they can do anything about the operatic female death rate.
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