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Enchantments. Costumes of the Teatro alla Scala from the 1930s to our days

by Vittoria Crespi Morbio
Essay by Vittoria Crespi Morbio
Chronology of the productions by Andrea Vitalini
Amici della Scala – Grafiche Step Editrice, Parma 2017
Italian edition, pp. 312

CHAPTER I. The 1930s to the 1960s

The death of Caramba (Luigi Sapelli) in 1936 ended a special historic period in which the theatre costume was above all conceived as phantasmagoric revel and unbridled invention.
Caramba, a complex personality who combined artistic talent with business sense, characterised the costume at La Scala in the 1920s and ’30s as a free and brilliant creation of the imagination. When Nicola Benois followed him in the role of stage director a new period began. Nicola Benois was deeply marked by the legacy of his father Alexandre who had worked for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes and preserved the gentlemanly, distinguished character of the Mitteleuropa tradition. The son sought a more spectacular visual impact as his Boris Godunov shows.
The talents that blossomed around Luchino Visconti assimilated the great director’s fondness for philology, and coherence of style led to consistency in directing, sets, and costume: thus Franco Zeffirelli, Piero Tosi, and Lila De Nobili created a series of unforgettable performances. The costume was the result of an accurate cultural investigation. Historical rigour became an indispensable feature.
The 1950s and ’60s were also the era of the great stars, Boris Christoff towering as Boris Godunov, Maria Callas, unforgettable Amina and Violetta, Renata Tebaldi. A golden age in La Scala’s long history.

CHAPTER II. The 1960s to the 1980s

The 1960s were years of change, a revision was under way that led to new investigations. The Scala costume reflected the same principle of abstraction and the same research in materials that characterised sculpture and painting in Italy. It became a disconnected revisiting, as in the baroque quoted by Piero Zuffi in Monteverdi, and experiments on materials and their transformation. The classical school of cutting and sewing was confronted with Pier Luigi Pizzi’s bold experiments: he turned the performers of Stravinsky’s Œdipus Rex into ectoplasms. His costumes have no structures in the traditional sense of the word, they are like levitations of matter, plastic and transparent bubbles. We can perceive affinities with the research on the informal taking place outside the theatre. Independent approaches characterised artists like Emanuele Luzzati, who used patchwork as a lexical instrument in his costumes, and Vera Marzot, who for Luca Ronconi designed imaginative figures subjected to the alchemical metamorphosis of the textiles.
The tradition of the historical costume survived, with still memorable results owed to Anna Anni and Mauro Pagano. The latter recaptured the airy aesthetics of Mozart’s 18th century in Così fan tutte. But it was mostly in the dance repertory that the canonical tailoring rules were countered to facilitate body movements, as in the creations of Nicholas Georgiadis for Nureyev or Luisa Spinatelli for Carla Fracci.


A boon to opera in the 1980s was the commitment of stylists who brought to the stage the results of their research in fashion.
This was the case with Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace who worked at La Scala with two great figures of director’s theatre: Luca Ronconi and Robert Wilson.
The influence of their personality was immense and led to a new development in the history of costume: it was no longer functional to the text but lived its own independent dignity as an artistic item created with authentic virtuosity. The inlay of various fabrics Lagerfeld imagined for Dido in The Trojans by Berlioz coincided with the flow of black silk organza on Salome’s sleeves as Versace imagined her. In both cases the stage costume achieved an aesthetics of amazement and escape from reality that the stage made possible. The performance led into an imaginary world, either Ronconi’s amazing complicated Baroque or the hallucinatory ritual Wilson imposed on the stage.
The costume was the made-to-measure realisation of the characters’ individuality serving a certain conception of theatre. These same years were those of the complete maturity of directors who left a decisive imprint in the history of La Scala: Giorgio Strehler, who occupied the stage with dazzling flashes thanks to the costumes of Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino, and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, creator of every aspect of a performance and magician of nocturnal, silvery atmospheres in Strauss’ The Woman without a Shadow.

CHAPTER IV. The 1990s to our days

Assertion of the German Regietheater was only partial in Italy and came very late compared to the theatre scene in other countries. Paradoxically, this delay allowed a highly eclectic plurality of styles wherein it is difficult to discern a common identity principle.
With the 1990s and in the present century the costume has been declined in extremely different ways, and in a way it is a return to Caramba’s uninhibited freedom.
The philological scruple appears more like a citation in quotes, often played with irony and complacency rather than strict necessity. Falstaff’s clothes created by Brigitte Reiffenstuel are philologically faultless but refer to a period (the 1950s in England) that is not that of Verdi’s text. In other words, an extremely free approach to dramaturgy is the new matrix of the stage costume.
Thus Gabriella Pescucci’s exquisite elegance in La traviata retrieved an echo of Luchino Visconti with the taste for refined quotation; the 17th century of Jacques Reynaud for Monteverdi’s Orfeo was reduced to a bareness of form that was reenlisted in the static ceremony of Robert Wilson’s performance; the heterogeneity of materials used by Odette Nicoletti for Idomeneo sought a synthesis in the sign of freedom; the sculptural box conceived by Maurizio Millenotti, putting the figures of the ballet Cinderella in a cage, was a Velázquez influenced by post-modernism. The showcase of the contemporaneity, perhaps muddled, elusive as to coherence, sends us back to a multiform and fragmented notion of the theatre costume. It is precisely such a variegated plurality that represents the amazing vitality of this art form, and the richness of its relation with our time.