“Opera is drama. Very Italian drama.” So said Dolce & Gabbana’s Stefano Gabbana of the source material for a 159-look Alta Moda collection that was shown on stage at the world’s greatest opera house this afternoon. Opera is an Italian invention that these most Italianate of designers have long referred to: Not only has their every show since 1984 opened with the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, but their first Alta Moda show in 2012 was preceded by a performance of Norma (at which my then-boss fainted from the Taormina heat). Additionally, their January 2015 Alta Moda show, also show at La Scala, explored the history of this extraordinary building.
Today, however, invited back by La Scala’s artistic director Alexander Pereira, the designers dug deeper into the art form than ever before by designing Alta Moda costumes for 12 of the most famous operas in the canon. This tall order was comprised of two Bellinis (The Capulets and the Montagues, Norma), one Rossini (The Barber of Seville), five Verdis (Aida, La Traviata, Attila, Rigoletto, Don Carlos), three Puccinis (Tosca, Madame Butterfly, Turandot), and their go-to Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana).
Of the operas they chose to include, Gabbana said: “we knew them all before, but maybe in a more superficial way. But as we studied them closely we started to understand the drama in the music and how it could be translated into the movement of the fabric.” Domenico Dolce added: “[Working to] this music is very dangerous in a way, because it gives him one sensation and me another sensation. It creates emotion differently for everyone.” For the nearly 300 Alta Moda clients watching on from the vast arc of velvet-trimmed, wood-paneled loggias that face La Scala’s stage this show also created an astounding range of choice.
In Tosca, the opening production, there was a room-filling gold-collared red feather gown made in honor of the role’s creator Hariclea Darclée and a series of supporting looks that were dramatic realizations of the opera’s Napoleonic-era Roman setting. The villainous Baron Scarpia wore a richly brocaded red frock suit and a golden wig while his sidekick Spoletta sported a barely less sumptuous suit and a dashing drawn-on moustache. No fewer than three versions of Floria Tosca herself wore scarlet gowns of ever increasing pitch and volume.
Cut to the fantasy tragic entanglement of ancient Egypt and Ethiopia that is Aida. Flanked by a chorus of ceremonially-hatted protagonists, the doomed princess was shown in a wing-hemmed robe in waves of studded golden leather edged with fur at the sleeves and wearing a headpiece depicting La Scala’s interior. Then across to contemporary—i.e. mid 19th century—Paris for La Traviata, in which Violetta Valery (before tuberculosis did her in) strolled the boulevard in a huge skirted ivory dress strafed with stripes of blue silk and embroidered with thistles in golden thread and cut stones in emerald. Further on, we hopped to Aquileia in Northern Italy—and back 1,500 years—for Attila to see the fearsomely hot, fur-cloaked Hun pitted against the sequin-armored tribune Foresto, the gold armored Roman Ezio, and his beloved, sheer beaded dress-wearing Odabella. Forward again, then, to Verona, site of Bellini’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s crowning romantic tragedy, where Juliet mooched in a dreamy chiffon-armed medieval meets pre-Raphaelite dress of ivory lace as Romeo trod delicately down the runway in a golden crown, brocaded jerkin, fitted black pants, and crystal studded boots.
In Madame Butterfly, Puccini’s imagined late 19th century Japan proved rich territory for titanic embroidered kimonos and butterfly headpieces, but also home to one of the collection’s strongest looks, a dress in gold-set bubblegum toned glass beads made for Pinkerton’s unwitting wife Kate. Back home in Sicily for Cavalleria Rusticana and the designers produced virtuoso examples of their home-turf speciality: veletta-shrouded Sicilian widows clutching copies of the Divine Comedy and so sexily silhouetted that you imagined more men might perish just from looking at them. Rigoletto’s eponymous hunchback jester had seen a talented osteopath and came outfitted in a golden ruff and scarlet tights, before Norma and her fellow Gaulish druids were unleashed in brass-detailed beaten leather hot pants, furs, and horn-adorned headpieces.
Figaro’s beloved Rosina in The Barber of Seville cut a swathe in a huge, vaguely flamenco-touched gown in folded fans of red taffeta. Next up, Calaf’s Tartar ministers Ping, Pong, and Peng wore embroidered knickerbocker suits and feathered wigs only slightly less impressive than the flame-red feather headpiece modeled by Turandot herself.
The concluding opera Don Carlos was, Domenico Dolce had said, his favorite (Gabbana chose Cavalleria Rusticana). Bustling with sinister inquisitors, a Pope, the love-struck Spanish infante, his French princess, and their Raphael cherubim-embroidered dress-wearing retinues— which included Alta Moda-clad children—it ended with Phillip II of Spain in an ermine edged purple mantle that dragged for several meters behind its wearer.
Before the first look was revealed Dolce had airily characterized this Alta Moda project as “an impossible dream.” Today’s installment again delivered on that description with a collection of immense ambition, masterful craft, no-expense spared fabrication, and a total dedication to realizing the fantasies of these designers on behalf of their audience of spellbound millionaires.