It was Molto Italiano! Friends and family of Valentino — the man and the brand — made an ultra-glamorous audience for La Traviata at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome.
On stage there were costumes dramatic and tender, the fashion fruit of Valentino and the design duo that has followed him: Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli.
In the audience there were floor-sweeping gowns, elegant dresses and various versions of the beaded patterns, like Pointillist paintings, from the Valentino African collection — as worn by Marie-Chantal, Crown Princess of Greece. The necklace of the night, with some sparkling competition, was worn by Monica Bellucci, her jewels pouring down her cleavage, while matriarch Carla Fendi’s jewels glistened as she talked to a regal Lee Radziwill.
Add to the starry audience a nervous Francis Ford Coppola, who came to Europe to support his daughter Sofia, who has already followed in his giant footsteps in the movie world and has now directed her first opera.
For Giancarlo Giammetti and Valentino Garavani, it had been a labour of love to become producers and have Sofia as director to help the re-organised Roman opera house. Their idea was to use the talent of the Valentino studio to costume the characters in this dramatic, but much seen, opera by Giuseppe Verdi, first shown in Venice in 1853.
“It was my idea,” explained Giancarlo of the concept of persuading Sofia Coppola, 45, to look at the opera’s story line of tempestuous love from the perspective of her generation as a project for the Fondazione Valentino Garavani.
The stakes were high. Would 27-year-old soprano Francesca Dotto raise her look as well as her powerful voice by wearing the Valentino costumes? Could fashion creatives stitch-in the grandeur and pathos of the opera, even if the Valentino couture house is the pride of Rome? And, above all, would Sofia Coppola strike a balance between the strict social etiquette of the past and the outlook of a modern young woman (as seen in her 2006 film, Marie Antoinette) to make the story appealing to a millennial audience?
“Unfortunately, young people are not involved in opera today - they do not realise that they are missing something that can transport you to another world,” said Valentino, as we sat alone in the plush velvet central box while the final touches were applied on the stage set.
Valentino talked about his excitement at the freshness that Sofia could bring to the story. He also reminisced about his love for opera and ballet and the night he was introduced to Princess Diana and Prince Charles at Placido Domingo’s The Barber of Seville in London. This current project, he claimed, made him sing arias from La Traviata in the shower. For Maria Grazia and Pierpaolo there was no Italian operatic heritage.
“Honestly, we only started two years ago and have no great knowledge, but we always had ideas about heroines in the operas,” Maria Grazia said. Her design partner Pierpaolo added, “As an Italian I remember all the arias!”
“We started to approach the opera with Sofia thinking that it must be contemporary, and how this special Traviata would connect to a young generation,” Pierpaolo said, while Maria Grazia had feared at the beginning that “opera would be dusty”.
Valentino with his successors at his label, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli. All three were involved in the making of costumes for La Traviata, produced by Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti for the Fondazione Valentino Garavani
Maria Grazia Chiuri, left, and Valentino inspect the train of Violetta’s gown
So the big question for this production was whether Sofia could dust down the story of high society in 19th-century Paris and drag it into the 21st-century. For her father, there was no question that his daughter had achieved her goal.
“I am so very proud,” he told me after the performance, still sitting in the stalls as the elegant crowd moved on to the site of the ancient Roman Aquarium, where a buffet dinner was served from tables overflowing with fruit and flowers. What did I as a fashion editor, but in no way a professional judge of opera or film, make of the performance?
Valentino with Violetta’s red dress, laden with symbolism
In the Valentino atelier in Rome, a costume for Flora designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, made from delicate whispers of chiffon
Sofia Coppola’s idea seemed to be to open up the stage and make it visually dramatic – from the abstract installation of a grand staircase to the high society “Greek chorus” taking part in the tense relationship between Violetta, her protective Baron, her ardent admirer Alfredo and his strict father.
I took a while to be convinced by the clothes – not least because the opening was a long and nerve-racking descent of the stairway by Violetta, made all the more difficult to navigate with a hefty turquoise train.
Perhaps it is meant to be a reflection of the narrative that Violetta casts off her formal, grand gowns as the opera progresses, while she ends her brief life with the silhouette of her body seen as a passing shadow through the silken nightgown that Valentino said was his favourite piece. The filmy fabric embraces both the love of her life and the realisation of death. At the centre of the stage and the story is the dress of the show: in Carmen red, draping the flesh as Violetta stands surrounded by high society all dressed in black.
The chorus support was Sofia’s method of opening the stage in a cinematic way and making the audience feel that there was genuine engagement between all these characters, rather than a drama only between the protagonists in this passionate and doomed love affair.
“Making that red dress was so easy - I don’t know why, but I just drew it like that,” said the designer, who was sitting with Giancarlo in the first-night audience with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, whose low-cut white Vivienne Westwood dress threatened to burst open.
There are more fashion moments on stage, such as the scene after the couple flees to Paris for the country, where Violetta wears a fluff of white organza and Antonio Poli, as Alfredo, throws off a turquoise velvet jacket. The maid wears a black velvet long sleeved gown, typical of Maria Grazia’s designs but somewhat grand for a servant.
Apart from the dress with the train, the cast moves easily in the clothes. I might have appreciated some less literal touches or modern gestures, such as creating the strict father’s top hat in paper to suggest the fragility of a society set on appearances. Or even going full-on modern with Violetta in the country in a pair of jeans.
But this was Sofia’s story - not mine. I finished, like most of the audience, in an ocean of tears. But I felt that to reach Valentino’s operatic standards, my paper tissues should have been impeccably-ironed lace handkerchieves.
La Traviata runs for 15 performances from 24 May to 30 June 2016