Costume Design Unmasked

The assassination of an 18th century Swedish king during a masked ball in Stockholm’s opera house inspired Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi to write his masterpiece Un ballo in maschera.

For various reasons, including avoiding any hint of treason, Verdi used the murder of Gustav III as a start point but made huge changes to the tale – replacing the political reason for the killing with a love triangle.

Verdi’s plot and the original story of Gustav’s death have gone on to provide rich inspiration for internationally renowned costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca who forms part of the design team for Welsh National Opera and Theater Bonn’s co-production of Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball).

“The theatrical element is very prominent in Un ballo in maschera because the king had a real fascination with theatre,” says Marie-Jeanne. “King Gustav was a great patron of the arts, theatre and opera particularly. He built the Royal Swedish Opera and he also was assassinated in the opera house.”

And this love of theatre, combined with the ideas of a masked ball, have ensured Marie-Jeanne has a varied source of ideas for dramatic costumes for the production which opens in Cardiff and is performed alongside Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux.

“The idea of a masked ball is a theatrical game and we are joining in. Everybody is masquerading, dressing up and nobody is what they seem to be,” Marie-Jeanne explains. “In this context I thought of symbols of death, masks, costumes from the Day of the Dead, the darkness of the Goth style. Sometimes it’s sinister but sometimes with humour.”

The production forms part of a new Verdi trilogy created by WNO which also features La forza del destino which was premiered last spring and Les vêpres siciliennes which premieres in Bonn in Germany this spring before coming to the UK next year.

The trilogy brings together the same international design team – WNO artistic director David Pountney as director, Raimund Bauer as set designer, Fabrice Kebour on lighting and Marie-Jeanne creating the costumes.

It was important for the team that the trilogy carried through themes and design elements across all three operas. The sets for all three are created in a ‘Verdi Machine’, a series of interlocking frames which allow the stage to open into different scenarios. And while each opera has its own distinctive look, the designs also link the three.

“We have to consider Un ballo in maschera in the context of this trilogy and ideas have to permeate from one opera to another,” says Marie-Jeanne. “We are looking at a great body of work which portrays slices of life with all its darkness and light, love and death, jealousy and revenge. Ultimately all of these dramas will be performed within one framework of the proscenium arch on the stage - because the world’s a stage.

“There is a theatrical element present in each production. Also we have one character who goes through all three pieces. We call this Fate in Les vêpres siciliennes and it’s a main character in the other two operas, Preziosilla in La forza del destino and the fortune teller Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera.

“Work on this project started almost three years ago - the design process can be a very long, complex and intense one. In this case it was interesting because the brief was that we had to think of all three pieces together. It’s almost like an opera in three acts! My mind went almost like a ping pong ball from one to another.

“From the outset I had to come up with an overall look for all three pieces, preserving for each of them significant elements of their individuality.”

Born in the Romanian capital of Bucharest but now based in London, Marie-Jeanne has created costumes for opera houses and companies around the world including Milan’s La Scala, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Bregenz Festival, Zurich Opera House, Salzburg Festival, New York’s Lincoln Center and the Royal Opera. She has worked extensively with David, Raimund and Fabrice in the past – which helped a great deal when the quartet were taking on such an ambitious project as the Verdi trilogy.

“We are an established team, all four of us,” says Marie-Jeanne. “We’ve done several shows together now and know each other well.

“We are all at the initial meetings with David where he is mapping out his ideas and what he would like to do. Then we all go our own ways a bit and then come together again. But everyone is working in different places so coordinating all of the schedules can be quite a challenge. There are emails and photographs but what helps enormously is that we have a creative past together.”

Marie-Jeanne has built up a strong professional relationship with WNO, designing costumes for shows including last year’s production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande, Rossini’s Moses in Egypt and William Tell and Berg’s Lulu.

“Doing several shows with the same company, like WNO, you see the process of knowing each other and trusting each other gradually develop and you enjoy the benefits of it. At WNO we now know each other and know what to expect from each other. The costume team are real professionals. When I work with WNO now I have the feeling of coming home, which is a very special feeling.”

Marie-Jeanne also has a very strong bond with David Pountney, with the two working together on productions worldwide including Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Bizet’s Carmen and Britten’s Peter Grimes.

“After more than 30 years of knowing each other and more than 40 shows that we have worked on together, it seems to me that what David is asking for is what I have already thought about,” Marie-Jeanne says. “And I’m hopefully providing him with the designs which are the materialisation of what he wished for. I was very lucky to meet him and forge this wonderful working relationship with him.”

Over those years Marie-Jeanne has also become a specialist, these days designing largely for opera.

“Why opera? It’s about music and drama, the scale of the productions, the range of styles and periods, the joy of designing costumes and not just buying a trench coat,” she says. “You can actually design costumes not necessarily only clothes. And last but not least the music helps enormously to create images in one’s mind.”

Un ballo in maschera opens at the Birmingham Hippodrome on Wednesday 6 March on WNO’s Spring tour alongside The Magic Flute and Roberto Devereux.

By Diane Parkes